Release Date: 2/16/1990
Genre: Drama/Historical/Based On Actual Events
Director: Edward Zwick
Studio(s): TriStar Pictures, Freddie Fields Productions, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment
Running Time: 122 mins.
Cast: Denzel Washington (Private Silas Trip), Morgan Freeman (Sergeant Major John Rawlins), Andre Braugher (Corporal Thomas Searles), Cary Elwes (Major Cabot Forbes), Matthew Broderick (Colonel Robert Gould Shaw), Jihmi Kennedy (Private Jupiter Sharts), Cliff De Young (Colonel James Montgomery), Alan North (Governor John Albion Andrew), John Finn (Sergeant Major Mulcahy), RonReaco Lee (Mute Drummer Boy), Donovan Leitch (Captain Charles Fessenden Morse), Bob Gunton (General Charles Garrison Harker), Jay O. Sanders (General George Crockett Strong), Raymond St. Jacques (Frederick Douglass), Richard Riehle (Quartermaster, JD Cullum), Christian Baskous (Edward L. Pierce), Peter Michael Goetz (Francis Shaw).
Details: Film about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the Union Army’s second African-American regiment in the American Civil War. It stars Matthew Broderick as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment’s commanding officer, and Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, and Morgan Freeman as fictional members of the 54th. The screenplay was based on the books Lay This Laurel by Lincoln Kirstein and One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard, as well as the personal letters of Shaw. The film depicts the soldiers of the 54th from the formation of their regiment to their heroic actions at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner.
Story: During the American Civil War, Captain Robert Shaw, injured at Antietam, is sent home to Boston on medical leave. Shaw accepts a promotion to command the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first all-black regiments in the Union Army. He asks his friend, Cabot Forbes, to serve as his second in command, with the rank of major. Their first volunteer is another friend, Thomas Searles, a bookish, free African-American. Other recruits include John Rawlins, Jupiter Sharts, Silas Trip, and a mute teenage drummer boy.
The men learn that, in response to the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confederacy has issued an order that all black soldiers will be returned to slavery. Black soldiers found in a Union uniform will be executed as well as their white officers. The soldiers are offered, but turn down, a chance to take an honorable discharge. They undergo rigorous training from Sergeant-Major Mulcahy, which Shaw realizes is needed to prepare them for the upcoming challenges the regiment will face.
Trip goes AWOL but is later caught. Shaw orders that he be flogged in front of the regiment. He then learns that Trip left to find shoes because his men are being denied such basic supplies. Shaw confronts the base’s racist quartermaster on the soldier’s behalf. He also supports his men in a pay dispute in which the Federal government decrees that black soldiers will only be paid $10, not the $13 per month which white soldiers receive. When the men begin tearing up their pay vouchers in protest of this unequal treatment, Shaw tears up his own voucher in support of his men. In recognition of his regimental leadership, Rawlins is promoted by Shaw to the rank of Sergeant-Major.
Once the 54th completes its training, they are transferred to the command of General Charles Harker. On the way to South Carolina they are ordered to sack and burn Darien, Georgia. Shaw initially refuses to obey an unlawful order, but reluctantly agrees under threat of having his command taken away. He continues to lobby his superiors to allow his regiment to join the fight, as their duties to date have involved mostly manual labor. Shaw finally gets the 54th a combat assignment after he blackmails Harker by threatening to report the illegal activities he has discovered. In their first battle at James Island, South Carolina, the 54th successfully defeats a Confederate attack. During the battle, Searles is wounded but saves Trip. Shaw offers Trip the honor of bearing the regimental flag in battle. He declines, not sure that the war will result in a better life for ex-slaves like himself.
Shaw is informed of a major campaign which involves assaulting Morris Island and capturing Fort Wagner. The only landward approach is a strip of open beach and a charge is certain to result in heavy casualties. Shaw volunteers the 54th to lead the attack. The night before the battle, the black soldiers conduct a religious service. Several make emotional speeches to inspire others. On their way to the battlefield, the 54th is cheered by the same Union troops who had scorned them earlier.
The 54th leads the charge on the fort, suffering serious losses. As night falls, the regiment is pinned down against the walls of the fort. Attempting to encourage his men forward, Shaw is killed by numerous gunshots. Trip, despite his previous assertion that he would not do it, lifts the flag to rally the soldiers to continue, but he too is shot dead. Forbes and Rawlins take charge, and the soldiers break through the fort’s defenses. Seemingly on the brink of victory, Forbes, Rawlins, Searles, Sharts, and the two Color Sergeants are fired upon by Confederate artillery. The morning after the battle, the beach is littered with the bodies of both black and white Union soldiers. The Confederate flag is raised over the fort and the dead Union soldiers are buried in a mass communal grave, with Shaw and Trip’s bodies next to each other. Source: Wikipedia; IMDB; The Ace Black Blog.