The Bag Means Your Mind

A delightful mix of insightful comments and ignorant assumptions about screenwriting... and such.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Give 'Em Hell 54th!

Awhile back I wrote an article about the standout scene. There are also standout moments. It's a singular event that encapsulates the movie or gives it a new depth of meaning. It can't stand on it's own, but the rest of the movie seems to build up to it. And it's not necessarily the climax. Actually it probably takes place in the 2nd act. It can either strengthen an idea or reframe the ideas in a crucial way. This borders on the obvious, but I think it is important and worth thinking about so here I am.

There are many examples of the moment. Probably any good movie has a moment. The first one that came to my mind when I thought about it was a special moment in the movie Glory. Since I'm too lazy to search for more and because I really like this moment I'll just stick with it. Near the end of the movie Colonel Shaw volunteers his regiment to lead the attack on Fort Wagner. It is clear that the leading regiment will suffer heavy casualties. It's as close to a suicide mission as you can get aside from being air dropped behind enemy lines without a parachute. The night before the attack there is a wonderful scene by a campfire. The moment isn't in it, but I wanted to mention it because of how wonderful I thought it was.

No my friends, the moment comes the next day just hours before the battle. The 54th Regiment of Massachusetts marches down a corridor lined with the soldiers who would follow them (and suffer much fewer casualties). Among the men lining the path was a nameless soldier who had slung racist remarks at them earlier in the movie. He typified what we'd expect from the white soldiers at the time. Even though the north was at war with the south over slavery didn't mean the people in the north were any less racist. The movie makes it quite clear that these black soldiers faced opposition on all sides.

As they march down the corridor, all is quiet. Not a word spoken, a death march. Breaking the silence is the nameless soldier. He shouts "Give 'em hell 54th!". Suddenly every soldier begins shouting and cheering. A smile spreads across the faces of some of the marching black soldiers. In that moment they were all one. In that moment you could see some of the hatred melting away. You could see that the 54th was doing more than fighting a war.

Glory is filled with great moments. Private Trip (Denzel Washingtion) finally deciding to take the flag. Colonel Shaw staring out at the ocean and letting his horse go, accompanied by that masterful James Horner score. Thomas' warcry. They're all great and make me want to watch it again. So why did I pick this particular moment over the others? Because it made the movie's scope grander. It showed hope for the future. It showed that no matter what happened that the hearts and minds of people were already affected. All of that was expressed in a moment, a great, great moment. Without it the rest of the movie could personify a wasted, valiant effort.

These are the images we take with us, the glimpses that pop into our heads when we think about a movie. They are the tip of a mighty iceberg. As you write your screenplays, what are the moments? What are those resonating images that persist after the credits have rolled? If our stories are to achieve any kind of permanence I think we need them.

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