Glory: From Slaves to Soldiers

THEIR INNOCENCE. THEIR HERITAGE. THEIR LIVES. NOTHING WOULD BE SPARED IN THE FIGHT FOR THEIR FREEDOM.

 

gloryOne of the best films of 1989 has also become one of the best-loved movies ever made about the American Civil War. As in the case of Gettysburg (1993), the filmmakers tried to stay close to the real events and details of the era (although some changes were made), and the shooting also became an opportunity for enthusiastic Civil War re-enactors to have their hobby provide the backbone for a key sequence in a major Hollywood picture. The opening Battle of Antietam is portrayed with convincing force and bloodshed by actors, crew and amateurs alike, coming frighteningly closer to the real deal than any ordinary re-enactment could.

The year is 1862 and Captain Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is on leave in his hometown of Boston when he is offered to command the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an all-black regiment. Shaw agrees to do it after asking his close friend Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes) to be his second-in-command. The first volunteer becomes Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), an educated, free black man who’s been a friend of Shaw’s for years. Thomas is followed by hundreds of other black men who, inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, are willing to fight for the freedom of their Southern brothers and sisters. However, none of them have any military experience and some have barely ever held a gun in their hands. After enlisting the help of a hard-as-nails Irish sergeant, Shaw and Forbes are slowly beginning to see signs of improvement in their men… and the soldiers’ confidence in Shaw increases when he stubbornly fights to make sure that they are paid and clothed equally as the white troops. The 54th Massachusetts are turning into a supreme fighting force, but the Union military leadership still don’t believe they are good enough to face the Confederates.

A story worth telling
Prior to this film, the history of the nation’s first all-black regiment wasn’t widely known. In that context, Edward Zwick and screenwriter Kevin Jarre have truly made a historic contribution that inspired audiences to learn more about the 54th Massachusetts and their glorious accomplishments. Film critic Roger Ebert complained about the fact that the filmmakers told the story from the perspective of a white man, but I think his liberal conscience is getting the better of him. First of all, much of the script is based on letters written by Shaw that give a unique insight into the history of the regiment, and secondly Shaw’s story is definitely also worth telling. He is interestingly portrayed by Broderick as a man who consistently challenges himself in spite of his own fears and less than awe-inspiring demeanor. The African-American supporting cast has several eye-opening performances from actors who would go on to have immensely successful careers. Denzel Washington was lauded as Trip, a runaway former slave who passionately hates the white man but is taught how to put those violent emotions to good use; Morgan Freeman is solid as the older, wiser grave digger; and Braugher is excellent as the well-versed young man who naively joins the Army without pondering the consequences. They all play characters that are composites of real people, but do it so well that one believes they must have existed in real life.

Some viewers might disapprove of the film’s most conventional and sentimental moments, but in the end this is a stirring and moving film with outstanding production values. Everyone involved behind the camera reaches the peak of their efforts in the climactic Fort Wagner sequence, an emotional tour-de-force that looks like it was inspired by some centuries-old war painting where the artist had “glory” on his mind.

Glory 1989-U.S. 122 min. Color. Produced by Freddie Fields. Directed by Edward Zwick. Screenplay: Kevin Jarre. Books: Lincoln Kirstein (“Lay This Laurel”), Peter Burchard (“One Gallant Rush”). Cinematography: Freddie Francis. Music: James Horner. Editing: Steven Rosenblum. Cast: Matthew Broderick (Robert Gould Shaw), Denzel Washington (Trip), Cary Elwes (Cabot Forbes), Morgan Freeman, Jihmi Kennedy, Andre Braugher. Cameo: Jane Alexander.

Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Washington), Cinematography, Sound. Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actor (Washington).

Quote: “What are you? So full of hate you want to go out and fight everybody! Because you’ve been whipped and chased by hounds. Well, that might not be living, but it sure as hell ain’t dying. And dying’s been what these white boys have been doing for going on three years now! Dying by the thousands! Dying for you, fool! I know, ‘cause I dug the graves. And all this time I keep askin’ myself, when, O Lord, when it’s gonna be our time? Gonna come a time when we all gonna hafta ante up. Ante up and kick in like men. Like men! You watch who you call a nigger! If there’s any niggers around here, it’s you. Just a smart-mouthed, stupid-ass, swamp-runnin’ nigger! And if you not careful, that’s all you ever gonna be!” (Freeman letting Washington have it)

Last word: “[Freeman and Washington and the other African-American actors] were very generous to me. I was a young, white, liberal director presuming to make a movie about the African-American experience. They were exceedingly generous. They understood my intentions and they gave me everything. They helped me with any number of aspects of things that they knew better than I, and yet were open to my ideas as well. I’m forever in their debt and remain close to all of them.” (Zwick, Historynet.com)

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