After almost nine years of living in Atlanta, Appellate Judge Dan Mancini is quite certain the South will never rise again.
Hollywood's king headlines a powerful tale that snaps the bonds of convention!
Trying to describe the plot of director Raoul Walsh's (High Sierra) antebellum epic is a bit futile. The picture just sort of sprawls slowly towards its conclusion. I was a little surprised by the movie's loose, almost episodic structure, considering it's based on a book of the same name by Robert Penn Warren, whose All the King's Men is a taut and complex study of political corruption and one of the most important American novels of the 20th century. I've never read Warren's novel, but one can sense a complex tale of race and sexual politics in the Old South beneath the thick Hollywood veneer of Walsh's movie. Perhaps Band of Angels is just a mediocre adaptation of a rock-solid novel, though I doubt Warren's work matches the quality and complexity of William Faulkner's serpentine collection of short stories and novellas, Go Down, Moses (the final payoff to the close reader is the revelation that nearly all of the characters—black or white—are related by blood). Take away Robert Penn Warren's name and I'd have assumed Band of Angels was based on one of the countless syrupy historical romance novels that feature paintings of bosomy fainting lasses and bare-chested macho men on their covers, and sell for five bucks at the local supermarket.
After a prelude set in 1853, Walsh's film kicks off in earnest in 1860 as America marches toward civil war. Young Amantha Starr (Yvonne De Carlo, The Munsters) returns from the Misses Hibbs Seminary for Young Ladies in Cincinnati to her home at Starwood Plantation in Kentucky to bury her father. The old man was a kindly Southern gent who treated his slaves well enough, but also incurred a lot of debt with his loose living. Mean-hearted Mr. Calloway (Ray Teal, Judgment at Nuremberg) has a court order against the plantation and means to sell off the slaves to recover money he's owed. To her horror, Amantha learns that her mother was a slave, and Calloway's staking a claim on her along with the rest of the plantation's chattel. Ms. Starr is eventually sold at auction to Hamish Bond (Clark Gable, Gone with the Wind) and taken to his plantation, Pointe du Loup in Louisiana. It turns out Bond is an old slave trader and scoundrel who stole his name and fortune. Amantha soon falls in love with him.
As rumor spreads of the Union army preparing to attack the South, Bond's ambitious chief slave, Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field) harbors dreams of inciting a coup and taking control of Pointe du Loup. When the noble young slave cold-cocks one of Bond's cad friends for trying to get fresh with Amantha, he has to flee for his life. Eventually, he becomes a Union soldier and confronts his old master. In the chaos of war, Amantha has the opportunity to pass as a white woman. Can she bring herself to do it, or will she claim her true heritage?
For the most part, Band of Angels is meandering, melodramatic pap. Its stilted dialogue is often laughable, its glacial pace taxing, and the performances of its actors hammy. Only Clark Gable, who had a special talent for reeling off monologues flavored with his unique brand of eyebrow-cocked, tough-guy cool, fully rises above the stiff material. Band of Angels is Gone with the Wind lite, made 20 years too late. The vast majority of the running time consists of actors talking and talking and talking while ensconced in plantation movie sets. The list of the movie's cornball sins is long: a house slave and Butterfly McQueen knockoff named Dollie delivers a number of rambling, highly stylized monologues that are supposed to be funny but are just grating (and borderline racist); at least two scenes feature crowds of slaves singing spirituals in ultra-phony Hollywood style, as if they're being led by a choir director, and Sidney Poitier performs the worst lip-sync of "Blow the Man Down" in cinema's long history of pretend singing. It's bad, bad stuff.
The movie does have two redeeming qualities, though. The first is its relatively frank sexual politics. Instead of being shocked by Amantha's black heritage, the picture's white men appear delighted. They know she's a beautiful woman completely beholden to them. She's a white woman by appearance, but none of the rules of propriety that normally govern their behavior around white women apply. Each assumes they can have her sexually with no strings attached because she has no reputation to protect; to them, she's not a real person. It makes Amantha a deeply sympathetic character, though the screenplay doesn't focus on her enough to fully exploit our sympathies.
The movie's other strength is the internal conflict of Sidney Poitier's Rau-Ru. After being rescued from certain death by Bond as a child, we learn, Rau-Ru was treated almost like a son by his master. He was even educated. Instead of gratitude, the man is filled with quiet, seething rage, resentment, and hatred. In one the better monologues in the film, Rau-Ru explains to Amantha that he hates Bond for his kindness because it's worse than cruelty. It doesn't elevate his status in the American slave culture, but lulls him into contentment with a status quo that denies him freedom. It's a smart observation by Robert Penn Warren, well-acted by Poitier, who brings to the role his enormous screen presence (even though he doesn't fare nearly as well with the stilted dialogue as Gable). Unfortunately, Rau-Ru's conflict (like nearly every conflict in the movie) is paid off with a dearth of action and loads of speechifying. The resolution of his conflict of identity is so tidy and easy it fails to do justice to the complexity of the character. Like Band of Angels itself, Rau-Ru's smart foundation is buried beneath layers of Hollywood muck.
Warner Brothers has treated Band of Angels well on DVD. The color image—presented in the original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio—is vivid and well-preserved. Aside from some minor and isolated density problems, the transfer is beautiful. Detail is excellent. A patina of grain consistent with the film's age gives the image a celluloid look without marring its beauty in the slightest.
Audio is a straightforward single-channel mono that is balanced, clear, and free of defects.
The only supplement is the film's theatrical trailer.
Depending on your taste, Band of Angels is either a smart soap opera or a corny, manipulative essay on racial politics. If you like soap opera costume dramas, it might be right up your alley. If you're looking for something more, you're sure to be disappointed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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