17 December 2010 | Steffi_P
"Freedom's a white word"
It's with some sense of poignancy that, in the late 1950s, the old guard of Hollywood began to finally fade away. With Band of Angels we have a middle-aged Clark Gable in one of his last ever archetypal he-man roles, Raoul Walsh, one of the few directors left who had been around since the beginning, and John Twist, a writer of adventures and romances who had started back in the silent era. These men were professionals of their day, still able to turn out a good production, and yet it was also clear they were becoming hopelessly out of time.
Band of Angels is one of many pictures from this time to take a stand on racial issues, and yet even by the standards of the time it is a woefully misguided attempt. Rather than using Yvonne De Carlo's situation to demonstrate the horrors of slavery and make the point that a person's colour is skin deep, it seems to present her being branded black as something horrifying in itself. It holds up kindly masters in mitigation of slavery, and even goes so far as to condemn a slave (the Sidney Poitier character) who is ungrateful for this condescending attitude. There's also a full supporting cast of cringeworthy stereotypes – including a "mammy" – and all the drawling and eye-rolling that cinema had mostly put-paid to by this time. The makers of the movie meant well, I'm sure, but it is clearly a case of old Hollywood trying to do The Defiant Ones while still stuck in Gone with the Wind mode.
And yet there is much to be said for old Hollywood. Walsh's dynamic direction brings an iconic look to scenes like Gable and De Carlo's kiss during the storm. He brings real intensity to the duel between Gable and Raymond Bailey, stealthily moving the camera forward as the two men get closer to each other (a trick he first used in his 1915 feature debut, Regeneration). Despite his age Gable is still very much the virile, eye-catching lead man, and this is a decent performance from him – check out the look in his eyes when he slaps his rival at the slave auction. There is also some achingly beautiful cinematography from Lucien Ballard, with some gorgeous Southern scenery and really effective lighting of interiors, achieving a look with candlelight and shadow that was hard to pull off in Technicolor. Band of Angels is, if nothing else, a movie to be enjoyed visually – and in this way more than any other harks back to a bygone age.