Into the mouth of Hell they charge. Glory the only gain.
We ran away slaves, we came back fighting men!Glory
— Sergeant Major Rawlins
is a 1989 drama war film, directed by Edward Zwick. It was based on the true story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army as told from the point of view of its commanding officer, Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick
) during The American Civil War
. The 54th was one of the first formal units of the U.S. Army to be made up entirely of African-American men (apart from the officers).
This film provides examples of:
- Academy Award: Denzel Washington won Best Supporting Actor for this performance, his second nomination and his first win. He'd get another as Best Actor for Training Day.
- Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: Inverted, actually. There's only three battles featured, though the training scenes keep the movie from getting too quiet.
- Action Prologue: The film opens with Shaw's participation in the Battle of Antietam. And boy, is it frenzied.
- A Father to His Men: Col. Shaw, who was probably the first white man to treat much of the 54th as equals in their entire lives.
- All Are Equal in Death: In the end all the men of the 54th that were killed in the assault on the fortification are shown being dumped in a mass grave by the Confederates, white officers and black enlisted alike.
- Badass Army: The 54th Regiment turns into this eventually, and are quite a deadly force to be reckoned with when they first engage in Confederate forces. They even earn respect from other Union troops who earlier mocked them prior to the assault on Fort Wagner.
- Bad Boss: Montgomery kills one of his soldiers after harassing a white lady. Note that he cared little over the same soldier doing the same to a black woman. Yet he also blames the white woman for "starting it".
- Barefoot Poverty: The case for many of the black enlistees, and the Jerkass quartermaster thinks it's funny to claim that his armory has no shoes to spare when he's clearly skimming to stock his own larder.
- Bittersweet Ending/Downer Ending: For the latter, the 54th loses the battle at the end with grievous losses, including most of the main characters. But in the former, their valor on that day would vindicate the worth of Black soldiers with the Northern public and inspired the mass recruitment of thousands more, which helped make Union victory and the resulting destruction of slavery possible.
- Black and Nerdy: Thomas Searles, played by Andre Braugher. Although Black, he is actually quite educated, offering several other soldiers tutorship in reading using his volumes of Emerson. See also Stereotype Flip.
- Bolivian Army Ending: Foregone Conclusion.
- The Captain: Robert Gould Shaw is a Captain in the Union Army at the beginning of the movie and is promoted to the rank of Colonel upon taking charge of the 54th.
- The Chains of Commanding: Shaw, Cabot and Thomas, who all were friends prior to the formation of the regiment, and its command structure results in them having to deal with this from time to time.
- Character Development: Silas Trip gets the most out of everyone in the film, even getting a BookEnd showing that he's come a long way.
- Chekhov's Skill: While the regiment is in training, Drill Sergeant Nasty Mulcahy berates Thomas and demonstrates his weak bayonet technique to his fellow soldiers by seizing his rifle as he tries to stab him with the bayonet and hitting him with the rifle butt. Later, during the battle on James Island, Thomas demonstrates his increased proficiency by using his bayonet to save Trip's life. At the end, during the charge on Fort Wagner, Thomas uses Mulcahy's technique against a Confederate soldier attempting to bayonet him.
- Cherubic Choir: Utilized throughout the musical score. An in-universe Cherubic Choir also greets the 54th in South Carolina, singing "My Country 'Tis Of Thee".
- Colonel Badass: Matthew Broderick plays a Real Life Colonel Badass; in this case Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the son of Boston abolitionists, who commanded one of the Union Army's first black regiments in the Civil War.
- Corrupt Quartermaster: The Jerkass quartermaster refuses to give black men shoes. Eventually Shaw loses his temper with him and forces him to hand any over or else. He gets a whole mountain of them.
- Creator Cameo: The man at the end who yells "Give 'em Hell, 54th!" is the screenwriter Kevin Jarre.
- Curb-Stomp Battle:
- The 54th Regiment deals some in the early battles they're put in. They're on the receiving end of one however, during the battle of Fort Wagner.
- Death by Adaptation: The flag carrier whom Trip was loosely based on, Sergeant William H. Carney, did take up the flag and never let it touch the ground during the entire battle. However, Carney did survive despite getting wounded a few times.
- Death Glare: Trip fixes Shaw with one as he's whipped for desertion, not blinking or flinching even as a single tear escapes.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: The attitudes of the white soldiers towards the blacks. Even the most tolerant ones express attitudes that today would be considered racist.
- Doomed by Canon: Anyone who's read about the battle of Fort Wagner will know how it ended for the 54th Regiment.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty: Sergeant-Major Mulcahy. He's harsh on the soldiers not because he's a racist, but because he doesn't want them to die because of poor training.
