Shaw was an officer in the Federal Army during the American Civil War who volunteered to lead the first company of black soldiers. Shaw was forced to deal with the prejudices of both the enemy (who had orders to kill commanding officers of blacks), and of his own fellow officers. Written by
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Several of the extracts from Colonel Shaw's supposed letters to his mother, as heard in voice-over narration throughout the film, were actually taken from "Army Life in a Black Regiment," an 1870 book by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who commanded the 1st South Carolina Regiment during the Civil War. See more »
The sky changes from clear to overcast multiple times on the beach prior to the charge of Fort Wagner. See more »
Robert Gould Shaw, the son of wealthy Boston abolitionists, was 23 years old when he enlisted to fight in the War Between the States. He wrote home regularly, telling his parents of life in the gathering Army of the Potomac. / These letters are collected in the Houghton Library of Harvard University.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw:
Dear Mother, I hope you are keeping well and not worrying much about me. You mustn't think that any of us are going to be killed. They are collecting such a force here, that an attack ...
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More Than My Words Could Praise, The History Glorifies Itself
I find this one of my most difficult reviews to write. Even as I sit here for what must be the 206th viewing, I marvel, as acutely as I did in the very first viewing, that this tale has the compelling and overwhelming power to touch aesthetically, viscerally, profoundly and emotionally my sense of pride,injustice, soul. Even if this were not a true story, I would still recommend this movie to everyone with awe and reverence. And even as I watch, there is goose-flesh and damp eyes. As there always is...
Based on the letters compiled and only two reference books (including "One Gallant Rush" by Peter Burchard, which I proudly own), this tells the tale of the heretofore largely unknown 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first Afro-American regimen in American history during the Civil War. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was a 26-year old bright eyed Bostonian who was chosen by favor to lead the "first colored regimen" at the apex of the Civil War. Matthew Broderick portrays Col. Shaw as accurately as possible, bringing the youth and zeal of the real Shaw to grand light. He was truly overwhelmed by the thought of leading the troops, but idealistic and optimistic enough to give it everything he had and to make his family and title proud. Broderick never loses sight of the simple fact that Shaw was humble and grateful for every advancement he was given. Although in reality the 54th was compiled of mostly free black men from upper New England, Denzel Washington is cast as the runaway slave Trip who brings his grudges and injustices to the troop. He portrays a slave who is on a personal mission to hurt those who have hurt him (if you know about the history of slavery, one can hardly blame him), but in the process hurts himself all the more until by rote he learns to channel his hate into determination, and by his actions is humiliated and beaten down to the point that he can only rise up like a griffin and prove that he is as much a soldier as the rest of them. The 'whipping scene' in which you see him go through that exact process, every emotion known to a man culminating in a quiver of the cheek, a single tear escaping, and eyes that shred, plea, hate, mourn, haunt. That Denzel could convey that with a role that could have easily been a stereotype deserves more praise that I can type. Morgan Freeman is a man of quiet yet profound dignity that carries him in every role he plays, and this time as Rawlins is no exception. He is a victim of prejudice, but still carries his own as a man. He is there for his men as a leader even before being officially decorated, but he is not above reaching out to Shaw to help his men simply because Shaw is yet another white authority--he helps the cause, no matter the colors. And that cause is so much more than the War, which I will explain further below...
The score by the wunderkind James Horner is Majesty in every literary definition of the word. I know that if I'm ever stressed and need a release, all I have to do is pop in a CD of this score, listen for only a few minutes, and I will be sobbing. In my humble opinion he has yet to top himself with his work in this picture. From the subtle ache of a single horn to the swelling of the Harlem Boys' Choir and their keening voices that beg us to remember forever.
I won't break down the actors, directing or anything individually any more than I have because that's not the intention of this film. It's not a star vehicle, but rather hundreds of people coming together to tell a story they believe in. And as such, deserve to be praised as a whole, which only proves how well they've done their work. But some scenes cannot escape the psyche...The morning after they've been read a proclamation stating that they will be put to death, black and white, if caught bearing Union arms, and there they stand as a unit for roll call, not one man deserting, at attention for duty, prouder and taller than ever...The aforementioned Corporal Punishment scene (which, by the way, was the same punishment white officers would suffer if they deserted as well)...The charge on Fort Wagner--Shaw finally returning to the seashore he so loved all his life for what he knows in his heart is the last time, feeling home again and yet feeling already a walking spectre--Rawlins with a divine inner pride in his eyes marching toward the fort as Thomas looks to the others and Trip with no longer the mad lashing-out force to kill but the aggravated determination to win--the company as a whole marching into Fate with a gallant unified step...
The true meaning of "hero" is in the heart of a man who faces even death if it will prove himself a man, not only to others but to himself. This lies true for every person in that brave pioneering regimen, black and white. They didn't just die for their country or their rights, but for their own personal honors and faiths as human beings who are deserved of dignity. The likes of which this country will never see again, but must not fall into obscurity. At the heart, and in my heart, this is not a story of men, but what it means to be a man. And the sacrifice it sometimes takes to become one and prove yourself one.
We as a Nation, as Earth, should thank the 54th for that beautiful lesson. This pristine film will guarantee it so.
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