Glory (United States, 1989)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Glory is, without question, one of the best movies ever made about the American Civil War (a.k.a. "The War Between the States"). The reason isn't just the way in which Kevin Jarre's script illuminates a frequent oversight of history books, nor is it the fine acting or epic feel that director Edward Zwick achieves on a modest budget - although those elements are part of Glory's effectiveness. Rather, it is the way in which the filmmakers weave an impressively large historical tapestry without ever losing sight of the characters that make up the individual threads. Glory has important things to say, yet it does so without becoming pedantic.

For the most part, the official history texts written about the Civil War ignore the participants of African Americans in the war effort. In fact, nearly 200,000 fought for the North, and, at one point, the South issued a declaration that any black man taken prisoner in a Union uniform would be summarily executed. Glory tells the story of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the "trial balloon" for black soldiers. Commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), the regiment was comprised entirely of African Americans - some of whom were ex-slaves - willing to fight for the North. The U.S. government was undecided about how to use black soldiers. At first, the army intended to use them only for manual labor, but, later in the war, some saw combat.

The historical backdrop against which Glory transpires is mostly historically accurate. In fact, a great deal of effort went into getting the details correct. The main events shown in the film happened much as they are depicted, some of the key characters (Shaw, Frederick Douglas, etc.) existed, and the outcome was as Zwick presents it. Many of the secondary characters are either partially or entirely fictionalized, but they are intended to represent a broad cross-section of the types of men who joined the Massachusetts 54th. The danger in this approach is that it becomes easy to trivialize the individuals, turning them into types rather than people. Fortunately, Jarre's screenplay avoids the trap. The characters in Glory never seem less than three-dimensional.

Glory opens with a brief prologue at Antietum, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. During the fight, Shaw suffers a minor injury and is left by the enemy for dead. Later, after returning home on leave, he learns that the United States government is planning to form a regiment comprised exclusively of black soldiers. When offered the command, Shaw accepts, and convinces his best friend, Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), to join him. In addition to focusing on Shaw and Forbes, Glory turns the camera on the small group of men who share a tent: the angry and resentful Private Trip (Denzel Washington); Private Jupiter Sharts (Jhimi Kennedy), a crack shot with a nervous disposition; Corporal Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), an educated man who grew up with Shaw; and Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), a runaway slave who speaks with the voice of wisdom and reason.

The first half of Glory follows the Massachusetts 54th as they undergo training, some of which is brutal. There are times when Shaw seems out of his depth, such as when he has Trip publicly flogged for desertion (the standard punishment for the act, but, once the scars from past whippings on Trip's back are revealed, it is shown to be the result of poor judgment). During the film's second hour, the regiment goes on active duty. At first, they perform a series of menial tasks, such as burning an unprotected town. Eventually, however, Shaw convinces the army to use the Massachusetts 54th in combat, and, after winning a skirmish, they become the vanguard for an attack on the seemingly impregnable Fort Wagner.

Glory could have easily become one-sided, but, instead of presenting just Shaw's perspective, Zwick successfully gives us five distinct points-of-view. We see events not only from Shaw's vantage point (his is the "dominant" voice, since much of the narration is taken directly from the real-life historical documents written by the Colonel), but from those of Trip, Jupiter, Thomas, and Rawlins. In the end, none of these men are shortchanged. The sense of balance presented between the characters is one of Glory's strengths.

Obviously, the issue of racial inequality is at the film's forefront. The Massachusetts 54th began a long and proud tradition in the United States army of black units acquitting themselves admirably on the battlefield, despite rarely being given their due by their fellow white soldiers. What began with the 54th regiment continued throughout the Civil War and through two world wars. The greatest achievement of the 54th was to prove to the army that black soldiers could be relied upon to fight with the same tenacity and patriotism as white soldiers.

One of the myths of the 1800s is that blacks were treated with fairness and equity in the North. Often, this was not the case. While slavery was abolished north of the Mason-Dixon line, racism still flourished. This is one of the points Glory emphasizes. There are plenty of white, Union soldiers who believe Shaw's men to be incapable of doing anything more meaningful than menial tasks. As an entity, the army practiced racism, offering black soldiers wages of $10 per month, although whites were paid $13.

