Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989) tells the story of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first major American military units made up of black soldiers, fighting for the North during the Civil War.
The film opens with a brief (but harrowing) impression of a the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). A young man, Captain Robert Gould Shaw, is injured and sent home on medical leave to his family in Boston. Both his parents are fervent abolitionists and after his recovery he’s offered a promotion to the rank of Colonel if he’s willing to recruit an all-black unit and prepare them for combat. Shaw accepts and appoints a personal friend, Lieutenant Forbes (Cary Elwes) as his assistant; the first black volunteer is also a friend: Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), an intellectual young Afro-American he grew up with; other recruits are soon to follow, among them the impulsive Salis Trip (Denzel Washington), an escaped slave, and the emotionally stable John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), a man with some battlefield experience. Initially the unit is only used for a series of ungrateful chores, but eventually they are sent to the front and on Shaw’s special request they lead the heroic charge on the virtually impregnable Fort Wagner, a beachhead fortification in South-Carolina, on on July 18, 1863.
There are often discussion whether films set during the Civil War are westerns or war movies. There seems to be no doubt in the case of Glory: the film looks and feels like a war movie and concentrates an infantry rather than a cavalry unit. But it soon becomes clear that John Ford’s cavalry westerns were a major source of inspiration; director Zwick and screenwriter Kevin Jarre treat the training of the men in Ford’s style, the men becoming one big family while Broderick turns the wayward, often divided group into a disciplined unit. Even the various characters are typified in family style: Washington is the lost son, the obstinate runaway slave, scarred but unbroken, Braugher his direct opposite, the gentle young man with a brain and a strong sense of duty; Freeman is the wise father, the one who speaks reconciliatory words and settles differences. The training ends with the men singing songs around a campfire, as a sign that they have become one.
The first critical reactions to Glory were vehemently positive, it was called an instant classic and was nominated for five Academy Awards (winning three) and gathered a total of 16 awards at home and abroad, among them Golden Globes, Baftas and Grammies. There was special praise for Freddie Francis’s breathtaking cinematography which turns the meticulously staged battlefield scenes into truly memorable, if frightening cinematographic experiences. To many it remains one of the best movies about the Civil War ever made (it still holds a 93% positive rating on Rotten tomatoes), but in the course of the years it has also met with some criticism; there seems to be some agreement that Matthew Broderick was an unhappy choice for the part of Colonel RG Shaw and some also thought the characters were stereotyped and the drama a little formulaic.
The characterizations are indeed a bit stereotyped, but they work quite well thanks to some superb performances.Washington won both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for best Supporting actor, and Freeman measures up with him; it was a very good year for Freeman, who also starred in the Award Winning Driving Miss Daisy. Even the often criticized Broderick does quite well as the young man whose gruesome war experiences have made him strained and introspective. The film was partly based the letters the historic RG Shaw sent home to his mother, and every now and some of his lines are read by means of a comment. Normally I’m not a fan of voice overs or other ‘literary’ devices being smuggled into a movie, but in this special case it helps us understanding the psychology of this young officer: his experiences at the front have scarred him for life at an age when the his mum is still the most important person in his life, the one he like to turn to when he wants to make a confession.
Personally I think this is a great movie, but it’s not without flaws. Zwick is an expert craftsman and storyteller, but his style is also marked by a tendency to blow up dramatic moments; too often he resorts to easy film rhetorics (a black soldier punished for touching a white woman, etc.) and the scenes preceding the actual attack of Fort Wagner (including a scene with a Union soldier, previously presented as a racist, now cheering the marching soldiers) are needlessly schmaltzy, pure Hollywood kitsch. The sequence isn’t really helped by James Horner’s score either. Don’t get me wrong: it’s an excellent score (the main theme is particularly strong), but in this particular scene Horner’s angelic chorals create in this particular scene a feeling of heroism and martyrdom, as if the men are literally marching off to heaven. In reality, they were marching off to hell.
But in retrospect this seems very minor. Zwick is also a director with visual flair and an exceptional feeling for violent action; the battle scenes in Glory are second to none. For the devastating opening sequence – the Battle of Antietam – Zwick used material shot at the 1988 re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg (it was the 125th birthday of the battle), giving the sequence a thrilling, overpowering look; the sequence also offers the movie’s goriest effect of an officer who literally has his head blown off. And if the scenes leading up to the assault of the fort are over-sentimental, the assault itself may well be one of the most impressive and realistic battle scenes you’ll ever see; it’s a perfectly lit sequence, as frightening as it is beautiful.
Some notes on the historical accuracy
Glory was praised by historians for illuminating the role of black soldiers in the Civil war, a little-known chapter in American history. James McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize winner Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, called the movie “the most powerful and historically accurate movie about the Civil War ever made”; in particular he credited the film for its overall attention to detail and the precision of the battle scenes. But Glory is a movie and like most movies on historic events, it takes some liberties with the historic truth, some of them minor, others more serious. Check the links below for a more detailed study of the historic discrepancies. Some questions have been raised about the “honor” granted to the 54th to lead the attack on Fort Wagner; most probably their commander, RG Shaw, didn’t have to ask for it, he was offered this honor, and it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. The assault has often been described as “suicidal”: the fort was never taken and some 1500 men Union soldiers were killed, wounded or captured while the Confederacy lost only about 170 men. No doubt the assault brought glory to the regiment, but the men were used as canon fodder.
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The Assault of Fort Wagner: