“BAND OF ANGELS” (1957) Review

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“BAND OF ANGELS” (1957) Review

I have been a fan of period dramas for a long time. A very long time. This is only natural, considering that I am also a history buff. One of the topics that I love to explore is the U.S. Civil War. When you combined that topic in a period drama, naturally I am bound to get excited over that particular movie or television production. 

I have seen a good number of television and movie productions about the United States’ Antebellum period and the Civil War. One of those productions is “BAND OF ANGEL”, an adaptation of Robert Warren Penn’s 1955 novel set during the last year of the Antebellum period and the first two years of the Civil War.

The story begins around 1850. The privileged daughter of a Kentucky plantation owner named Amantha Starr overhears one house slave make insinuations about her background to another slave. Before Amantha (or “Manthy”) could learn more details, she discovers that Mr. Starr had the offending slave sold from the family plantation, Starwood. He also enrolls her in a school for privileged girls in Cinncinati. A decade later in 1860, Amantha’s father dies. When she returns to Starwood, Amantha discovers that Mr. Starr had been in debt. Worse, she discovers that her mother had been one of his slaves, making her a slave of mixed blood. Amantha and many other Starwood slaves are collected by a slave trader and conveyed by steamboat to New Orleans for the city’s slave mart.

Upon her arrival in New Orleans, Amantha comes dangerously close to be purchased by a coarse and lecherous buyer. However, she is rescued by a Northern-born planter and slave owner named Hamish Bond, and becomes part of his household as his personal mistress. She also becomes acquainted with Bond’s other house slaves – his right-hand-man named Rau-Ru, his housekeeper and former mistress Michele and Dollie, who serves as her personal maid. Although Amantha initially resents her role as a slave and Bond’s role as her owner, she eventually falls in love with him and he with her. But the outbreak of the Civil War and a long buried secret of Bond’s threaten their future.

Many critics and film fans have compared “BAND OF ANGELS” to the 1939 Oscar winner, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Frankly, I never understood the comparison. Aside from the setting – late Antebellum period and the Civil War, along with Clark Gable as the leading man, the two films really have nothing in common. “GONE WITH THE WIND” is a near four-hour epic that romanticized a period in time. Although “BAND OF ANGELS” have its moments of romanticism, its portrayal of the Old South and the Civil War is a bit more complicated . . . ambiguous. Also, I would never compare Scarlett O’Hara with Amantha Starr. Both are daughters of Southern plantation owners. But one is obviously a member of the Southern privileged class, while the other is the illegitimate and mixed race daughter of a planter and his slave mistress. Also, Gable’s character in “BAND OF ANGELS” is a Northern-born sea captain, who became a planter; not a semi-disgraced scion of an old Southern family.

Considering the political ambiguity of “BAND OF ANGELS”, I suppose I should be more impressed with it. Thanks to Warren’s novel, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts’ screenplay and Raoul Walsh’s direction; the movie attempted to provide audiences with a darker view of American slavery and racism. For instance, Amantha’s journey from Kentucky to Louisiana as a slave proved to be a harrowing one, as she deals with a slave trader with plans to rape her, a traumatic experience at the New Orleans slave mart, Bond’s lustful neighbor Charles de Marigny and her attempts to keep her African-American ancestry a secret from a Northern beau later in the film. The film also touches on Rau-ru’s point of view in regard to slavery and racism. Despite being educated and treated well by Hamish Bond; Rau-ru, quite rightly, is resentful of being stuck in the role of what he views as a cosseted pet. Rau-ru also experiences the ugly racism of planters like de Marigny and slave catchers; and Northerners like some of the Union officers and troops that occupied New Orleans and Southern Louisiana in the movie’s last half hour. I also noticed that the movie did not hesitate to expose the ugliness of the slave trade and the system itself, and the fate of a great number of slaves who found themselves being forced by Union forces to continue toiling on the cotton and sugar plantations on behalf of the North.

