AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Summary View of Movie
Name Occurs Before Title Offscreen Credit Print Viewed By AFI
Director: Edward Zwick (Dir)
Release Date:   14 Dec 1989
Duration (in mins):  122
Print this page
Display Movie Detail

Cast: Matthew Broderick  (Robert Gould Shaw)
  Denzel Washington  (Trip)
  Cary Elwes  (Cabot Forbes)

Summary: Union Army Captain Robert Gould Shaw is wounded in the Battle of Antietam on 17 September 1862. At the medical tent, Shaw learns that President Abraham Lincoln will soon issue an Emancipation Proclamation to end slavery in the South. When he is sent home to Boston, Massachusetts, the twenty-five-year-old Shaw attends a party thrown by his abolitionist parents. There, he meets former slave and famous abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, and Governor John Albion Andrew, who offers Shaw a promotion to colonel and the opportunity to lead the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first to be comprised of African American soldiers. Shaw accepts the promotion and invites his friend, Cabot Forbes, to be his second-in-command. Thomas Searles, an African American childhood friend of Shaw’s, volunteers to join them as well. The 54th Regiment settles at Readville Camp on 27 November, 1862, where white soldiers tease the black volunteers upon arrival. The bookish Searles joins several other black soldiers in a tent, including Trip, a rebellious runaway slave from Tennessee who nicknames Searles “Snowflake,” and John Rawlins, who formerly worked for the Union cause by clearing dead bodies from battlefields. At lunch, Searles approaches Cabot Forbes, but Colonel Shaw interrupts and forbids Forbes from fraternizing with any soldiers. In a letter to his mother, he remarks that the black soldiers learn very quickly, work hard, and seem to be able to relax easily during their free time. When Shaw receives a proclamation from the Confederacy, he reads it to the regiment, informing them that the Confederacy plans to kill any uniformed African American captives and all white officers who command them. The men are offered honorable discharge, but the young colonel is heartened to find the next day that no one has opted to leave. Sergeant Major Mulcahy, a tough Irishman, is brought in to train the men. One day, when Mulcahy kicks the exhausted Searles, Shaw calls him aside, but the sergeant major convinces him that his tough manner is necessary for the soldiers’ growth. The men receive Enfield rifled muskets and Forbes teaches them how to use the weapons. Interrupting the lesson, Shaw takes Forbes’s pistol and shoots into the air repeatedly to simulate battle as a timid soldier, Jupiter Sharts, takes target practice. Later, Forbes accuses Shaw of being too hard on the men, but Shaw defends his strict attitude, insisting he has the soldiers’ best interests at heart. Although the men are sorely in need of new shoes, the quartermaster believes they will never be allowed to fight and explains to Shaw that shoes are reserved for soldiers going into battle. With his feet badly wounded by wearing worn-down shoes, Trip sneaks out of camp in search of new ones but is caught. Shaw orders him to be whipped for desertion but winces at the sight of Trip’s exposed back, heavily scarred by lashings he received as a slave. Nevertheless, Mulcahy flogs him in front of the entire regiment, and Trip sheds a tear while glaring at Shaw. Later, the colonel learns from Rawlins that Trip had gone in search of shoes, and the next day, he returns to the quartermaster’s office and demands footwear for his soldiers. Shoes arrive, along with pay stubs. However, Shaw makes an announcement that the army has decided to pay its African American soldiers only ten dollars per month, while white soldiers receive a monthly stipend of thirteen dollars. Trip protests the unequal pay and convinces others to join him in ripping up their pay stubs. Shaw stands in solidarity with the men, stating that the white officers will take no pay as well. Uniforms arrive, and soon after, the regiment marches through Boston in a parade presided over by Governor Andrew and Frederick Douglass. Finally heading to war, the men travel by boat to South Carolina. They are joined by Pierce, a journalist for Harper’s Weekly, who witnesses Shaw promote Rawlins to Sergeant Major despite Union rules against the advancement of African American soldiers. The men arrive in Beaufort, South Carolina, on 9 June 1863. There, they are assigned to manual labor while white regiments are sent to battle. Shaw begs his superior, General Harker, to allow his men to go to war, but Harker instead sends him on a pillaging mission with Colonel Montgomery, a Kansas native who also leads an African-American regiment. Complimenting the discipline of Shaw’s men, Montgomery proudly proclaims that he used to own slaves and understands how to control them. They arrive in Darien, a town in Georgia populated by a handful of secessionists, where Shaw disagrees with Montgomery’s orders to ransack and burn the buildings, but Montgomery uses his higher rank to force Shaw’s cooperation. Back in Beaufort, Shaw threatens to expose Harker and Montgomery’s corruption, and Harker finally relents and allows the 54th Regiment to fight. On 16 July 1863, Shaw’s men engage in their first battle on James Island in South Carolina. In a forest, they shoot at the approaching Confederate soldiers, then engage in hand-to-hand combat using bayonets. Searles is shot, but saves Trip by spearing his attacker. The regiment successfully holds off the Confederates, who retreat, but not before the 54th suffers forty-two casualties. When the bullet is removed from his shoulder, Searles begs Shaw not to send him home on medical leave, and Shaw agrees. Later, the colonel finds Trip and congratulates him for his fighting. He informs the soldier that Rawlins recommended him for a commendation, but Trip refuses the honor. He tells Shaw he is not fighting the war for him and does not wish to carry the flag, then asks what will happen to the black soldiers after the war is over. Shaw sympathizes, but suggests that things will be better if the Union wins. The 54th Regiment travels to Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina, where Union Navy ships have been attacking a beachside Confederate garrison manned by 1,000 soldiers. General Strong addresses Shaw and several others about plans for a land attack. After Strong acknowledges that the regiment who leads will experience heavy casualties, Shaw volunteers his men. Strong worries that Shaw’s men have not slept in two days, but Shaw promises that his soldiers possess the character needed for such a mission. The night before they go into battle, the 54th Regiment gathers around a campfire to play instruments and sing. Rawlins addresses the group, asking for the Lord’s blessing in their mission, then encourages Trip to speak. Reluctantly, Trip acknowledges that he does not pray and has no family, but considers his fellow soldiers to be family. In the morning, Shaw gives a stack of letters for Pierce to mail and encourages him to remember what he sees that day. On the beach, Shaw looks out at the sea from horseback, then releases his horse as he joins his men on foot. In their initial advance toward the garrison, the men are barraged by cannon fire. They endure numerous casualties before taking cover in sand dunes, waiting for the sun to go down. Hours later, Shaw leads the way as they rush the garrison in the dark of night. The colonel is shot down, and Trip takes the flag he was carrying and continues. Moments later, Trip is shot dead. The heavily depleted regiment continues to advance, with Forbes and Rawlins leading the way. Under fire, the men clamor up the wall of the garrison to find they are greatly outnumbered. The next day, the bodies of fallen Union soldiers cover the beach. Shaw’s dead body is rolled into a mass grave, where Trip’s body lands on top of him. Although Fort Wagner is never taken, word of the 54th Regiment’s heroics encourage Congress to authorize the raising of more black troops. Over 180,000 African Americans ultimately volunteer for the Union cause, and their contribution is cited by President Lincoln as helping to turn the tide of the war in the Union’s favor.  