Brotherhood is often a key theme of war stories (witness the title of the recent HBO series, "Band of Brothers"), and, to a certain extent, it is here. Because of the outside forces aligned against them, the members of the 54th are exceptionally close. One of the movie's most memorable scenes occurs the night before the assault on Fort Wagner, as various members of the regiment gather to sing songs, pray, and offer up words of inspiration. Glory also makes a point of showing how isolated Shaw is. As a white man and an officer, he is depicted as being separated from his men by a huge chasm - a divide he gradually closes through some of his actions (obtaining shoes and uniforms for the men, agreeing to forego his own paycheck when they decline theirs, and pushing for them to go into battle) and is finally able to bridge at the end. In the heat of the fight, men are color blind.

Glory is constructed as an inspirational tale, but the inspiration is not forced or false. It is rooted in the characters and the manner in which they overcome obstacles, including, most prominently, their own personal demons. Trip, the angriest and most bitter of them, must learn to fight as a member of a team. Thomas, timid and bookish, must gain mental toughness. And Rawlins has to accept a position of leadership. Glory's climax is a perfect mix of triumph and tragedy - an epitaph to the 54th that brings tears to the eye while uplifting the soul. And it accomplishes both of those aims by eschewing overt manipulation in favor of strong writing and effective character development.

The choice of Matthew Broderick to headline the cast was a daring one. At the time he was offered the part, Broderick was better known as the teen rebel of War Games and Ferris Bueller's Day Off than as a serious actor. (To be fair, he had given a solid, well-grounded performance in Torch Song Trilogy, although almost no one saw it.) Playing Shaw gave Broderick an opportunity to expand his horizon and extend his range. He provided a solid foundation upon which the rest of the film could be constructed.

Few would argue that the real strength of Glory's acting comes from the supporting ranks. Denzel Washington won an Oscar as the troubled Trip. One scene in particular earned him unanimous critical praise - as Trip is being flogged for desertion, the camera moves in for a close-up of Washington's face and holds there, showing an incredible range of emotion: fury, pain, humiliation, and isolation. Those 30 seconds are Glory's most powerful. Yet, as magnetic as Washington is, his accomplishment does diminish the fine work turned in by Morgan Freeman, Jhimi Kennedy, and Andre Braugher.

For Glory's director, Edward Zwick, this represented a leap from the small screen to the big one. Known primarily for his involvement in the TV series "thirtysomething," Zwick came to Glory with only one previous feature film on his resume: the underrated About Last Night... The success of this movie, a good portion of which was credited to Zwick, opened doors for him. He would go on to direct such memorable films as Courage Under Fire and the eerily prescient The Siege (both with Denzel Washington). In those movies, as in Glory, Zwick proved capable of fashioning three-dimensional characters while never losing sight of the larger, compelling backdrop.

For a motion picture made on a relatively modest budget, Glory looks great. From a technical standpoint, the movie is a masterpiece, and the verisimilitude of the battle scenes is not in question. (Zwick used Civil War re-enactors to populate the combat sequences - the same procedure employed by Ronald Maxwell for Gettysburg.) Freddie Francis' cinematography is crisp and clear, as befits an epic. Francis faced, and surmounted, the challenge of having to shoot much of the film in gloom and during cloudbursts. A fair amount of Glory takes place after dark, including the final scene. Finally, James Horner's score is a nearly perfect accompaniment to the visuals. This is one of those occasions when the composer doesn't appear to be repeating himself, or cannibalizing his previous work.

The theatrical cut of Glory received an "R" rating from the MPAA, in part because of its frank depictions of blood and gore on the battlefield. (During an early scene, we see a soldier's head explode.) However, the historical importance of the film made it a natural fit to be shown in school history classes, so the filmmakers assembled a PG version with the extreme violence excised. Glory has become one of the most frequently shown motion pictures in high schools. In large part because of the film, there has been a greater awareness of the importance of African American soldiers in the Civil War. Even if it were not for that development, Glory would still be a memorable motion picture. It has all the elements of a great film, and it remains as stirring and forceful today as it was during its initial release.

Glory (United States, 1989)

Ranked #50 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 1989-12-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Genre: WAR
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1