- Dying Moment of Awesome: Trip grabs the flag, despite having refused being the carrier earlier in the film. Even though he makes it only five feet or so, it's the most glorious five feet of his life.
- Evil Counterpart: Colonel Montgomery's "contraband regiment" is basically a mob used by him and his superior officer to rob Southern civilians.
- Exact Words: A rare example in the epilogue. It is stated that Fort Wagner was 'never taken' and that is technically true. After the failure to capture it directly, the Union forces stood back and kept it under siege (cutting off its supply lines from Charleston) until the Confederates abandoned it on their own.
- General Ripper: A pretty chilling example.
Shaw: That man is a civilian.
Montgomery: That man is a Secessionist.
- After he kills his "monkey children" soldier, he claims "That would not have been necessary if that Secessionist woman hadn't started it."
- Gory Discretion Shot: Colonel Shaw looks on as a Union soldier's wounded leg is hacked off while said soldier is still conscious. The actual hacking is covered by a sheet but we see blood splatter on the sheet as the soldier screams in agony. One could also say Trip's whipping is also an example, though there were several shots of Trip's Death Glare at Shaw while he was being whipped.
- Groin Attack: Rawlins kicks a Confederate in the nuts before smashing his jaw with the butt of his rifle.
- The Hero Dies: As dictated by history, Shaw is killed. Along with him is every other important character.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: In reality, Shaw was initially very reluctant to lead a regiment of Black men, although he soon came to respect them as fine soldiers.
- On the other hand, the pay boycott was not the Black soldiers' idea, but Shaw's.
- Historical In-Joke: It was General George Crockett Strong who asked the regiment "If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on", and it was Shaw himself who volunteered "I will."
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Colonel James Montgomery is depicted as a marauding racist, making use of freed slaves to pillage and burn towns. While he did pillage and burn, Montgomery was a staunch abolitionist whose methods actually came from his days as an anti-slavery partisan during Bleeding Kansas.
- Hope Spot: One occurs during the battle to take Fort Wagner after Colonel Shaw is killed. The surviving soldiers attempt to rally themselves, and perform fairly admirably, taking a portion of the wall...only to then meet even more stiff resistance once they went into the fort.
- If I Do Not Return: Right before the advance on Ft. Wagner, Shaw hands some letters to a reporter, and tells him "If I should fall, remember what you see here."
- Infant Immortality: Averted in the aftermath of Antietam, with a cut to the body of a dead drummer boy. However, played straight right before the advance on Fort Wagner. Forbes dismisses the drummer boys - the youngest members of the regiment - to spare them from the ensuing slaughter. Like most things shown in the film, this really happened.
- Insult Backfire: Getting dumped in a mass grave with his black soldiers instead of a proper burial usually given to dead enemy officers was meant to disgrace Shaw. He probably wouldn't have had it any other way. His parents and wife felt it was no insult either.
- Irony: The film opens with a voice-over by Shaw writing a letter to his mother with martial music playing and the Army of the Potomac enjoying their day before preparing for battle. The letter ends with "You mustn't think that any of us are going to be killed. They are collecting such a force here that an attack would be insane." A short while later, the title card appears, "Antietam Creek, Maryland". Shaw just marched into the bloodiest single day in American history.
- Jerkass Has a Point: Mulcahy may have insulted and treated the black recruits without mercy, but he is training them for the harsh battles ahead.
- Karma Houdini: Montgomery, the guy who forced Shaw to loot and burn Darien, never gets formally punished for it.
- Kill 'em All: Half the regiment dies or wounded/captured at the end. Or, at least, everyone you cared aboutnote . This also counts as a Foregone Conclusion.
- Last Chance to Quit: The 54th is offered the chance to leave when they hear that the Confederate Army will kill them if they're captured. None of them leave.
- Loophole Abuse: Colonel Shaw states that while blacks aren't allowed to be commissioned as officers, there's no rule stating they can't become NCO's, or Non-commissioned officers. They then promote John Rawlins to Sergeant-Major.
- Majorly Awesome: Forbes.
- Mildly Military: At first much of the regiment, specifically Thomas and Major Forbes, act extremely informal. Shaw does away with this.
- Obligatory War Crime Scene: The looting and burning of the town of Darien, Georgia. Shaw is forced to make a choice between burning the town or refusing to execute the illegal order (which would result in Shaw's being court martial-ed and his soldiers being placed directly under Colonel Montgomery's command). Having previously witnessed Montgomery's lack of restraint and apathy towards the welfare of the men in his "contraband regiment", Shaw chooses the former option.
- Officer and a Gentleman: Shaw
- Ominous Latin Chanting: Occurs while Charging Fort Wagner. It's suspiciously similar to Carl Orff's O Fortuna... which was used in the film's trailer.
