As the very first installment of TROUT FUN, an ongoing series of articles by guest writers and fellow critics, Tobias Burms weighs in on the romanticized take on the Plantation era in the American South that was ‘Band of Angels’ (1957).
Raoul Walsh had a startling 52-year career as director, and his earlier screen credits include starring as a younger version of Poncho Villa (while also acting as cinematographer) and an uncredited turn as John Wilkes Booth in Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation.’ As director he worked with such star names as Sydney Poitier, James Cagney, Jane Russell, Clark Gable, Donna Reed, Rock Hudson, Gregory Peck, Ann Blyth, Robert Mitchum and Errol Flynn. Plus, you can add him to your list of directors who wore an eye-patch.
After seeing 24 of Raoul Walsh’s films, I can easily say that Band of Angels is my favorite one, or at least the film that made the most lasting impression. Largely ignored upon release and a box office flop, this so-called poor man’s Gone with the Wind (about the unlikely love affair between an elderly New Orleans plantation owner Hamish Bond and one of his slaves Amantha Starr, a white woman who recently had her family fortune taken away from her after her deceased father’s creditors discovered her mother was of African descent) hasn’t really enjoyed a revaluation since and online articles remain scarce. By far the most poignant piece I could find, was written by Paola Cristalli for the Cinema Ritrovato brochure, which held a Walsh retrospective La Grande avverntura di Raoul Walsh in 2012. In the short snippet, Cristalli also makes reference to a contribution of Jacques Lourcelles’ (known Walshien and Mac-mahoniste) Le dictionnaire du cinéma, in which Lourcelles emphasizes “The specific poetry of the South in the antebellum period” in Band of Angels.
This provocative statement instantly appealed to me, as I suddenly became aware of a long suppressed fascination of mine, namely Southern plantation culture. Contemporary values have made it difficult speak of lyricism in a period that is intrinsically linked to the inhumane injustice of slavery, but on a more evocative level there is great romance to be found in the various rites of America’s first and only aristocracy: the image of a white suited dandy carelessly strolling about on his vast acres of land whilst holding a decorated cane, the melancholy of spending evenings on the outside porch recalling lost loved ones and the solemn ritual in which men of honor defend their name by challenging each other to a duel.
Especially Band of Angels, which takes place in New Orleans, shows the diverse cultural heritage that shaped this American gentry, as if it were a hyperbolic mutation of ancient European royalty: from the Greek revival style mansions, to the French wrought iron balcony rails on the patio, to Bond’s (played by Clark Gable) Creole attire of frilly satin blouses.
These distinct symbols of oligarch abundance have been popularized as tropes in various works of fiction (dating back to Col. Grangerford in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), but a modern day audience will most likely discover the alluring grotesqueness of plantation culture through Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a film clearly indebted to Band of Angels, according to a 2013 article in Le Monde. Tarantino, however, has a very insincere way of acknowledging his urge to paddle around in morally dubious waters and tries to masquerade a genuine fascination behind a veil of Comedy Central jokiness, distorting the image of the South with ready-to-wear clichés of incestuous cravings and gap tooth imbecility, thus jumping the bandwagon in marginalizing a socially undesirable culture. Walsh does the exact opposite in Band of Angels: he creates a pastoral landscape, films Southern etiquette with great delicacy focused on the importance of elegant gestures and reflects the tragedy of lost traditions due to an inevitable uprising. In a similar way, Rohmer addressed the disappearance of French nobility in L’Anglaise et le Duc by using the courteous exchange between a Scottish aristocrat and the duke of Orléans in times of revolution as the film’s leitmotif.
Yet Band of Angels is far from a counterrevolutionary film oozing bitter Yankee resentment. Walsh is no Griffith.
