Written by: Kevin Jarré
Directed by: Edward Zwick
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, Cary Elwes, Jihmi Kennedy, RonReaco Lee, JD Cullum, Ethan Philips, Jay O. Sanders
Trip: I ain’t fightin’ this war for you, sir.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: I see.
Trip: I mean, what’s the point? Ain’t nobody gonna win. It’s just gonna go on and on.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: Can’t go on forever.
Trip: Yeah, but ain’t nobody gonna win, sir.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: Somebody’s gonna win.
Trip: Who? I mean, you get to go on back to Boston, big house and all that. What about us? What do we get?
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: Well, you won’t get anything if we lose.
Even though I have been a war movie enthusiast since I was a boy, I tend to gravitate more toward films which depict conflicts from the 20th and 21st Centuries, partly because modern warfare tends to have all sorts of high-tech weaponry and seems more relatable to present-day audiences than conflicts from the more distant past.
That having been said, however, I am interested in the American Civil War (1861-1865) for various reasons, even though I am not by any means a “buff” or well-versed in all its battles, leaders or weaponry.
Therefore, I have to admit that when Glory, a Civil War movie made by director Edward Zwick (Courage Under Fire, The Siege) and released by Tri-Star Pictures in 1989, was out in theaters, I didn’t exactly rush to see it.
On the other hand, when a friend of mine had to watch it on VHS a year later in order to do a report on it for one of his college courses, I was happy that he had asked me to see it with him and help him analyze it for his assignment.
Adapted for the screen by the late writer Kevin Jarré (adopted son of the late film composer Maurice Jarré and writer of Rambo: First Blood Part II and The Mummy), Glory is a dramatized account of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, a unit of black soldiers (some of whom were runaway slaves, while others were Northern-born freedmen) recruited and led by the young Col. Robert Gould Shaw, a lifelong abolitionist from Boston.
Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is wounded at the Battle of Antietam in the fall of 1862; the engagement is not the decisive victory the Union needs to defeat the Confederate States of America, but it is enough of a win for the North that President Lincoln feels emboldened to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
While Shaw is on convalescent leave, he returns to visit his family in Boston. Still recovering from his battle wounds, he nevertheless accompanies his father, Francis George Shaw (Peter Michael Goetz) to a social function where he is introduced to ex-slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass (an uncredited Raymond St. Jacques).
Shaw is promoted to the rank of major and offered the command of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, an infantry unit made up of black enlisted men led, as would be the custom in the Army till 1947, by white officers, including Shaw’s friend Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes).
Like many white men – even abolitionists – of the time, Shaw has his doubts about the fighting potential of his black soldiers.
Some, like Shaw’s bookish friend Thomas Searle (Andre Braugher), are Northern-born “freedmen” who have never been on a Southern plantation, while others, like Private Trip (Denzel Washington) are runaway slaves who are somewhat restive and don’t quite relate to Shaw or military discipline.
Sgt. Mulcahy: Company, halt!
Sgt. Mulcahy: For God’s sake, man! Do you not know your right from your left?
Sharts: N-n-no, sah.
Sgt. Mulcahy: How many here do not know right from left?
[Half a dozen hands are raised]
Sgt. Mulcahy: [mutters] Jesus have pity.
[smacks Sharts in the chest]
Sgt. Mulcahy: This is your front!
[slaps his back]
Sgt. Mulcahy: This is your rear!
[stomps on his right foot]
Sgt. Mulcahy: This is your right!
[goes to stomp on his left foot]
Sgt. Mulcahy: And this…!
[Sharts lifts his foot out of the way]
Sgt. Mulcahy: Now you’re learnin’, boy-o!
Now, as in genre movies about the formation of a new unit and its introduction to battle, Glory‘s plot is developed by a series of vignettes in which the 54th’s untried recruits have to be trained, equipped and sent into action, while at the same time Shaw – who eventually gets promoted to full colonel – makes the transition from being a skeptic about the battle-worthiness of his unit to a fully-committed commander eager to show the rest of the Union Army what his men can do.
Along the way, Shaw grows as a man and gains insights into racial equality and the virtues of honor, loyalty and respect for all men regardless of such factors as race, color or creed.
Now, even though Glory treads very much into war movie formula (the viewer can pretty much figure out most of the plot points, particularly the ones involving the training of the 54th and Shaw’s coming-of-age-as-a-leader story arc), it is also very much grounded in the reality of the Civil War and the times in which it was fought.
Screenwriter Jarré, for instance, doesn’t flinch when he examines the blatant racism experienced by the “Negroes” from Northeners as well as Southerners.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: If you men will take no pay, then none of us will.
Indeed, the second-class status of the 54th’s black troops is highlighted in a few important sequences, including Shaw’s confrontation with a corrupt quartermaster (Richard Riehle) and a crucial protest over the pay gap between white and blacks in the Union Army.
Eventually, Glory gets around to depicting the 54th in action down in South Carolina, but not before Shaw has to confront more corruption and prejudice in his own chain of command. But when the men of the regiment finally face off against Confederate troops (who, by the way, have threatened to execute any Negro soldiers or their white commanders as a matter of course), the fighting ability of black troops is proven once and for all.
Even though the screenplay is, as I have mentioned earlier, very much generic, Glory is a very watchable movie about a significant development in the history of the United States Army: the first large-scale effort since the Revolutionary War to train and employ black troops in the field of battle.
Matthew Broderick had, in the 1980s, struck me as a pleasant if rather light-weight actor; his appearances in such movies as WarGames, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Project X were good showcases for his skills as a comedic and young-man-on-his-way-up performer, but weren’t exactly as impressive to me as the roles played by, say, Harrison Ford or Tom Hanks.
Nevertheless. as the young-but-earnest Robert Gould Shaw, Broderick shows in Glory that he had inherited the acting genes of his dad James Broderick, who is best known for playing the father on the 1970s ABC series Family.
Glory also features sterling performances by Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher (his first film role), Jimhi Kennedy and, of course, Denzel Washington, whose portrayal of Private Trip earned him the first of two Oscars, this one being for Best Supporting Actor.
The cinematography by the late British lensman Freddie Francis is quite spectacular, and the score by composer James Horner (Titanic, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) is stirring and very effective, particularly in the final battle sequences and during the end credits.
If you want to understand modern America and why U.S. society is the way it is today, you have to know about the Civil War, its causes, and its aftermath. Even as conservatives try to deny that systemic racism exists in the 21st Century, it is crucial to know the connection between the Civil War and today’s fights about NFL players’ kneeling in protest when the anthem is played and that the Black Lives Matter movement is not a Marxist-led organization but the spiritual heir to the 19th Century abolitionist movement that, ironically, led to the creation of the Republican Party in the late 1850s.
America has never really recovered from the wounds of the Civil War, and although watching Glory will probably not result in a “Kumbaya” moment for everyone who watches it, it might touch some viewers’ hearts and inspire them to help promote positive change in our deeply divided nation.