- Politically Correct History: In reality, the pay boycott protest was Col. Shaw's idea.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Colonel Shaw. Although he had Trip flogged due to his alleged desertion, once he learns that the latter was only trying to find some boots that fit, and he sees the horrible condition his feet were in, Shaw immediately heads out to resolve the issue. He also refuses to accept his pay when he finds out his soldiers are only going to be paid half as much as white soldiers would.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Rawlins lays a whopper on Trip, after Trip calls him a "nigger" and "the white man's dog"
- Sergeant Rock: John Rawlins.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Colonel Shaw uses his to ensure that he gets the supplies needed for his men such as boots, and later so that they can be used in combat instead of manual labor and raids.
- The "boots" example may also count as Screw the Rules, I Make Them!, given Shaw's rank relative to the quartermaster. But then, the quartermaster had been screwing the rules himself for some time, without any such cover, just because he thought it was funny.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Shaw, despite his age, had to endure the bloodbath that was Antietam. The battle leaves him constantly jumpy and seeing his men play-act and shoot their rifles causes him flashbacks of men dying around him.
- Shown Their Work: Very historically accurate, minus a few small points (most of which fall under artistic license). For instance, the shoes are made as neither right nor left, since it's expected that they'll conform to which ever foot you'd wear them on.
- Single Tear: Trip during his whipping.
- Stereotype Flip: Several characters defy the stereotypes of the day. Thomas Searles, a Black man from Boston, might be the most formally educated man in the regiment. You have the white officers, notably Shaw, who are almost totally free of racial bias (not all of them are like this). Even the old black sergeant Major, played by Morgan Freeman, surprises a white Union officer when he demonstrates that he actually can, in fact, sign his own name (at that point in history, most Blacks didn't even know the alphabet, as the movie shows).
- Storming The Fort: The battle of Fort Wagner at the end of the film. It doesn't go well for the Union troops...
- Title Drop:
: How many of them are left? (camera pans and reveals that not a single soldier took the Last Chance to Quit.)
Shaw: (amazed) Glory Hallelujah...
- Together in Death: Col. Shaw is buried in a mass grave next to Trip and the rest of the 54th. The Confederate soldiers putting him there intended it as an insult, but according to Shaw's father he would've considered it an honor, also making this count as an Insult Backfire.
- Took A Level In Jerk Ass: How Colonel Shaw seems to treat Thomas, one of his friends from before the war. Major Forbes even calls him out on this at times.
- Training from Hell: The 54th Regiment is subjected to this from Sergeant-Major Mulcahy. While he is brutal, Colonel Shaw realizes that Mulcahy's intention is to turn them into soldiers, and it eventually pays off when they finally get to see combat.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film depicts the bulk of the 54th Regiment as being mostly comprised of runaway slaves, a number of whom were uneducated/illiterate. In reality, most of the Regiment's enlisted were actually educated/experienced freedmen like Thomas. The film also sets the raising and training of the unit in 1862, when it was actually in 1863.
- War Is Glorious: Played straight, as the title suggests, but not portrayed as incompatible with War Is Hell.
- War Is Hell: Played straight and subverted at the same time.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Forbes calls out Shaw many times for his harsh treatment of his soldiers, some of whom are even former friends. Shaw in turn accuses him of insubordination and chickening out.
- White Male Lead: Colonel Shaw, the white male leader of a unit of African-American soldiers, is the movie's viewpoint character. Justified by the fact that he was the highest ranked officer and the commander, and his surviving personal correspondence was referenced heavily in the film. In fact, this trope was noted by the director, who said he did not want to turn Glory "into a Black story with a more commercially convenient white hero." His justification for it was that this film was about both Shaw and the 54th, and that the two were inseparable to the story. Like Maj. Winters in Band of Brothers, though he's in charge, he isn't necessarily the main character.
- Your Head Asplode: The officer in front of Shaw in the Battle of Antietam, after he takes a direct hit from artillery.
- Your Other Left: The soldiers, many if not most of whom had no formal education, had even more trouble than the average volunteer with drills for this reason. Mulcahy chews one of them out with a stock "Don't you know your right from your left!" and then appears genuinely taken aback when the answer is an honest no. He asks how many others also can't and about a third of the hands go up.note
- Also, the climatic battle happens exactly the reverse of how it really happened. In the actual assault, the 54th had the ocean on their right hand side, not on the left as in the movie. (This is noted in the commentary, the best location they found was the "wrong way round").
- Zerg Rush: The 54th do a rare heroic version of this to try and take Fort Wagner and very nearly succeed - but you get to see the horrific results of such a rush straight into heavily fortified defenses. More than half the regiment, including Col. Shaw, are killed, wounded, or captured.