There are other aspects of the movie that I found admirable. Not all of “BAND OF ANGELS” was shot at the Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank. A good of the movie was shot on location in Louisiana. I have to give credit to cinematographer Lucien Ballard for doing an exceptional job for the film’s sharp and vibrant color, even if the film lacked any real memorable or iconic shot. If I must be honest, I can say the same about Max Steiner’s score. However, I can admit that Steiner’s score blended well with the movie’s narrative. Marjorie Best, who had received Oscar nominations for her work in movies like “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN”and “GIANT”, served as the movie’s costume designer. I was somewhat impressed by her designs, especially for the male characters, ironically enough. However, I had a problem with her costumes for Yvonne De Carlo. Nearly every dress that the Amantha Starr character possessed featured a low cut neckline that emphasized her cleavage. Even her day dresses. Really?

After reading a few reviews about “BAND OF ANGELS”, I noticed that some movie fans and critics were not that impressed by the film’s performances. I have mixed feelings about them. Clark Gable seemed to be phoning it in most of the film. But there were a few scenes that made it easy to see why he not only became a star, but earned an Academy Award as well. This was apparent in two scene in which the Hamish Bond character recalled the enthusiasm and excitement of his past as a sea captain and in another in which he revealed the “more shameful” aspects of his past. At age 34 or 35, I believe Yvonne De Carlo was too old for the role of Amantha Starr, who was barely into her twenties in the story. Some would say that the role could have benefited being portrayed by a biracial actress and not a white one. Perhaps. But despite the age disparity, I still thought De Carlo gave a very strong performance as the passionate and naive Amantha, who suddenly found her life turned upside down. Ironically, I thought her scenes with Sidney Poitier seemed to generate more chemistry than her ones with Gable. Speaking of Poitier . . . I might as well say it. He gave the best performance in the movie.  His Rau-ru bridled with a varying degree of emotions when the scene called for it. And the same time, one could easily see that he was well on his way in becoming the Hollywood icon that Gable already was at the time.

There were other performances in “BAND OF ANGELS”, but very few seemed that memorable. The movie featured solid performances from Rex Reason, who portrayed Amantha’s Northern-born object of her earlier infatuation Seth Parson; Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who not only portrayed Amantha’s later suitor Union officer Lieutenant Ethan Sears, but was already on the road as a television star; Carroll Drake, who portrayed Hamish Bond’s introverted and observant housekeeper Michele; Andrea King, who portrayed Amantha’s hypocritical former schoolmistress Miss Idell; William Schallert, who had a brief, but memorable role as a bigoted Union Army officer; and Torin Thatcher, who portrayed Bond’s fellow sea captain and friend Captain Canavan. Many critics had accused Patric Knowles of bad acting. Frankly, I found his performance as Bond’s neighbor and fellow planter Charles de Marigny effectively slimy . . . in a subtle way. Ray Teal was equally effective as the slimy and voracious slave trader Mr. Calloway, who conveyed Amantha to the slave marts of New Orleans. The only performance that hit a sour note from me came from Tommie Moore, who portrayed one of Bond’s house maids, the loud and verbose Dollie. Every time she opened her mouth I could not help but wince at her over-the-top and if I may say so, cliched performance as Dollie. I think I could have endured two hours in the company of Prissy and Aunt Pittypat Hamilton from “GONE WITH THE WIND” than five minutes in Dollie’s company. I guess I could have blamed the actress herself. But a part of me suspect that the real perputrators were screenwriter and director Raoul Walsh.

I wish that was all I had to say about “BAND OF ANGELS”. I really do. But . . . despite the movie’s portrayal of the ugliness of slavery and racism, it ended up undermining its attempt. Quite frankly, I found “BAND OF ANGELS” to be a very patronizing movie – especially in regard to race. And the figure of this patronizing was centered around the character of Hamish Bond. Someone once complained that although the movie initially seemed to revolve around Amantha Starr, in the end it was all about Bond. I do not know if I could fully agree with this, but I found it disturbing that the character “growths” of both Amantha and Rau-ru revolved around Bond and their opinion of him.

