Glory recounts the true story of a stirring chapter in American history, that of the 54th Masachusetts volunteer infantry, one of America’s earliest black regiments. Formed in 1863 while the Civil War was ablaze, the unit was trained and led by a 25-year-old white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw.
Shaw’s men might have been used for merely symbolic value, but they insisted on combat duty, and performed heroically in a battle that, as the film duly notes, was ultimately quite futile. It is an intriguing American story, and the film, written by Kevin Jarre and directed by Edward Zwick, tells it with even-handedness and dignity.
Glory shifts between telling of the inner turmoil of Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick) and the development of the volunteers, who include a wry old-timer (Morgan Freeman), a friendly, stuttering Southerner (Jihmi Kennedy) and a fiery ex-slave (Denzel Washington).
Shaw ought to be an interesting character, and he left lyrical letters that record his state of mind during the war months (some are read during the film). Yet he is the movie’s weak spot, a nebuloµs character who comes off as rather simple.
As an actor, Broderick looks right – he has the drooping eyes and mustache of a Matthew Brady photograph – but he can’t bring his own complexity to the role, and the movie drifts a bit, lacking a center.
Aside from that, and the embarrassing overstatement of James Horner’s music, Glory goes about the job of telling its story. The most remarkable thing about this is that the film makes the prospect of battle seem honorable, even desirable.
Now, it would probably be impossible for a movie to ever again depict war as unambiguously heroic. We’ve all become too jaundiced for that. And Glory duly notes the horror of war, in its opening sequence of Shaw’s disturbing experience at Antietam and in its portrayal of brutal, insane hand-to-hand fighting. But the fact is that black soldiers had something to prove by getting into the fight; much of white America believed that blacks wouid lack the courage to last in battle. The 54th smashed those beliefs.
Director Zwick’s previous feature was About Last Night … and he is one of the creators and guiding forces behind thirtysomething. Glory is therefore an unanticipated career move, and for the most part an admirable and welcome one, if not quite glorious.
First published in The Herald, January 12, 1990
Safe to say the film is considered something of a classic today, and it won three Oscars – for Washington, sound, and Freddie Francis’s cinematography. How naive of me to believe that nobody would make films that depict war as unambiguously heroic, but this was 30 years ago. Happy Memorial Day, anyway.