He’s not even Fuller. Nor is he a predecessor of Barry Goldwater, although some of the film’s rhetoric foreshadows the 1964 presidential candidate’s unwillingness to accept the Civil Rights movement (“Free… that word… one hears it so often these days, especially from the North”) and the status-quo is suggested as a tempting possibility: Bond is known for his gentle ways as a plantation owner and treats his slaves with more respect than the liberating Northern soldiers do – portrayed here as a bunch of pillaging, women-groping drunks. Bond often stresses the importance of mutual politeness in order to maintain a sense of harmony, but this idea of decorum greatly conflicts with Walsh’s own worldview – a classic libertarian in the sense of Diderot (e.g. La Religieuse). Kindness as an oppressive means of governance is unacceptable to Walsh, who denounces slavery not out of egalitarian tendencies, but because he sees such willing subordination as contradictory to human nature. The Walshian hero often reflects this mentality: a supremely individualistic and sensuous creature who will never bend to the needs of the collective. He’s constantly on the prowl for new visceral thrills, has an utter disregard for the norms of civilization, is guided only by primitive impulses and longs only to conquer the unbounded nature which surrounds him.
Unsurprisingly, even in a moment of idyllic naiveté – where cotton mill workers greet their master arriving on a Mississippi steamboat by bursting out into joyful chants – we’re able to find man’s desire to battle the elements. It’s sufficient to listen to the lyrics of these negro spirituals (Wade in the Water, Been down into the Sea and Swing Low Sweet Chariot) to realize they all reflect an attraction to the water: a need to cross rivers and discover new shores, the open sea not only as an escape route but as a beacon of endless possibilities. The Walshian hero, however, will never embark on a voyage purely out of idealism, injustice or even personal gain. He acts out of paroxysm, as if he’s drawn to the electrifying danger of the unknown and leaves at the drop of a hat on an adventure for the sake of adventure. Just recall sergeant Croft in Naked of the Dead who during a mission in the Philippines stubbornly insists on sending his platoon over a mountain top right into enemy territory, knowing they’re doomed. The objective here is not military glory or even mythical recognition, but the simple feeling of accomplishment which comes with climbing a hill and the earthly pleasure of seeing what strange new world might lie on the other side.
This irrational appetite for adventure can also be found in Band of Angels: while the slaves have obvious reasons for wanting to break free, even Hamish Bond has a need for expansion and would gladly abandon his privileged lifestyle for whatever may lie over the edge of the horizon. When he indifferently describes the borders of his domain to Amantha Starr, he emphasizes the river near the edge as if he’s wondering where the mysterious flows might take him. Bond too is marked by a fascination of the water: a former Yankee skipper who stole his name from a defeated captain, he speaks with Stevenson-esque pleasure of his maritime past, a lifestyle that invigorated him far more than being a Southern gentleman and subconsciously he seems to despise the idea of slavery. In his abolitionist leanings, he is not morally righteous nor driven by any semblance of remorse: on the contrary, he once operated as a merciless slave trader in the West Indies and as he recalls the bloodshed and the carnage, his voice trembles with passion and his squinted eyes light up. The Walshian hero is far from a pacifist, but opposes institutional oppression and resents power based only on titles or wealth. There can, however, be no injustice when the law of the strongest prevails and men are reduced to their natural states, having to rely on Homeric bravery.
This boisterous spirit is reflected beautifully in one scene of the film; Bond reminisces with a former ship’s mate on the patio while they crack open a few gallons of rum. After they request a house slave bring them a rendition of Blow the Man Down, we see him perform the sea chantey in real time as a mild storm begins to rise and the film’s tone drastically changes: the sedated pace and the picturesque compositions are shattered by a transgressive row. By the last note of the song, several hours seem to have passed. The men are inebriated and the storm has turned into a genuine whirlwind, breaking a few windows and clapping the shutters. For the untameable hearts of men, a simple melody is enough to resurface their savage past. As with Diderot’s views on liberty, there’s a sexual component to be found here as well, as the scene leads to the first embrace between Hamish Bond and Amantha Starr. Up to this point, Bond’s attempts to court Starr had consisted of respectfully distant flirtations, living up to the cliché of the aging womanizer who fools himself into thinking he can mask impotence with an allure of distinction (a role that fits Gable’s persona rather well, he even played a similar part in Walsh’s The King and Four Queens). Yet when the atmosphere of tumultuous waters is evoked, Bond blazes with virility and becomes irresistible to Starr, suggesting that even carnal desire reveals its true nature in an adventurous longing for the sea.