One aspect of “BAND OF ANGELS” that I found particularly bizarre was Amantha’s opinion of Hamish Bond’s connection to slavery. At first, she simply resented him for being her owner. But she eventually fell in love with him and opened herself to being his mistress. Amantha certainly had no problems with that ridiculous scene featuring Bond’s field slaves lined up near the river side to welcome him back to his plantation with choral singing. Really? This was probably the most patronizing scene in the movie. Yet, when Amantha discovered that his past as a sea captain involved his participation in the Atlantic slave trade, she reacted with horror and left him. Let me see if I understand this correctly. Once she was in love with Bond, she had no problems with being his slave mistress or his role as a slave owner. Yet, she found his participation in the slave trade to be so awful that she . . . left him? Slave owner or slave trader, Hamish Bond exploited the bodies of black men and women. Why was being a slave trader worse than being a slave owner? Not only do I find this attitude hypocritical, I also noticed that it permeated in a good deal of other old Hollywood films set in the Antebellum era. Even more disturbing is that after becoming romantic with an Union officer named Ethan Sears, Amantha has a brief reunion with her former object of desire, Seth Parsons. He reveals that knows about her mother’s ancestry and her role as Bond’s mistress; and tries to blackmail her into becoming his. In other words, Seth’s knowledge of her racial background and her history with Bond leads Amantha to run back into the arms of Bond. And quite frankly, this makes no sense to me. Why would Seth’s attempt to blackmail lead Amantha to forgive Bond for his past as a slave trader? The movie never really made this clear.

I found the interactions between Rau-ru and Hamish Bond even more ridiculous and patronizing. Rau-ru is introduced as Bond’s major-domo/private secretary, who also happens to be a slave. Despite receiving education from Bond and a high position within the latter’s household, Rau-ru not only resents Bond, but despises him. And you know what? I can understand why. I noticed that despite all of these advantages given to Rau-ru, Bond refuses to give him his freedom. Worse, Bond treats Rau-ru as a pet. Think I am joking? I still cannot think of the scene in which Bond’s friend, Captain Canavan, visited and demanded that Rau-ru entertain him with a song without any protest from Bond without wincing. This scene was really vomit inducing. What made the situation between Rau-ru and Bond even worse is that the former made an abrupt about face about his former master during the war . . . all because the latter had revealed how he saved Rau-ru’s life during a slave raid in Africa and – get this – some bigoted Union Army officer tried to cheat Rau-ru from a reward for capturing Bond. The former sea captain/planter ended up leaving his estate to Rau-ru in a will. How nice . . . but I suspect he did so after Amantha left him. If not, my mistake. And why did Bond failed to give Rau-ru his freedom before the outbreak of war? Instead, Rau-ru was forced to flee to freedom after saving Amantha from being raped by Charles de Marigny. In Robert Warren’s novel, Rau-ru eventually killed Bond. Pity this did not happen in the movie.

Overall, I see that my feelings for “BAND OF ANGELS” is mixed. There are some aspects of the movie that I found admirable. I might as well admit it. The movie especially benefited from Lucien Ballard’s colorful photography, an interesting first act and an excellent performance by Sidney Poitier. Otherwise, I can honestly say that “BAND OF ANGELS” focused too much on the Hamish Bond character and was a bit too patronizing on the subject of race and slavery for me to truly enjoy it.

List of Favorite Movie and Television Productions About the HOLOCAUST

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Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the Holocaust released in chronological order:

LIST OF FAVORITE MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST

1 - The Search

“The Search” (1948) – Fred Zinneman directed this Oscar winning movie about a young Auschwitz survivor and his mother who search for each other across post-World War II Europe. Oscar nominee Montgomery Clift and Oscar winner
Ivan Jandl starred.

