Our rating: 3 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Civil War is raging in the South and the battlefield is bloody and littered with the bodies of honorable men. One of the survivors is Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broaderick), a young man with a talent for keeping journals and the courage to keep on fighting. His mettle has been noticed by the governor, a close friend of his father, and he is presented with a unique opportunity: to be in charge of the first all-black battalion. President Lincoln has given the order that Negros may enlist if they so choose... and a lot of them do so choose, among them his friend Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher). An educated man, he stands out among the rest of the 54th Regiment, who are made up primarily of illiterate ex-slaves.
Troublemakers such as Trip (Denzel Washington) are kept in line by John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), who understands the inner workings of the military. But training them for war with the understanding that they will not be doing much fighting is more than Shaw can take. His determination to remain impassive and distant even to Thomas frustrates Major Forbes (Carey Elwes), and sets him at odds against Trip... but as the military increasingly disappoints all of them by withholding supplies, docking wages, and asking them to do manual labor instead of fight, Shaw and Trip unite forces to prove the 54th is worthy of any war the South cares to wage.
For many years, this was considered "the" war movie. It's not hard to see why. It is a moving epic that follows small lives to a glorious but tragic conclusion. It engages our emotions and makes us proud of the men that serve in the 54th Regiment. It is less about battle scenes and more about individuals... lives that come together, struggles that are overcome, and prejudices that must be beaten back by white and black men alike. It is full of wonderful moments, such as when the 54th is marching to battle, to a fight that it is likely they will lose, and pass by a regiment that earlier nearly came to blows with them. The man who slighted them before honors them this time. You may or may not know the outcome going in. I'm not an expert on this period in history so I didn't. But either way, watch it with a box of tissues. You'll need it.
Apart from one shot early on, this film is a very light R-rating. Within the first ten minutes, we see a man's head blown apart on the battlefield. Hundreds of others fall beneath gunfire throughout, some of them characters we have grown to love. A tough sergeant trains the men into exhaustion; he also gives one of them quite a beating with the butt of a rifle to prove a point. Bombs go off, leaving men and horses dead. One man is given twenty lashes on his back for leaving camp without authorization. We see the whip hit once or twice, then merely hear the lashes as the camera focuses on his face. We see others tending to his bloody wounds later. Bad shoes leave one man in particular with raw feet. There are two abuses of Jesus' name and one f-word, along with profanities, insults, and use of the word "n****r."
Some believe that Matthew Broaderick was wrong for the leading role. I disagree. I have seen him in many things and never been as impressed with him before as I was in this film. He looks the part. He sounds the part. And he is a far cry from the naive young boy that he has so often depicted elsewhere. He and Denzel have an incredible chemistry; they can express so much in a lingering look that no words are needed. The latter won an Oscar for this film. It's easy to see why. He is amazing as Trip. But then, everyone is wonderful. It's an ensemble piece and a chance to see some of the finest actors in the business at the start of their careers.
Much as the Civil War burdens my heart -- and I could not help weeping as I watched this film, thinking about how on either side, people were praying for mercy and victory and survival -- I am glad to have seen this film. It's hard to watch, and the conclusion is devastating... but it reminds me of a time when the hearts of men were full of courage and pride in their country. It reminds me of the many precious lives lost to maintain the freedom that we so enjoy. And it makes me determined never to forget their sacrifices.