Friday, March 30, 2012

The Burning of Darien

In the great Civil War movie, Glory, a young, white colonel named Robert Gould Shaw [Matthew Broderick] is given command of an entirely black regiment of soldiers, made up of freemen and runaway slaves. (This movie based on real history, but, please, history buffs: I know there are gaps and suppositions in the film. I'm talking more theme and message, here.)

He wins their dedication through his own dedication to them, culminating with his refusal to take pay if the government does not pay the black soldiers the fair rate. They become a formidable regiment: excellent soldiers. Finally, they are given a job to do: foraging for supplies in a town called Darien, in the Union occupied South. They march down with another regiment -- a "contraband" regiment of black soldiers who are not well-trained and who are under command of a mad man, who is Shaw's superior, Col. George Montgomery.

When they reach the town, Montgomery begins, after having shot one of his own men for stealing from a white person's house, to drone about how he needs to wipe the town clean, like the hand of God sweeping through. He commands Shaw to have his men (who are standing neatly at attention, faces open and innocent while the "contraband" soldiers pillage and smash windows) to "fire the town."

Shaw objects. He says it is an immoral order and he will not obey. Then Montgomery says that Shaw can explain that at his court-martial, after Shaw's men have been placed under the mad man's command.

Shaw looks at his men. They watch him, carefully lined up and at attention. Shaw bites his bottom lip, looks around with watery eyes. Shaw gives the order. His men light the town afire, but without glee -- quietly; somberly. Subdued, they march away. The camera crane rises and we see the burning town and a line of marching blue -- Shaw's men -- surrounded by capering contraband soldiers in red pants, carrying silver plates and stolen objects.

Hasn't everyone in a position of responsibility over others known what Shaw must have been feeling at that moment? I know that I have. Many times.

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