War and Society

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Film is a different medium through which to convey historical experiences of war and its social and cultural contexts. As learned throughout class, memoirs and non-fiction portrayals of war are excellent sources in which to learn of war and its effects on society and vice versa. Film, however, is no better or worse than these books. Throughout the semester, the class learned of the development of modern warfare since the Civil War in the late nineteenth century and the society that surrounded these wars. In addition to the readings done, seven films were viewed in relation to each war talked about. Each of these films portrays aspects of war and society as discussed in class. Along with the readings done, these films help bring people closer to understanding what war is like and how it affects people differently. They also show that a person will never truly know what it is like if they have not been there, an immensely important point made in this class. The movie Glory, war and society are portrayed excellently. As learned in class, the Civil War was a war for men to prove their manhood. Men across America joined the war effort because not to do so would show cowardice and threaten a man’s honor the man might hold. Throughout the entirety of the film, this aspect of the war was shown. From beginning to end, as the men went from a group of undisciplined runaway and freed slaves, to a group of hard fighting, heroic soldiers, their search for honor and manhood is portrayed as a physical and psychological journey that says much about the society of the time.

As James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades stated, men who fought in the Civil War did so for multiple reasons. Although some may not have believed in the abolition of slavery, they still fought in the war because it was their honor on the line. This sense of honor came from the old Victorian ways of the world. It was believed that not fighting was to show personal cowardice while bringing dishonor upon your family. As stated before, this concept was shown throughout the film. For the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, honor and justice is what brought these men together under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

The film shows the men volunteering their service to the Union Army a few years into the war. While undergoing training, the Confederate government issues a decree that all black soldiers helping the Union will be returned to slavery, while those dressed in federal uniforms shall be immediately put to death along with their white officers. Colonel Shaw gives the men the option to leave if they want, yet the next morning not one had left. This scene is an excellent example of the concepts discussed in James McPherson’s book as well as the Victorian concepts of war and society discussed in class. Despite the fear that these men must have felt after hearing the decree, their manhood and honor would not allow them to take the easy way out and ignore their duties as soldiers.

During the men’s training, another aspect of society was shown. Even though the Union Army was fighting to free African Americans from slavery and save the Union, many soldiers (of higher and lower rank) were racist. This is depicted by the action of the division quartermaster Kendrick. The viewer is first introduced to Kendrick at the officer’s Christmas dinner, where he clearly shows his lack of respect for the 54th to Colonel Shaw. After that meeting, Kendrick refuses to get the men the simple necessities such as shoes, socks and uniforms. Colonel Shaw eventually got these things for the men, but the point remains that racism was rampant throughout the Army. Once the men completed training, they were assigned menial tasks and manual labor away from the battlefront. This shows racism again, in the organization of the Army. During this time, the film showed how these black soldiers were treated by the white soldiers surrounding them as well. This was depicted by the scene on...
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