Band of Angels
Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers 
Directed by Raoul Walsh 
Screenplay by John Twist 

Produced by Le Grisbi Productions 
Written and directed by Scott Cooper 
Distributed by Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures 

I had never heard of the 1957 film Band of Angels directed by Raoul Walsh until I came upon it while sampling YouTube’s holdings.  When I saw that it was an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel of the same title, I decided to give it a try.  I’d like to say Angels is a good film, but that would be misleading.  It’s entertaining enough to while away two hours, but it’s little more than that.  Still, I was impressed.  Here was a film that almost certainly wouldn’t be made today, telling as it does a story of events just before and after the Civil War from a largely Southern perspective.  Most of today’s public have been trained to find such a film offensive.  After all, wouldn’t it be shameful to enjoy a story in which racial complications are so openly aired, and not from today’s regnant orthodoxy that reflexively insists on white guilt.

We come into the narrative upon the death of a plantation owner whose property and slaves are being sold to satisfy the debts he’s wantonly incurred sporting with black women when away from home.  At the sale, his 23-year-old daughter, Amantha Starr (played by a 35-year-old Yvonne De Carlo) discovers that she’s one of the items up for bid.  Unbeknownst to her, her mother was black or, far more likely, of mixed race.  Given the one-drop rule in force at the time, she’s now considered property.

Outraged by her plight, “Manty” keeps insisting she’s white, which, on appearances, Miss De Carlo certainly was.  Nevertheless, she’s to be sold with her father’s slaves and is brought to a New Orleans slave market, where she’s put on the auction block and undraped—partially, of course.  This is a 1957 film, after all.  When a potential buyer comes forward for some hands-on inspection, a gruffly eloquent voice makes an offer to purchase her for an extravagant $5,000, thus shutting the other fellow out.  The voice belongs to none other than Clark Gable reprising his Gone with the Wind bona fides not as Rhett Butler but as Hamish Bond, a man’s man who once was a slave trader buying human chattel from Africa and selling his purchases in the West Indies and the American South.  When we meet him, he has given up his trade in human cargo to run several plantations in and around New Orleans, with staffs of African slaves whom he treats kindly, both because he dislikes whipping and branding them and because he’s learned that he can get more from them with less trouble if he simply acknowledges their humanity.  And being a chivalrous fellow, he especially dislikes seeing a woman of any race manhandled.  But this doesn’t cut much ice with the outraged Manty, who makes it clear she’ll not show any gratitude to the beastly fellow who now owns her.  With a forbearance on offer only in films of this sort, Hamish doesn’t make a move on Manty.  He wines and dines her and stays on the other side of her bedroom door.  Well, you can see where this is going.  Still, it’s fun to imagine men were once this gallant.  It helps Hamish’s restraint that he’s carrying on with one or more other mixed-race women, with special attention to the regal Michele, played by the lovely Carolle Drake.  Nevertheless, you know that on one stormy night, Hamish will enter Manty’s bedroom to fasten her slamming shutters.  And, as he does so, a well-timed clap of thunder will so startle Manty that she will fall helplessly into Hamish’s manly arms.

Beyond the melodrama, there’s the depiction of plantation life, which is at once idealized and impossibly squalid.  Hamish spares the whip, but many of his neighbors don’t.

The film abounds with embarrassing scenes of joyous slaves singing and dancing as they come down to the river to greet Hamish whenever he returns from an excursion.  And yet there are quite a few who have got wind of what’s happening in the North and are awaiting their manumission at the hands of Union soldiers.  The ambiguity of this situation is represented in the character of Rau-Ru, played by a young Sidney Poitier with his customary grace.  Hamish brought Rau-Ru home from Africa after one of his slave-gathering jaunts and has provided him with a first-class education and given him a position as an overseer on his plantations.  But Rau-Ru has come to think of Hamish’s kindness as a trap.  It’s worked to keep him enslaved, and now he wants dearly to kill him.

