Band of Angels

“You talk about freedom. You think I’ve got freedom? I’ve got a past I’d like to forget, but I can’t run away from it. No more than you can run away from what you are.”

The essence of that piece of dialogue, if not the exact words, forms the bedrock of many a drama. As with a fly trapped in amber, cinematic drama gives us a moment captured on celluloid, preserved for our scrutiny, superficially isolated in time. Yet those moments we return to with every successive viewing give the lie to that; the poignancy or power of each example exists and is dependent on what came before, and on the suggestion of where it might lead. The latter is necessarily unknowable in the majority of cases, as in life. And as in life, the former, the touch and influence, perhaps even the bonds represented by the past, helps to shape the course of the present. Band of Angels (1957) explores this eternal link between that which has been and that which is; it is the collision of past and present, presented within the emotive framework of racial conflict and prejudice, which adds a timeless quality to the film’s core themes.

It seems appropriate that a movie so concerned with the idea of straining against the shackles of one’s former life should begin with the image of two slaves stumbling in desperation across a Kentucky plantation with overseers and hounds in hot pursuit. Flash forward some years and the daughter of the plantation owner Amantha Starr (Yvonne De Carlo) returns to attend the funeral of her father. It is at this point that her ordered and structured world is rent asunder, the significance of her mother’s grave being in a different section of the plantation brought home with jarring force as she learns that not only is she of mixed race but that the status she once took for granted is now forfeit. Instead she is now to be designated as property, denied full human dignity and sold as one might sell some personal belongings. Driven to the point of suicide by the shock and horror of what lies before her, this woman is thrown what at first appears to be an unlikely lifeline. She is bought by  Hamish Bond (Clark Gable), a wealthy man who installs her in his household under somewhat unusual terms. In truth, his domestic arrangements are generally unusual; his housekeeper (Carolle Drake) and his assistant Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier) both have a complex, and in the latter’s case a volatile relationship with Bond. As the country lurches into the chaos and tumult of the Civil War, the nature of these varied relationships will be tested, torn and reshaped by the trauma of conflict, and the truths about the past lives of all the principals must be dragged under the spotlight to be confronted and addressed if freedom in any real sense is to be secured.

On one level Band of Angels can be approached as an examination of the Civil War and the racial conflicts that surround it, and this is certainly the aspect that is immediately recognizable. However, to dwell on that alone would make for a superficial reading of the movie, marrying it to the concerns of a bygone era in a way that distances it and so waters down the impact. Of course the period setting grounds the story and affords it an historical and practical value, but I would argue that this acts as a conduit for the deeper, more constant message concerning the probing of the past and the absorption of its lessons, thus allowing the future to be met with hope. All through the story the past is revisited, either implicitly via the lewd whispered reminiscences of a slave girl (a bit part for Juanita Moore and radically different to her famous role in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life), or explicitly in the returns to various locations. Perhaps one of the most telling of these occurs when De Carlo finds herself back in the New Orleans house she first came to before the war – the structure is still there and she is even wearing the same costume but the fighting has brought significant changes, not only in terms of atmosphere (beautifully rendered by the subtle shifts in lighting by Lucien Ballard) but also personnel. There is considerable irony in both the fact that Poitier is seated in the chair once occupied by Gable and the way the passage of time has affected his attitudes.

The movie could have settled for some trite commentary on the way authority corrupts, or perhaps the dangers of becoming that which one despises. However, the central theme is much more engaging and forward looking. That theme, filtered through the prism of racial tension, is one of achieving growth and progression on a personal level, and I guess by extension on a wider societal level, not by cutting off or artificially isolating the past though; rather, it is about reaching an accommodation with what came before, whereby some emotional equilibrium may be attained.