2 - The Diary of Anne Frank

“The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959) – George Stevens directed this adaptation of the Broadway play about Holocaust victimAnne Frank, her family and their friends hiding in an attic in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. The movie starred Millie Perkins, Joseph Schildkraut and Oscar winner Shelley Winters.

3 - Judgment at Nuremberg

“Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) – Stanley Kramer directed this Oscar winner about an American military tribunal in post-war occupied Germany that tries four Nazi judges for war crimes. Oscar nominee Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich and Oscar winner Maximilian Schell starred.

4 - Marathon Man

“Marathon Man” (1976) – Dustin Hoffman, Oscar nominee Laurence Olivier and Roy Schneider starred in this adaptation of William Goldman’s 1974 novel about a history graduate student caught up in a conspiracy regarding stolen diamonds, a Nazi war criminal and a rogue government agent. John Schlesinger directed.

5 - Voyage of the Damned

“Voyage of the Damned” (1976) – Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow starred in this adaptation of Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts’ 1974 book about the fate of the MS St. Louis ocean liner carrying Jewish refugees from Germany to Cuba in 1939. Stuart Rosenberg directed.

6 - Holocaust

“Holocaust” (1978) – Gerald Green wrote and produced this Emmy winning miniseries about the experiences of a German Jewish family and a rising member of the SS during World War II. Fritz Weaver, Rosemary Harris and Emmy winners Meryl Streep and Michael Moriarty starred.

7 - Sophie Choice

“Sophie’s Choice” (1982) – Oscar winner Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol starred in this adaptation of William Styron’s 1979 novel about an American writer’s acquaintance with a Polish immigrant and Holocaust survivor in post-World War II New York City. The movie was directed by Alan J. Pakula.

8 - Escape From Sobibor

“Escape From Sobibor” (1987) – Alan Arkin, Joanna Paula and Golden Globe winner Rutger Hauer starred in this television movie about the mass escape of Jewish prisoners from the Nazi extermination camp at Sobibor in 1943. Jack Gold directed.

9 - War and Remembrance

“War and Remembrance” (1988) – Dan Curtis produced, directed and co-wrote this Emmy winning television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1978 novel about the experiences of a naval family and their in-laws during World War II. Robert Mitchum, Jane Seymour, Hart Bochner and John Gielgud starred.

10 - Schindlers List

“Schindler’s List” (1993) – Steven Spielberg produced and directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel, “Schindler’s Ark” about Nazi party member and businessman, Oscar Schindler, who helped saved many Polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories. The movie starred Oscar nominees Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley.

11 - Life Is Beautiful

“Life Is Beautiful” (1997) – Oscar winner Roberto Benigni starred, directed and co-wrote this Academy Award winning film about a Jewish-Italian book shop owner, who uses his imagination to shield his son from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. The movie co-starred Nicoletta Braschi and Giorgio Cantarini.

“Conspiracy” (2001) – This highly acclaimed HBO television movie dramatized the 1942 Wannasee Conference, a meeting between high Nazi officials to discuss the implementation of the final solution to the Jewish population under German control. Directed by Frank Pierson, the movie starred Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci.

12 - The Pianist

“The Pianist” (2002) – Roman Polanski directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman‘s World War Ii memoirs. Oscar winner Adrien Brody and Thomas Kretschmann starred.

13 - Black Book

“Black Book” (2006) – Paul Verhoeven directed World War II tale about a Dutch-Jewish woman who becomes a spy for the Resistance after a tragic encounter with the Nazis. Carice van Houten and Sebastian Koch starred.

14 - The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

“The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” (2008) – Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, Vera Fermiga and David Thewlis starred in this adaptation of John Boyne’s 2006 novel about a friendship between two eight year-olds – the son of an extermination camp commandant and a young Jewish inmate. Mark Herman directed.

