Glory (1989)

Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) and the men of the 54th Regiment. "Glory."

Directed by Edward Zwick. Screenplay by Kevin Jarre, based upon the books Lay this Laurel by Lincoln Kirstein and One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard and the letters of Robert Gould Shaw. Produced by Freddie Fields. Music by James Horner. Photographed by Freddie Francis. Edited by Steven Rosenblum. Production designed by Norman Garwood. Starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman, Jihmi Kennedy, Andre Braugher, John Finn, Donovan Leitch, JD Cullum, Bob Gunton, Cliff de Young.

Two recent events led me to selecting Glory as my film for this week’s column. The first is personal. While visiting Boston this past weekend, I was walking through the Commons and came across the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, located on Beacon and Park streets. The memorial tells the story of Col. Shaw, a hero of the Civil War, and pays specific attention to his command of the 54th Regiment, which was made up entirely of black men, an unprecedented notion at the time. These men were courageous and virtuous, and although many of them were lost in a grisly battle at Fort Wagner, North Carolina, their contributions to both the war and to American History were incalculable. I had heard the tale and had seen Glory (which is based on this true story) before, but seeing the monument that day made things more immediate for me. It is not surprising that screenwriter Kevin Jarre was reportedly inspired to pen his screenplay for Glory when he paused at it one day while traversing the Commons. It is a striking piece of work.

The other event that made me consider Glory again is a broader issue that I was reminded of with the release a few weeks ago of the civil rights drama The Help, which was criticized for focusing its story not on the black families who suffer great hardship, but on the privledged white woman who discovers them and exploits them (however magnanimously) for profit. A similar complaint was lodged against Glory at the time (specifically by critic Roger Ebert), who questioned the priorities of a big Hollywood production claiming to be about blacks despite having a Caucasian as its indisputable lead.

The question is an interesting one, and in some cases valid. It is a sobering fact that many Hollywood executives believe audiences won’t see movies about the black experience unless they are centered on whites. The Help is deeply symptomatic of that mentality, which especially grates in a movie that is intended to promote progressivism—it betrays its convictions by not allowing blacks to be the anchors of their own story. I know it is profit that drives these decisions, not racism, and so I do not wish to lay such an accusation on too thick. Nevertheless, I think such criticism about a movie like The Help is depressingly right on the money.

Glory is a different case, however, because it is a historical fiction that takes pains to be accurate. When you want history, you go to the primary source, and here that crucial element (in addition to the books Lay this Laurel by Lincoln Kirstein and One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard) is filled by the actual letters of Col. Shaw, which are frequently quoted verbatim. The letters inform the screenplay and help provide the emotional spine of the story, as they must, for Shaw’s are the only emotions on record (the men under his command left few if any accounts, as most of them could not read or write to begin with). The centering of Glory on a white protagonist is not at all the effect of Hollywood politics, and is instead a practical effort to get the most accurate portrayal onscreen.

That said, Glory certainly gooses its narrative to provide a more layered story, which is its right as a piece of drama first, and history second. The biggest addition to the movie’s history is the development of its distinct black characters: the educated and bookish Thomas (Andre Braugher), the passionate gravedigger Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), and, in the film’s signature performance, Trip (Denzel Washington), an escaped slave who is proud, loud and angry, not just towards his former masters but towards the army—in some ways he sees fighting this war as trading one type of slavery for another. There is little in the historical accounts that suggests the 54th was made up of such a broad variety of men, but it gives the story more interest, making the film a clash of personal ideals against a backdrop of fighting the Confederacy (who spend much of the time offscreen).

Much of Glory is, inevitably, about racism, but of a greater complexity than many Civil War dramas, as it focuses almost exclusively on the prejudices from within the same Union that was ostensibly fighting for equality. While it is well-known that many social and economic factors independent of race propelled the United States into Civil War, the public face of the conflict becomes very much about giving black men their freedom, and the distinction between that sentiment and the Union’s private attitudes is well-drawn. When Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), the son of Boston abolitionists, survives the horrific battle of Antiedam and is given command of the newly-formed 54th, it is treated by his superiors as less a significant assignment and more a publicity stunt, with not a little cruel humor attached.

It is Shaw who whips the 54th regiment into shape by training them harder than expected, and just as hard as they need. When a timid former slave named Jupiter (Jihmi Kennedy) shows his skill with a rifle, it is not good enough for Shaw, who fires his pistol into the air and demands he learn how to reload faster. The men are presented with a forceful drill instructor (John Finn) who uses violence and fear to make his points, but they are invaluable, correct points just the same. When Trip, the troublemaker, tries to desert, he is shockingly flogged in order to maintain discipline (the camera notes his back already coated in scars from receiving similar punishment as a slave). Even Shaw’s friend Major Forbes (Cary Elwes) is appalled at these harsh method, but Shaw’s commitment is firm: these men will be real soldiers, nothing less.

Not many in the army are as enlightened. An interlude when the men join with the command of Col. James Montgomery (Cliff de Young) brings Shaw into sharp relief, as Montgomery is a sadist who calls his own black regiment “childish monkeys,” who are best utilized burning towns and looting the spoils of war. Shaw, by contrast, is humble, forceful, and dares to think of these men as actual men. Many of the white Union officers, on the other hand, are disgusting racists without even once realizing that they are. This is useful not just for drama but as a way to depict that this issue was (and is) more complicated than the black-and-white text of history books.

But there is another element, too, that singles Shaw out from his peers: compassion. He is loyal and protective of his men, angrily accusing his superiors of finking out on supplies as the 54th regiment trains barefoot, without uniforms, and unarmed while white battalions are well-stocked. The Union also reneges on its promise to give equal pay to black and white soldiers, and Shaw earns respect when he tears up his own paycheck to share his soldiers’ protest. Later, the regiment is put to work doing backbreaking and pointless hard labor, and Shaw cleverly bides his time before finding the proper moment to jockey for a place on the battlefield. The men eventually do prove themselves in close-quarters combat that calls upon everything they learned in training, and then some, as Civil War strategies frequently involved throwing soldiers into pitiless gunfire, with bayonets being an even nastier option.

The film climaxes in a hectic battle (beautifully photographed by DP Freddie Francis) at Fort Wagner, North Carolina that is hellish and chilling, yet still possesses a hope underlined by the film’s final statement of symbolic victory. Although the 54th regiment did not end up gaining much ground, they were inspirations to black men all over the union, who joined up and very well may have helped turn the tide of the war. The irony of blacks being so late allowed to enter a conflict that would determine their fates is not lost on the screenplay, which proudly gives these men a voice in their own drama, even when that voice is questioning. “What will change if we win?” Trip asks Shaw, for once channeling his anger into damaged hope: “You’ll go back to your nice house. What do we get?”

Glory is an actor’s movie, as much of the story takes place behind the front lines—it is up to the characters to carry the drama, not the action. They are more than up to the task—not just Denzel Washington, who won a best-supporting actor Oscar for his work here, but also Freeman as the reserved gravedigger who has respect for his white countrymen and is proud to fight with them (and gets a terrific moment when he shames the loudmouth Trip into his place). Broderick, who was still shaking off his callow Ferris Bueller days when this film was made, is electric, and perfectly adapt at carrying the heavy load of the film’s dramaturgy: he must be at turns introspective, flamboyant, furious, brave, and intelligent, and he is. The fact that he looks so much like Shaw only makes the illusion all the more potent.

The film’s production values are uniformly strong, but attention must be paid to James Horner’s score, one of his finest. It overreaches once or twice (an early sequence’s thematic swell oversells the moment), but is most of the time effective and stirring, drawing inspiration from powerful, wordless hymns. This is appropriate, as Glory is a drama about triumphs – not of strategy, but of the spirit.

Glory’s director, Edward Zwick, is frequently drawn to conflicts that point out sociological boundaries and injustices. His work includes not just 2010’s cancer-and-Viagra comedy Love and Other Drugs, but also the overstuffed African adventure-drama Blood Diamond and the suspense thriller The Siege, which crassly presaged anti-Muslim 9/11 hysteria in ways that are only embarrassing to view now. Zwick is not a particularly challenging or formidable director, but even lightweight talents are at home in the perfect projects, and he found one in Glory, which was the right match of material and talent.

One terrific scene stands out, which takes place on the eve of Battle. While white soliders sleep and contemplate in their tents, a spiritual takes place outside, as the blacks celebrate their freedom, their friendship, and their chance to prove themselves the next day. For both Thomas and Trip, to take part in this ritual and appreciate its community is foreign to them, yet they ease themselves into it. In one moment, Trip is asked to testify, and the camera unblinkingly captures his hope and fear, pride and shame, his love for his newfound family. “Doesn’t matter much what happens tomorrow, does it?” he says. “Because we’re men, ain’t we?” On the nose? Perhaps. But such a thought would never occur to many of the white officers, even though that is very much what the Civil War was all about.

GRADE: A-

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