The cast is strong and well chosen but Clark Gable dominates it all. There is much to appreciate in Gable’s late career performances, that indomitable spirit tempered by experience and loss was powerfully effective given the right material. Of his three collaborations with Raoul Walsh, only The King and Four Queens feels disposable and both Band of Angels and The Tall Men are fine movies. There are, to my mind, a number of standout scenes that give him an opportunity to shine. The first takes place in the courtyard of his New Orleans house and is almost stolen by a flamboyant Torin Thatcher. With a storm brewing in the background and Thatcher grandstanding for all he’s worth, Gable sinks into brooding intensity as the ghosts of his youth come scratching at his conscience. Next, when confronted by Patric Knowles’ craven braggart who is spoiling for a duel, he burrows mercilessly into the other man’s insecurities to destroy him psychologically. Later, after supervising the systematic torching of his own plantation, he delves deep into his own tortured past to explain to De Carlo why there can be no marriage between them. The matter-of-fact way he narrates the horrors he both saw and participated in is superbly delivered, as he sits ragged and spent amid the tarnished splendor his actions bought for him. Finally, there is the climactic confrontation with Poitier, the latter consumed with righteous hatred and hungry for retribution. It builds terrifically, with Gable’s calm resignation lulling both the viewer his co-star before the hugely satisfying resolution arrives. It’s a wonderfully played scene, a credit to the skills of Poitier and Gable.

Warner Brothers released a very attractive DVD of Band of Angels quite a few years ago and it still holds up well. My impression is that Raoul Walsh’s antebellum melodrama enjoys a mixed critical reputation at best. Personally, I rate it highly and regard it as one of the director’s best later works. There are those who say Walsh was a great action director, and there’s truth in that assertion. However, he was much more than that, he was a great observer and director of human drama, and this is a movie which has more than its fair share of that quality.

Mogambo

Doing the right thing – a trite phrase in some respects, and yet it also goes straight to the heart of the personal dilemmas which form the basis of and indeed drive so many dramatic works. Ultimately, what does it mean to “do the right thing”, or to “go noble” as one of the characters in Mogambo (1953) puts it? Isn’t this just one aspect of our human condition, that perennial struggle for primacy between head and heart? Of course there’s an argument to be made that neither head nor heart can act entirely independently, and perhaps the way this movie resolves the internal conflicts which confront its characters is a reflection of that.

The notion of the fish out of water is a useful and much used dramatic device and whole movies have been hung on this particular peg. Nevertheless, it can be a tiresome conceit if the filmmaker decides to rely on it alone. John Ford was nothing if not a great artist and therefore had the wisdom to know that while this could act as a hook initially, far more substantial morsels were necessary to build a story around. So it is that Eloise Kelly (Ava Gardner) is introduced, turning up in the East African bush where the sass and sex appeal of Manhattan are of, let’s say, limited effect. It appears she has been stood up in style by a high class date, and the philosophical way she accepts this suggests that she’s no stranger to such setbacks. Stranded in an alien environment, with no way out till the next boat arrives in a week’s time, she decides to make the best of it. Making the best of it includes trying to find something useful to do and hopefully avoiding the censure of her grudging host, game trapper Vic Marswell (Clark Gable). Nature has a habit of taking its course in even the most civilized and sophisticated of settings so it ought to come as no surprise when wilder climes hurry that process along a little. To cut to the chase, Kelly and Marswell embark on a brief affair, but only one of them is looking any further at this stage. When the supply boat arrives it brings a couple of green innocents on a scientific expedition, and signals an abrupt end to Kelly’s dreams. The young couple are the Nordleys, Donald (Donald Sinden) and his wife Linda (Grace Kelly), and it won’t be long before Marswell’s eye is roving once more. However, it would be a dull and disappointing business if that’s all there were to it; either the tides of the river or maybe the more persuasive tides of fate see the old steamboat run aground and an unexpected reunion effected.

The consensus view on remakes seems to be that they are rarely a patch on the originals. Whether or not one subscribes to that approach, it’s generally advisable to assess everything on its own merits. Mogambo is a reworking of the 1932 movie Red Dust, which also featured a young Clark Gable in the lead. Even though it’s been many years since I viewed the original I feel secure in my view that Ford’s retread is by far the better film. Of course the fact that it’s Ford’s hand guiding it makes all the difference. His little quiet touches, his grace notes, are everywhere; from the resigned drop of Gardner’s head as she watches Gable walk off to greet his new clients, to the way Gable himself contemplates his smouldering cigarette as his own chances dwindle correspondingly. There is too the seamless blending of landscape and environment into the narrative, with key moments played out against the backdrop of moonlit lakes and waterfalls. Mogambo was made in the middle of a run of movies for Ford where this professed “director of westerns” avoided the genre with which his name has been so closely linked. From Rio Grande in 1950 until The Searchers in 1956 he didn’t touch westerns, but there remains something of the spirit of that genre on show here. Ford was always drawn to the intimacy of frontier living, the  minutiae of existence of those living on the edge of civilization, particularly in the Cavalry trilogy. Mogambo recreates some of that in the comfortable and companionable remoteness of Marswell’s lodge, while the beauty and hazards of the wilderness become apparent as the safari gets underway. And underpinning it all is the threat to existential connectedness, the essential symbiosis that links everything, which is posed by the arrival of the civilized Nordleys; this is quietly underscored by the frustration felt by Gable when he finds himself forced to kill animals on two separate occasions in order to save the lives of these two interlopers.

In addition to Ford’s motifs and sensibility, a more mature and experienced Gable adds another dimension to the movie. There is that gruff individualism that he so often traded on but it’s tempered somewhat by his playing a man who has lived too long in isolation, detached from emotional connections and therefore able to bond freely only on the most superficial levels. Still, those extra years add depth to his portrayal, the passage of time, or his awareness of it at least, seem to give a greater urgency to his character’s hunger, that knowledge of the need to grasp whatever opportunities come his way before it’s too late. In fact, as the story unfolds it is possible to read the internal conflict he’s experiencing, that head and heart business again, where he’s forever trying to balance some yearning for fulfillment against his personal code of ethics. In so doing, he runs the risk of losing the greater prize.

When all is said and done, the movie really belongs to Ava Gardner. Gable was top billed and, as I’ve said, he does excellent work, but the screen genuinely sparkles whenever Gardner is there. She is the main driver of events and acts as the emotional core. It’s a superb performance by an actress at the very top of her game and the height of her allure – I’ve been delving into that purple patch she struck in the mid 1950s after having recently enjoyed a rewatch of The Sun Also Rises. This was her third time playing opposite Gable, after The Hucksters and the extremely disappointing Lone Star, and it’s far and away the best of their collaborations. Her role played to her strengths, her earthy free-spirited sensuality is always to the fore, but also presented her with more subtle challenges. An example of this is the way she gets across very clearly the illusory nature of her free and easy demeanor. There’s a beautifully telling moment just after she embarks on the steamer where she’s pacing back and forth on the deck in front of a cage containing a captured leopard, the animal inside mirroring her moves. It’s evident that Gardner is trapped too, confined in life by the limited choices available to her. Despite this, she remains the most positive aspect of the movie, representing Gable’s chance for redemption and fulfillment – she is the siren whose song doesn’t lure a man to his doom but instead leads him toward salvation.

Grace Kelly had just come off High Noon but her biggest and most famous roles were still ahead of her. Her character is immature, a girl playing at being a woman, self-centered and plagued by indecision. Kelly nails the breathlessness and deception but is limited somewhat by the one dimensional nature of the role. Donald Sinden has the rather thankless part of the cuckold but does elicit sympathy due to his forthrightness and inherent dignity. Further support is provided by Philip Stainton as Gable’s plummy-voiced friend, Eric Pohlmann as a lazy and vulgar drunk, and a quiet Denis O’Dea, whose wordless confessional scene with Gardner provides another of those delightfully Fordian grace notes.

To the best of my knowledge, Mogambo has still not had a Blu-ray release. The old DVD has been around for many years now and is pretty solid, though this is the kind of movie which could look spectacular with a bit of a cleanup and a HD upgrade. It may not rank among John Ford’s more celebrated films but it’s long been a favorite of mine and one I am always keen to recommend.

Across the Wide Missouri

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I’ve already featured a number of films that highlighted the trend in 1950s westerns towards a more sympathetic and mature view of the various native peoples and their relationships with the westward moving settlers. William Wellman’s contribution to this phenomenon can be seen in Across the Wide Missouri (1951), where his setting of the story in the 1820s and its focus on trappers and mountain men, as opposed to the later arrival of large groups of settlers, allows him to sidestep political issues and tell a more human tale. Wellman’s movie suffered from some overzealous editing that frankly hacked his work to pieces and leaves the version available to us today an imperfect one. The director was greatly displeased by this, virtually disowning the film, yet what remains is still a beautifully shot work that has some emotional punch, in spite of what was left on the cutting room floor.

The story is centered around Flint Mitchell (Clark Gable), a rough and ready mountain man and trapper, whose adventures we follow in the form of the narrated reminiscences of his grown-up son – voiced by an uncredited Howard Keel. Mitchell is in the process of putting together an expedition to head into Blackfoot country in search of lucrative beaver pelts. With most of the arrangements in place, Mitchell catches the attention of a young Blackfoot girl, Kamiah (Maria Elena Marques), who has been brought up by the Nez Perce. Despite being amused by her advances, he initially brushes her off. It’s only when he learns of the plans of Brecan (John Hodiak), a Scot who has become so enamored of the Blackfoot way of life that he’s literally “gone native” and been integrated into their tribe, to bring her back to her own people that he changes his tune. Kamiah is the granddaughter of Bear Ghost (Jack Holt), the tribe’s elder, and Mitchell sees an opportunity to gain favour. Of course the only way to take the girl from the Nez Perce is to marry her and bring her back as his wife. While Mitchell isn’t averse to the idea, he still regards Kamiah primarily as a bargaining chip at this stage. In the course of the long trek though he finds himself genuinely falling for her charms. Mitchell doesn’t speak a word of her language, nor she his, and all but the most basic communication has to be conducted through the medium of an interpreter, an old French trapper by the name of Pierre (Adolphe Menjou). One of the interesting aspects of the film is the fact that the Indian characters, and the many of the French too, speak exclusively in their own tongue, lending a touch of authenticity to it all. With much of the focus of the middle section of the movie on the arduous journey undertaken by Mitchell and his fellow hunters, it’s basically an outdoor adventure yarn with a romance woven into it. Although the adventurous elements occupy a lot of the running time, the real heart of the film comes from the interracial romance and the gradual development of cultural understanding that accompanies it. However, few tales succeed without the introduction of some kind of conflict, and that’s provided here by the appearance of a rising Blackfoot warrior, Ironshirt (Ricardo Montalban), whose enmity with Mitchell leads to the film taking a tragic turn at the end.

 

My father told me that for the first time, he saw these Indians as he had never seen them before – as people with homes and traditions and ways of their own. Suddenly they were no longer savages. They were people who laughed and loved and dreamed.

The above words, spoken by the narrator after Mitchell has come upon the Blackfoot settlement, might seem to be stating the obvious these days. However, they are quite potent when viewed in historical perspective. When Across the Wide Missouri was produced it was by no means a given to see some respect granted to Native American customs and ways of life. While it’s disingenuous to say that westerns before the 50s were uniformly dismissive of Indian culture, those that tended towards the kind of sympathetic treatment that grew in popularity as the decade went on were certainly thin on the ground. One could of course argue that the inclusion of the villainous character of Ironshirt shows the movie reverting to timeworn genre stereotypes, but that’s both lazy and a bit of a cheap shot. In the first place, the responsibility for the bad blood that arises can be traced back to both sides. Furthermore, it would be a misrepresentation of the times to suggest that everything was harmonious and that the thought of expelling perceived intruders from their territory never crossed the minds of the Indians. Finally, from a storytelling perspective, the presence of this character and his actions are a large part of what gives the film its emotional impact at the climax.