“Inglourious Basterds” (2009) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this Oscar winning alternate-history tale about two separate plots to assassinate Nazi Germany’s high political leadership at a film premiere in Nazi occupied Paris. The movie starred Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent and Oscar winner Christoph Waltz.

Ten Favorite Movies Set in TEXAS

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set in Texas aka “the Lone Star State”:

TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN TEXAS

1 - The Big Country

1. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this big scale adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.

2 - Written on the Wind

2. “Written on the Wind” (1956) – Douglas Sirk directed this adaptation of Robert Wilder’s 1954 novel about a East Coast secretary who married into a wealthy Texas family. The movie starred Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Oscar nominee Robert Stack and Oscar winner Dorothy Malone.

3 - The Shadow Riders

3. “The Shadow Riders” (1982) – Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot starred in this television adaptation of Louis L’Amour’s novel about brothers who search for their kidnapped siblings at the end of the Civil War. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, the movie co-starred Jeff Osterhage, Katherine Ross and Ben Johnson.

4 - Giant

4. “Giant” (1956) – Oscar nominee George Stevens produced and directed this adaptation of Edna Ferber’s 1952 about a wealthy Texas family. The movie starred Elizabeth Taylor, and Oscar nominees Rock Hudson and James Dean.

5 - 2 Guns

5. “2 Guns” (2013) – Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg starred in this adaptation of a comic book series about two undercover agents and their search for missing C.I.A. money. The movie was directed by Baltasar Kormákur.

6 - No Country For Old Men

6. “No Country For Old Men” (2007) – The Coen Brothers directed this Oscar winning film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel. The movie starred Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Kelly MacDonald, Woody Harrelson and Oscar winner Jarvier Bardem.

7 - Parkland

7. “Parkland” (2013) – Peter Landesman wrote and directed this film about the immediate aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The cast includes Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton, Marcia Gay Harden, Ron Livingston and James Badge Dale.

8 - Dallas Buyers Club

8. “Dallas Buyers’ Club” (2013) – Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey starred in this biopic about A.I.D.S. activist Ron Woodruff. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the movie co-starred Jennifer Garner and Oscar winner Jared Leto.

9 - The Searchers

9. “The Searchers” (1956) – John Ford directed this epic adaptation of Alan Le May’s 1954 novel about the search for a missing girl taken by Commanches. The movie starred John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter.

10 - Extreme Prejudice

10. “Extreme Prejudice” (1987) – Walter Hill directed this action packed tale about a conflict between a Texas Ranger, his former boyhood friend-turned-drug kingpin and a team of Army Intelligence agents. Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe starred.

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – Episode One “June-July 1861” Commentary

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“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – EPISODE ONE “JUNE-JULY 1861” Commentary

Judging from past articles I have written about the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy, one would surmise that of the three miniseries that have aired in the past decades (two in the 1980s and one in the 1990s) that I seemed to have the most problem with the second miniseries in the trilogy, namely “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. And if I have to be honest, one would be right.

It is odd that I would choose the second miniseries as the most problematic of the three. “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”is set during the four years of the Civil War – a historical conflict that has heavily attracted my attention for so many years that I cannot measure how long. “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III”, which had aired at least seven-and-a-half years after the second miniseries, was set during the early years of Reconstruction and has a reputation among the “NORTH AND SOUTH” fans as being inferior to the other two. But for some reason, I have had more of a problem with “BOOK II”. So I have decided to examine each of the six episodes of the 1986 miniseries to determine why this chapter in the “NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy is such a problem for me.

