You’re never going to be fed very well in a prison camp. And when you’ve been captured by an army that can’t even feed its own men … well, you can be pretty sure they’re not going to save the prime rib for you.
New Yorker Joseph Hoover and his Unionist pal, Robert, were captured by the Confederates during the Battle of the Wilderness—one of the bloodiest confrontations in the Civil War. They survived four months in the Andersonville prison camp, where 13,000 men eventually died. Finally transferred to the Florence Stockade in South Carolina, they quickly realize it’s not much better. And even though the Confederacy seems to be wheezing its last by the fall of 1864, Joseph and Robert know the war could go on for months, maybe years yet. There’s no guarantee they’ll survive to the end.
But a new pal, Tom Ryan, has an idea. See, the Florence Stockade isn’t much of a stockade yet. In fact, it looks more like a really crowded campsite—albeit one where you’ll be shot if you’re seen trying to leave. Still, the lack of walls gives Tom a bit of hope. What if the three of them faked dysentery to gain access to the makeshift hospital—positioned tantalizingly close to the woods? Maybe they could make a dash for it.
And so they do. It works out well … for two of them. Robert’s shot in the back. But Tom and Joseph escape into the woods and they’re free. Free!
Or, at least as free as a couple of Yanks can be in South Carolina, surrounded by trigger-happy Confederate soldiers, embittered plantation owners and completely unfamiliar woodlands and waterways. “We are out of the camp,” Joseph tells Tom, “but we are far from free.”
They’re not the only folks who long to escape Southern captivity, of course. Indeed, it seems these Northern white soldiers may yet find help below the Mason-Dixon Line—not in the camps of the Confederacy or the sprawling antebellum mansions built by King Cotton, but in the modest shacks and hovels of African slaves.
Moviegoers are constantly reminded of the evils of slavery and what was, in the end, at stake during the Civil War. Joseph feels that he and his comrades are fighting for a righteous cause, and he insists to Tom that if they ever get back to the North, both should return to the army and continue campaigning for that cause. “The Union cannot stand until all men are free,” he says. “And it cannot hold together unless each one of us does our part.”
He and Tom end up receiving plenty of help as they make their escape—from a slave family willing to shelter them for a couple of days (at great risk to their own well-being), and from a man who points them toward safe(er) transit along the Underground Railroad. A woman risks everything (even her life) to feed the two men.
Perhaps the most heroic of the pair’s helpers is a man named Jim. Still a slave, he warns Joseph and Tom of an impending betrayal and, when things get dicey, he winds up running away with them. He proves to be a brave and thoughtful companion. Tom, who despite fighting for the Union still harbors racist sentiments [as did many Northerners], is wholly won over by Jim’s dedication and sacrifices, coming to the realization that he’s a better man than many of the white men Tom has had occasion to know.
[Spoiler Warning] Indeed, Jim makes an inspiring sacrifice before the three of them find the Union lines again: He decides to stay behind and become a worker on the Underground Railroad himself. “I ain’t terrible religious,” he admits, “but it seems God has chosen this new path for me.”
Two on-their-face negatives are turned into learning opportunities here. The first is that while black slaves are sometimes disparaged by Tom and are, obviously, horribly mistreated by their owners, the film’s larger context strains to reveal how very wrong such domination and racism is. The second relates to Tom being an avid gambler: He says he made some enemies gambling while in Andersonville, and he brags about his talent. But Joseph cautions, “There are no good gamblers.” And in a postscript, we learn that Tom may have died out West while gambling.
During their stay in the Florence Stockade hospital, a nurse comes to comfort a dying man. With Joseph lying nearby, she tells the delirious solder that she’s a “woman of faith,” and walks him through the Sinner’s Prayer so that he might go to heaven should he die that evening. And as the two pray, Joseph silently mouths the words along with them—becoming, it’s suggested, a Christian himself.
God’s influence, love and sovereignty are also acknowledged throughout the rest of the film. When a family takes Tom and Joseph in, Joseph says, “Thanks be to God, and to you”—even though one of the slaves, speaking in an accent reminiscent of the stereotypical slaves from Gone With the Wind, calls them “Yankee demons.” When Tom lies about who he is and where he came from, he’s reprimanded with, “It’s a terrible sin to tell such a lie.”
When a calamity befalls the trio, Joseph suggests that “the Lord works in His own ways.” “How is this the Lord’s way?” Jim asks aloud in his own moment of personal agony. And yet God does seem to use the tragedy as a catalyst to send Jim on his sacrificial path. “We all got a purpose,” Jim says.
Joseph and Tom are invited into the home of a wealthy widow, Mrs. Macintosh, and it would seem that she hopes to interest them in her two daughters (one of whom has a child). Tom suggests that female company is a rare treat, and the women wear gowns that bare their shoulders.
Union Bound takes place, obviously, during the Civil War—the bloodiest conflict the United States has ever known. Scenes from the Battle of the Wilderness include combatants getting shot and falling to the ground. Elsewhere, as noted, Robert is shot in the back, and Jim suffers a bullet wound to the arm. Someone’s thwacked on the back of the head with an ax. Both Tom and Joseph get conked, the blow knocking Joseph out. A man is tied to a tree.
We see a female slave get punched in the face (on camera) and smashed in the head with a gun butt (off camera), a blow that kills her. There are fistfights and someone gets whipped. At the Florence Stockade, we see (among others who are horribly injured) a man whose eyes are covered with a bloody bandage. A patient is delirious after having his leg amputated. A slide at the end of the movie shows us a photo taken during the Civil War; it’s of a trench filled with corpses. We’re told that 800,000 people died during the war, 56,000 of them in prison camps.
One use each of “b–tard,” “bloody” and “d–n.” The n-word is spit out once.
At Mrs. Macintosh’s house, wine and brandy is served. Tom smokes Joseph’s corncob pipe (mentioning that he lost his own in a card game).
When Joseph asks Jim why he’d bother to help them escape, Jim at first says that it just seemed like the “Christian thing to do.” But then he goes deeper with his explanation. “Y’all been captives,” he tells Joseph. “I’ve been in chains before. I know what that is. It ain’t nothing that no man should endure.”
Union Bound is based on the real-life diaries of Joseph Hoover, and it is determined to remind viewers that slavery is indeed a terrible evil. “Those who deny freedom to others,” Abraham Lincoln wrote, “deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.” Subtly, the film suggests that a just God is indeed at work, even in the midst of horror and hardship. It tells us that the better angels of our natures (another phrase from Lincoln) stem from a deep, abiding faith: As Jim said, the “Christian thing to do.”
Of course, we all know that it’s not so simple as that—not now and not then. While Christianity was the cornerstone of the abolitionist movement, a great many people also used the Bible to justify slavery.
But that is the beauty of story, isn’t it? We can tell the stories that should be told, to remind us how we—as Christians, as people—should act and treat others. And Union Bound, in spite of some cinematic missteps, tells us that even in our own imperfections we still have the ability to tell a story—a truth—worth telling.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.