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Across the Wide Missouri must rate as a huge missed opportunity for William Wellman, though the director cannot be held responsible for the failings. The film had the makings of being one of the great frontier epics, a sweeping and intelligent analysis of cultural symbiosis. However, it appears that MGM bosses allowed themselves to be swayed by negative pre-release feedback and cut the movie down (allegedly from over two hours originally) to its current sub-80 minute running time. As such, we’re left with a slightly disjointed effort that nevertheless hints at what might have been. Despite the choppy rhythm, the development of the relationship between Mitchell and his Blackfoot maiden is a touch abrupt, there’s still a lot to admire. Wellman kept his cameras mainly outdoors to capture the splendor of the Colorado locations and, as a result of both the broadly comedic interludes and the incorporation of the landscape into the narrative, produced a film that’s reminiscent of the work of John Ford. Leaving aside the plot, the picture is a visual delight – William Mellor’s cinematography is frequently breathtaking and never less than beautiful.

Clark Gable had what could be termed a fairly lean run in westerns, with Raoul Walsh’s The Tall Men probably being his best showing in the genre. Across the Wide Missouri offered him a strong role though, one that played to his strengths and exploited his trademark roguish charm. In spite of his frequent casting in romantic parts, he had a certain goofball quality which, along with his inherent machismo, made him the ideal choice for a socially clumsy trapper. In addition, he performed very well in the handful of tender and reflective moments; no doubt he drew on his own sense of personal loss for the climactic scenes, and there’s a real dignity in the way he consoles his grief-stricken bride after the murder of her grandfather. As Kamiah, Mexican actress Maria Elena Marques is cute, spirited and gutsy. She barely utters a word of English throughout the film, save a few efforts in heavily accented pidgin, yet her feelings at any given point are abundantly clear. Her presence really drives the picture and gives it its purpose, and it’s refreshing to see the matter of fact acceptance of her relationship with Gable. After a promising start, John Hodiak’s career dipped swiftly and he died a very young man; this film was arguably his last memorable role before the decline set in fully. He had a dour thoughtfulness about him, a withdrawn sense that seems to match the character he plays ideally. There’s no real explanation given as to why Brecan left his own society to become assimilated into the Blackfoot tribe, and the actor’s own distance and remoteness adds to the air of mystery surrounding the character. Ricardo Montalban’s Ironshirt is a completely undeveloped part, although that may be due to the heavy cuts imposed by the studio, and he serves basically as a bogeyman figure. As for the supporting cast, the best work is done by Adolphe Menjou and Alan Napier.

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Across the Wide Missouri is now available in the US via the Warner Archive, and also on pressed disc in Europe from Warner Brothers in France. I have the French release of the film and I have to say the transfer is a very good one. The Technicolor hues come out very strongly, which is vital in a movie so heavily dependent on its outdoor photography and imagery, and the print is in pretty good condition. There are no extra features offered, and the French subtitles can be disabled from the language menu. In the final analysis, I’d have to say Across the Wide Missouri is a disappointing film. In doing so, I’m not saying it’s a poor movie, nor am I implying any criticism of the cast and crew. I feel there was a work of greater significance and cohesion here had the scissors not been applied so drastically. As it stands, this picture has fallen by the wayside somewhat when 50s westerns are discussed. Wellman was capable of producing work of considerable depth when the material was right, and the ingredients for something special were in place here. And that’s what disappoints me; we’re only seeing a fraction of the director’s vision. Even so, the movie is not without interest and is worth viewing for its visuals and its progressive storyline.

Just as an aside, it’s five years to the day since I first started blogging back on the old FilmJournal site. Time certainly flies.

 

Lone Star

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Last time I found myself singing the praises of a movie that represents some of the best that westerns in the 1950s had to offer. Now I’m looking at another western, also from the 50s, but not at all in the same class. Lone Star (1952) is one of those pseudo-historical pieces that frequently end up skating on thin ice due to their vaguely pompous air. The problem with this one could be summed up in one word – politics. When a film sets out to glorify a political position, any political position, it almost always does so at the expense of pace and drama. Lone Star isn’t an especially long movie – about an hour and a half – but it just plods along.

The plot revolves around the question of whether Texas was to allow itself to be absorbed into the US or go it alone as an independent republic. Now this was a fairly complex issue, and one worthy of some research. However, by placing this at the centre of a western that badly wants to be an action picture a rare feat is accomplished: the facts are merely skimmed over, the characters are stripped of personality, the narrative drive is killed stone dead, and the viewer becomes apathetic. Dev Burke (Clark Gable) is a Texas cattleman with a patriotic background – it’s mentioned that he fought against Santa Anna – and the trust of prominent men. With the annexation of Texas hanging in the balance, Burke is handed the task of heading south to try to head off the challenge of those clamoring for a republic. The chief mover and shaker in the anti-annexation camp is Thomas Craden (Broderick Crawford), and he needs to be silenced if Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston are to achieve their goal. En route to Texas, Burke comes to the aid of Craden who’s running hard from a Comanche war party.

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There’s an exciting and well filmed sequence where the two men hold off the Comanche through brutal hand-to-hand combat. If only there were more of this then we’d be looking at a superior movie. But no, no sooner has the fight ended than we’re back to the turgid business of arguing the pros and cons of statehood. Burke hasn’t revealed his identity to Craden and thus finds himself welcomed into his inner circle. Everything would seem to be going according to plan for Burke, were it not for the fact that he meets Martha Ronda (Ava Gardner). She is Craden’s woman and a rabid opponent of annexation. Inevitably, both Burke and Martha are attracted to each other but the path of true love can never be smooth. It’s not unreasonable to expect some kind of triangle to emerge, and it does indeed happen. But the sticking point is not a question of conflicting emotional loyalties – no, it all comes down to appeasing one’s political allegiances! In the end, everything is resolved in a slam bang finish involving a well staged siege and assault. However, the final scene is a real cack-handed affair that runs contrary to all that’s gone before.

Vincent Sherman was a genuine journeyman director, a man capable of turning out a pretty good movie when the material was right. Unfortunately, Borden Chase’s script is a real dog and I’d be hard pushed to imagine anyone managing to rise above it. Still, there are a few good action scenes and the outdoor stuff looks quite good. The cast do what they can – and there’s no shortage of strong support from Lionel Barrymore, Moroni Olsen, William Conrad, Ed Begley and Beulah Bondi – but they’re ultimately hamstrung by the quality of material they have to work with. Gable plays the kind of honourable rogue that was his trademark and Gardner looks exceptionally good. The problem is the frankly ridiculous romance they are required to blunder through – the whole will-they-won’t-they thing stretches credibility to breaking point given the framework in which it’s set. Crawford’s not bad either, and he’s not an actor I’ve ever been especially fond of, but is also let down by the writing.

I’m pretty sure that the only DVD of Lone Star is the Warner/Impulso release in Spain. The image on the disc isn’t bad, but there are scratches and speckles throughout and I suspect it’s undergone some contrast boosting. There are no extras whatsoever and the Spanish subs are removable on the English track, regardless of what the menu appears to claim. To be honest, this is not a good film and it’s not representative of 1950s westerns. What it does have going for it is the star power of Gable and Gardner and a handful of action set pieces. In all good faith, I couldn’t recommend this to any but the most diehard Gable or Gardner completists.