As far as Civil War films go, this one is about as good as it gets. Why? For starters, the film addresses something that had gone more or less unnoticed in cinema until 1989 – but mainly because it gets the important stuff right. I have been using this film as a teaching tool since, well…I have been teaching.
The film has come under fire – primarily because it tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, an all black regiment, from the perspective of a white protagonist – the unit’s commander, Robert Gould Shaw, portrayed by Matthew Broderick. I was concerned less with that than its treatment of Shaw, who comes across as more of a crusader than a whiny privileged twit , which is probably more of an accurate assessment (read his letters…you’ll know what I mean). But I will let that one go – I mean, Ferris Bueller did look like Shaw and after all, the other stuff is so much more important.
The “other stuff” to which I refer is the unequal treatment of black soldiers who were fighting for the Union cause – how they suffered the indignities of racist United States policy, received less pay, were assigned mainly manual tasks, how they risked execution if captured by the Confederates, and how despite all of this, they fought and died for the Union cause (to be fair to Shaw…he risked much as well and was killed leading his troops in combat).
In the end, we challenge how the United States could ever limit the rights of individuals (as it clearly did…) of those who put on the federal uniform, took up arms, and risked their lives to preserve the Union. The film never fails to leave my students asking this very question. As such – this motion picture did its job in splendid fashion…and continues to do so twenty-six years after it first premiered.