Distribution Company: Tri-Star Pictures
Production Company: Tri-Star Pictures
Director: Edward Zwick (Dir)
  Pieter Jan Brugge (Unit prod mgr)
  Skip Cosper (1st asst dir)
  Douglas F. Dean, III (2d asst dir)
  Robert Rothbard (2d asst dir)
  Karen E. Collins (Addl 2d asst dir)
  Richard Wayde Wright (Addl 2d asst dir)
  Dan Lerner (2d unit dir)
  Louis D'Esposito (1st asst dir, 2d unit)
  Doug Ornstein (2d asst dir, 2d unit)
  Joe Caracciolo, Jr. (2d asst dir, 2d unit)
  Vebe Borge (2d asst dir, 2d unit)
Producer: Freddie Fields (Prod)
  Pieter Jan Brugge (Co-prod)
  Ray Herbeck, Jr. (Assoc prod)
  Sarah Caplan (Assoc prod)
  P. K. Fields Zimmerman (Assoc prod)
Writer: Kevin Jarre (Scr)

Subject Major: African Americans
  Race relations
  United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865
Subject Minor: Abolitionists
  Abraham Lincoln
  Boston (MA)
  South Carolina
  Wounds and injuries

Display Movie Detail
The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
Advanced Search
Support our efforts to preserve hisotory of film
Help AFI Preserve Film History

© 2017 American Film Institute.
All rights reserved.
Terms of use.