Raoul Walsh’s 1957 drama “Band of Angels” revolves around the stories of three characters as they deal with the issues that arise with the outbreak of the Civil War. At the funeral of her father, Amantha Starr, played by Yvonne De Carlo, discovers that her mother had been one of her father’s former slaves. Slave traders take her into custody and auction her off in New Orleans. The confident and wealthy Hamish Bond (Clark Gable) arrives at the auction and buys Amantha for 5000 dollars. Amantha, used to a luxurious and privileged life, mistrusts the intentions of Hamish, and awaits for him to treat her as an average slave. She quickly realizes that Hamish’s slaves are not treated as average slaves. Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier), Hamish’s “claw,” is an educated, refined slave, who initially attempts to keep Amantha in line.
Amantha makes several desperate attempts to escape her “horrid” enslavement, but soon begins to accept Hamish’s friendly gestures. When Hamish finally offers her freedom, she turns it down, preferring to become his mistress on one of his many plantations. While at the plantation, Rau-Ru’s attitude towards her alters, and he reveals his intense hatred for Hamish. Rau-Ru goes on several tangents throughout the movie in which he insists that slavery is a despicable establishment, whether under a kind owner or a brutal one. Rau-Ru reprimands Amantha for refusing to acknowledge her true identity and continuing to live a “white lie.”
As the war breaks out, the three main characters are torn apart when secret pasts and murderous passions emerge. Rau-Ru kills a white man and has to flee to the North. He joins the Union army and returns to New Orleans for the sole purpose of tracking down Hamish and killing him. As Hamish and Amantha’s relationship heats up, he reveals to her his past as an illegal slave trader in Africa. Amantha is unable to forgive Hamish for his dark past, and leaves him with documents that make her a freewoman. She remains in New Orleans where she encounters several Union soldiers that attempt to take advantage of her and label her for her “drop of black.” Hamish’s fate is the worst of all three. By burning down his crops, Hamish defies the local Union laws and becomes a fugitive. Before beginning his life on the run, he frees all his slaves in an attempt to make up for his mistakes of the past.
Amantha and Rau-Ru have a heated run-in in New Orleans in which Amantha finally admits her love of Hamish to Rau-Ru. As Rau-Ru locates and corners Hamish, Hamish explains that he had rescued Rau-Ru from execution as an infant in an African village. Rau-Ru is finally able to embrace his freedom by assisting Hamish in gaining his own freedom. Amantha, now accepting of her identity, reunites with Hamish and the two flee the city.
The complexities of identity are portrayed well in this movie. Amantha’s struggle illustrates the difficulty in identifying oneself as either black or white during the Civil War; especially with the issue of mixing. However, the movie supports a more “white” choice for her, even after acknowledging her background. It is also interesting to see characters who initially trumpeted their abolitionist views end up behaving hypocritically and those that had been supporters of slavery amend their ways. This movie clearly wants to demonstrate the complexities of ideologies and their implementation during this chaotic time in history.