It's obvious that Warner Brothers decided to duplicate the success of Gone With the Wind when they hired Clark Gable for the lead role in Band of Angels. As Hamish Bond, former slave trader, and now plantation owner in the Louisiana delta country, Gable is an older and more worldly wise Rhett Butler. A man deeply concerned about the sins he committed in this life as a slave trader, living it down as best he can.
One of his new charities is Yvonne DeCarlo who received one rude shock when her father died. Her mom was black, one of the plantation slaves and she is technically one also. She's not the mistress of her father's plantation, she along with the rest of the property, real and human, is to be sold for back taxes.
Gable buys her and sets her up in his New Orleans home. Also in that house is a young black man named Ra-Ru played by Sidney Poitier. Poitier, in violation of the laws of the time, has been educated. And he's acquired enough education to appreciate the situation he's in. He's got a great hate for his benefactor who he really sees as no different than other, crueler slave holders.
Today's audience which has seen Steven Spielberg's great true film Amistad about the illegal African slave trade, can appreciate far better Gable's dilemma. It's as if the owners of the Amistad grew a conscience. Gable's description of life in the slave trade when he levels with Yvonne DeCarlo is a high point of the film as is his description of the rescue of an African baby who grew up to be Sidney Poitier.
The film does borrow liberally from Gone With the Wind in terms of Gable's character. But it also borrows from Birth of a Nation. Catch the scenes at his plantation on the delta when his slaves greet him and DeCarlo coming off the riverboat. Very much in keeping with that flawed classic. Had Gable done this film at his former studio MGM, I'm sure Ava Gardner would have been cast opposite him. Though DeCarlo is fine, Ava would have made the part a classic.
Actually it's Poitier who walks off with the acting honors here. His Ra-Ru is filled with fire and passion. What Gable thought of as an act of kindness, is not perceived by Poitier as that. He's educated enough to see exactly the institution of slavery for the dehumanizing force that it is. His confrontation with another plantation owner, Patric Knowles, when he tries to force himself on DeCarlo is not something one with the slave mentality would do. Knowles makes a big mistake in assuming Poitier thinks that way.
Actually Patric Knowles has another important scene with Gable after Poitier assaults Knowles and escapes. Gable has no use for him at all. He's originally from New England and doesn't like southern aristocrats as a group. Though Knowles is reputed to be a dead shot as a duelist, Gable faces him down and makes him turn tail in my favorite scene in the film.
Band of Angels did not get the best of reviews at the time it came out. I think it was ahead of its time and can be better appreciated by audiences today.
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