Without a doubt, Episode One of “BOOK II” is my favorite in the entire miniseries. It re-introduced the main characters from the first miniseries in the story. It also set the stage for the main characters’ experiences during the war, for the rest of the miniseries. It featured an excellent opening shot on the streets of Washington D.C. that introduced both Brett Main Hazard, and the slave Semiramis. It also featured a well shot sequence that centered around a colorful ball at the Spotswood Hotel in Richmond, attended by Ashton and James Huntoon, and Elkhannah Bent. Most importantly, it featured one of my favorite battle scenes – namely the Battle of Bull Run that was fought near Manassas, Virginia on July 18, 1861. If I have to be frank, this interpretation of Bull Run remains my favorite. Director Kevin Connors filmed the entire sequence with great style and skill and composer Bill Conti injected it with a brash, yet haunting score that still give me goose bumps whenever I watch it. Even better, the sequence ended with actress Wendy Kilbourne uttering one of the best lines in the entire trilogy.

I certainly have no problems with the miniseries’ production values. Jacques R. Marquette’s photography struck me as rather beautiful and colorful. This was especially apparent in the opening Washington D.C., the Spotswood Hotel ball and Bull Run sequences. If I have one complaint, I wish the photography had been a little sharper. Joseph R. Jennings and his production designs team did an excellent job in re-creating the United States during the Civil War era. Bill Conti continued his excellent work as composer for the saga’s production. But if there is one aspect of the miniseries’ production values that really blew my mind were the costumes designed by Robert Fletcher. I was especially impressed by the following costumes:

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I do have a few quibbles about Episode One. First of all, it introduced Charles Main’s role as a cavalry scout for the Confederate Army. Considering that he started out as a Captain in this miniseries, it made no sense to me that he and another officer – a first lieutenant – would be participating scout duties without the assistance of enlisted men. I guess one could call it as an example of the story being historically inaccurate. And I wish someone would explain why the Mains’ neighbors (or slaves) sent word to Brett Main Hazard in Washington D.C., of the injuries her mother, Clarissa Main, had suffered when Mont Royal’s barn was set on fire by Justin La Motte. Would it have been a lot easier (and quicker) to send word to Orry Main, who was on duty in Richmond, Virginia?

I find the idea of both George Hazard and Orry Main serving as military aides to their respective political leaders – Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis – very improbable. Following their graduation from West Point in 1846, the two friends had only served at least 18 months in the U.S. Army before resigning for personal reasons. Yet, after the outbreak of a civil war, thirteen years, the audience is supposed to believe that both were able to secure such high positions within their respective armies? Especially when one considers the fact that neither were politically active between 1848 and 1861? I find this very illogical . . . even for a work of fiction.

My last major quibble featured the character of Elkhannah Bent. What was he doing with the portrait of Madeline Fabray LaMotte’s mother? The audience knew that he had procured it from an expensive whorehouse in New Orleans. But Bent had no idea that Madeline was romantically involved with one of his nemesis, Orry Main, until after Ashton Main Huntoon informed him. So, why did he bother to get his hands on the painting at a time when he was ignorant of the romantic and emotional connection between Orry and Madeline?

I certainly had no problems with the episode’s performances. The cast, more or less, gave solid performances. But I was especially impressed by a handful. Two of the better performances came from Parker Stevenson and Genie Francis, who portrayed the recently married Billy and Brett Hazard. I was especially impressed by one scene in which the two nearly quarreled over Billy’s decision to transfer from the Corps of Engineers to Hiram Berdan’s Sharpshooters Regiment. Terri Garber and Philip Casnoff literally burned the screen in their portrayal of the early stages of Ashton Main Huntoon and Elkhannah Bent’s affair. This episode featured another quarrel . . . one between George Hazard and his sister, Virgilia, who had arrived in Washington D.C. to become a nurse. Both James Read and Kirstie Alley were superb in that scene. And finally, I have to single out Forest Whitaker, who did a superb job in expressing the resentful anger that his character, Cuffey, felt toward his situation as a slave and toward his owners, the Mains.

Although Episode One featured some stumbling blocks that I have already mentioned, I must say that it turned out rather well. For me, it is probably the best episode in the entire 1986 miniseries. Not only did it featured some excellent performances, it was capped with a superb sequence featuring the Battle of Bull Run, directed with skill by Kevin Connor.