There’s one episode that rises above all the others both in Warren’s novel and in the film.  It concerns Hamish’s alliance of convenience with Gezo, an African king who makes a practice of raiding surrounding villages to make off with their inhabitants and sell them to interested Americans and West Indians.  It’s dramatically recalled by Hamish at length in the novel while, tellingly enough, briefly reported in the film.  It turns out the king’s raids were not only for profit but also for sport.  He made a practice of corralling the fit specimens and slaughtering the unfit, including women and children, for no other reason than that it amused him to do so.  Hamish had joined in the grisly business until, during one ghastly raid, he found himself standing over a woman who had just delivered a baby.  After they “dragged the mother a couple of feet and carved her,” one of Gezo’s men raised a spear to thrust it at the baby.  It was at this moment that Hamish found his honor.  He grabbed the spear and smacked the man with it, only to get sliced across the calf with a razor by one of Gezo’s women.  Then he cold-cocked her as well with the butt of the spear.  The tribe was so amused that they handed Hamish the baby.  “Maybe [they] thought I wanted to eat the brat.”  Improbably enough, he managed to get clear of the mayhem and bring the child to America.  Of course, it grew up to become Rau-Ru.  Warren’s scene seems made to be filmed, but Walsh decided not to.  Why?  Perhaps he thought the episode too grim to be shown in theaters.  How would people react?  Would it have spurred race riots—in 1957?

Warren was calling upon the known facts.  Africans did sell their peoples to Europeans and Americans.  That’s history, but it’s now thought impolite to mention it.  Still, it’s something that should be known.

Hostiles is another film that attempts to set straight the historical record of American race relations.  This time it’s the often violent experience of Europeans and Native Americans in the far West.  Director Scott Cooper evidently decided we needed another revisionist Western to accomplish this noble endeavor.  I find this odd.

We’re supposed to believe that American films have scurrilously presented Indians as atrocious savages.  This simply isn’t true, except for some downmarket exercises in sensationalism.  On-screen Native Americans have almost always been accorded the respect due noble savages.  A case in point would be Apache (1954), in which Burt Lancaster played an Indian of incomparable riding and athletic skills abetted by his deep desert lore.  Of course, today it’s more than a little embarrassing to watch a blue-eyed Irish man play an Apache.  Racially, Lancaster was on firmer ground playing Jim Thorpe in 1951 in black-and-white, where his azure gaze went unnoticed.  Still, were I a Native American, such spectacles would infuriate me.

Hostiles doesn’t make this mistake.  In fact, I can’t think of a recent film that does, and that’s all to the good.  Its Indians, savage and peaceable, are all played by Native Americans.

The film opens with a touching scene of a frontier mother, Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), instructing her three daughters in the mysteries of civilization.  She’s teaching them the difference between adjectives and adverbs, and, what’s more, they’re grasping the distinction.  Then, suddenly, a band of painted Native American warriors rides onto their isolated horse farm and proceeds to scalp Rosalee’s husband and shoot her children.  She runs off with her infant, who is also murdered, while she just barely saves herself.  Pike’s acting here is nothing less than chilling.  She screams and howls, her features contorting in a horrible mask of unimaginable grief.  She embodies a moment when civilization utterly fails to withstand the onslaught of savagery.  Of course, this being an enlightened film, the atrocity must be balanced by the sins of white men.  Enter Christian Bale as Captain Blocker, a man who’s spent his career killing Indians without a moment’s compunction.  Although his work has required he learn various Indian languages, he regards Native Americans as inhuman.  They’re best dispatched to their happy hunting grounds, which we see him do with disciplined ferocity whenever the occasion arises.  Blocker is about to retire, but before he does, he’s given one more assignment.  He’s ordered to take an old enemy, Chief Yellow Hawk (the always formidably stoic Wes Studi), from the New Mexican reservation on which he’s been forced to reside for many years to his ancestral home in Montana.  Blocker bridles bitterly at his orders and threatens to disobey them, until he’s informed that, if he does, he will lose both his rank and his pension.

Well, I’m generally willing to accept a fiction’s donnée, but this one strikes me as utterly beyond belief.  Would the commanding officer really force a captain known for wantonly killing Indians to transport an enemy chief more than 1,200 miles through Western wildlands on horseback?  Only if he didn’t care a fig for the chief’s life.  But this isn’t American history.  It’s Hollywood myth-making, in which whites and Native Americans are expected to overcome their differences however profound and celebrate their diversity.  This is accomplished during the trek when the truly awful Comanches attack Blocker and his charges.  Turns out that Chief Yellow Hawk is civilized enough to suggest that he and Blocker put aside their enmity and join forces against these implacable hostiles.  In the event, they learn to respect each other.  They also meet Rosalee, who’s gone quite insane, so much so that when Blocker kills some Comanches, she walks up to a dead brave and empties her pistol into him.  Blocker and Yellow Hawk look on silently; neither seems to have much worry about their supply of bullets while away from settlements and merchants.

So on and on it goes.  Too bad.  The film is beautifully shot under sweeping Western skies, with superlative performances and what appears to be authentic costuming, tools, and weaponry.  Why are filmmakers so attentive to getting physical details right, but so careless about their storytelling?