Cast: Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman
Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Denzel Washington), Best Cinematography (Freddie Francis), Best Sound (Donald O. Mitchell, Gregg Rudloff, Elliot Tyson, Russell Williams)
Oscar Nominations: Best Art Direction (Norman Garwood, Garrett Lewis), Best Film Editing (Steven Rosenblum)
SUMMARY: Robert Gould Shaw is a Captain in the Union Army during the Civil War, and is injured at Antietam. While home on medical leave, Shaw is offered a promotion to Colonel in order to command the first all-black regiment in the Union Army. Shaw asks his friend Major Forbes to be his second-in-command; the first volunteer for the regiment is another of Shaw’s friends, a free African-American named Thomas Searles (who had gone to school with Shaw). Other volunteers soon follow, including John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), a gravedigger, and Silas Trip (Denzel Washington), an escaped slave who is mistrustful of everybody, especially Shaw. Not long after the regiment is formed, the men learn that the Confederacy has announced that all captured black Union soldiers, and their white officers, will be summarily executed. The soldiers are offered the chance to return home with an honorable discharge, but all of them stay. However, at a later date, Trip goes AWOL. He receives the usual punishment: a flogging in front of the troops. Shaw later learns that Trip was in fact trying to find some proper shoes, as his rightful ones are being withheld by the racist quartermaster. Shaw is able to get the proper supplies, and gains more favor with his men when he tears up his pay stub in solidarity over a reduction of pay for black soldiers. Shaw also makes Rawlins the first black officer, making him Sergeant-Major.
After their training is complete, the regiment is sent to South Carolina, but are used for menial tasks, rather than combat duty. Shaw works very hard to get the men assigned to combat, and is eventually successful. In their first battle, the regiment defeats the attacking Confederates, though they have a lot of casualties: one of these is Thomas, who is shot but survives (and refuses to be sent home). After returning to camp, Shaw offers Trip the honor of bearing the regiment’s flag, but Trip refuses. Not long after, Shaw learns that there is to be a major assault on Fort Wagner, which is held by Confederate forces. The only path of attack is a small strip of beach with almost no cover: thus, the first regiment to attack is sure to suffer tremendous casualties. Despite this, Shaw volunteers his regiment to lead the charge. During the attack, the men are pinned down by artillery fire, and are forced to wait for night to fall before continuing their attack. Shaw finally decides to attack, and stands up to lead the charge up the dunes. Very quickly, he is shot and killed. This sight galvanizes the men: Trip grabs the regimental flag and rushes forward, only to be shot himself. Major Forbes and the other men are able to make it into the fort, but find that they are drastically outnumbered. The next morning, the beach is shown to be strewn with the bodies of Union soldiers, while the Confederate flag is raise over the fort. In a mass grave, Shaw’s and Trip’s bodies end up next to each other. At the end of the movie, a text narration is shown, stating that the Union never managed to take Fort Wagner. Shaw’s regiment lost nearly half of its men in the battle, but their sacrifice and bravery led to the Union accepting many more black soldiers for combat: President Lincoln credited these men with turning the war to the Union’s favor.
MY TAKE: I love military movies, and I love Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, so it was kind of a given that I would love this movie. It’s pretty unbelievable that the Union didn’t even allow black soldiers, much less let them actually fight, until halfway through the war. As shown, many of these men have a pretty strong incentive to fight, whether it be to get back at slavery or to prove that they are just as good as a white man. Also, it seems rather hypocritical that in a war partially caused by slavery, the Union was discriminating against black soldiers. The whole movie is good, but the best scene/sequence is the final one, where the regiment attacks the fort. I’ve seen the movie several times, but I still get chills every time Trip rushes forward to grab the flag that he had previously turned down. Shaw’s worth as a commander is proven by his men’s reaction to his death. I continue to be disappointed that the Union never managed to take the fort, mostly because so many of the regiment died, seemingly in vain. However, as shown in the end narration, they in fact opened the door for other black combat soldiers, so I suppose that there was a deeper importance to their deaths. Still, I am greatly irritated by the fact that Shaw and Trip both die.