WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: During the American Civil War, the hard-pressed Unionists bring into being their first ‘coloured’ regiment, the 54th, under the stewardship of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw’s brand of leadership causes upsets with old friends and recruits of all ages and dispositions; but when the time for fighting comes, his men are ready to prove themselves the equals of soldiers from either side.
Not being particularly gifted in matters of history, and non-British history in particular, the events of the American Civil War tend to slip out of my mind as soon as I stop reading or watching about them; accordingly, though I enjoyed Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil not too long ago, I would only be able to guess which side Tobey Maguire’s ‘runty nubbin’ character fought for, and where, and why. So on the face of it this tale of Colonel Shaw, a real-life 23-year-old fighter for the Army of the Potomac, and the men he commanded, was only of passing interest to me. Fortunately, Edward Zwick has taken his source material (letters from Shaw to his parents, amongst other accounts) and created a fine, watchable film.
The film opens with Shaw (Matthew Broderick) seeing action at Antietam, where he quickly comes face-to-face with the grisly realities of war in a notorious defeat for the Unionists. The battlefield leaves him shell-shocked, so when his parents – committed Boston abolitionists – arrange for him to be the colonel of a negro regiment, he is almost too stunned to respond. He eventually accepts, bringing along his friend Forbes (Cary Elwes) as Major with another family friend, literate and educated black man Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) being one of the regiment’s first recruits.
Also volunteering are wise old goat (with a goat!) Morgan Freeman, who shares a tent with Searles, stammering sharp-shooter Jupiter (Jihmi Kennedy) and Denzel Washington’s Trip, a dude with an attitude and more pride than sense. Trip succeeds in winding Searles and the others up with his defiant blackness, earning him a flogging when accused of desertion that adds to the stripes earned as a slave; with hard words and an even harder Sergeant Major, and much to the disgust of Forbes’ liberal mind, Shaw brings his men up to be a disciplined fighting force.
Yet all is not well: not only does the regiment not get equal pay with white soldiers, and not only are they denied the shoes and provisions available to other divisions, causing Shaw to rebel on both occasions; there is a rumour circulating that the regiment exists solely for propaganda, and the soldiers will never do anything other than manual work. Shaw has to face up to his superiors to prove that his men are more than capable in combat, a trust that ultimately proves their making and their downfall.
In terms of presentation, Glory is a very handsome piece of work, showing off the uniforms, weaponry and moustaches of the Civil War to good effect. I couldn’t tell you if these are all accurate, but the film certainly doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the war as men are blown to pieces at Antietam and, later, ranks of Unionists and Confederates line up in ranks and shoot lumps out of each other before charging with fixed bayonets. The personnel of the 54th are given room to develop, Broderick’s Shaw initially coming across as ineffectual but showing a grasp of how he needs to lead his soldiers, making the difficult decision to treat Searles just like all the other men, and Forbes in more or less the same manner.
Shaw’s determination that his soldiers be treated like anyone else fighting for the cause is noble, and his reluctant, but inevitable, suggestion that his regiment should lead the assault on Fort Wagner both moving and gut-wrenching (attacking Fort Wagner first was a suicide mission, more or less: the South Park movie must have had this film partially in mind for one of its jokes). Amongst the ranks, the cool, common sense of Morgan Freeman and the scared but unflagging determination of Searles are commendable.
But if the film belongs to anyone, it is Denzel Washington. A nasty, taunting son-of-a-gun with aspirations to be a Presidential candidate, Trip is also a fierce fighter and at heart, fiercely loyal. All Trip wants is the respect of those who mocked him, and Washington’s achievement in making him both objectionable and sympathetic is considerable. In fact, the performances from all the black cast contain a profound dignity, no more so than in the blues-driven prayers on the night before the assault on Fort Wagner. This moment is powerfully emotional and because the music comes from the group, feels absolutely natural.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for much of the other music in the film. James Horner’s score makes extensive use of a boys’ choir, which in more than one place is terribly overbearing. It is as if Zwick didn’t quite trust the pull of the story, so emphasised the music to drive the mood of the film along. In fact the obtrusiveness of the voices detracts from the mood rather than adding to it, when a quieter (and perhaps less obviously militaristic) score would have had greater effect.
Whilst I’m complaining, I should say that Glory does smack a little of trying too hard to redress a balance: why does it have to be the case that all the bad guys are white – even on the Unionist side, only Shaw and the ultra-liberal Forbes are shown in a positive light – while all the black guys are not only really good guys (eventually), but also really good soldiers? I have no doubt that all the events in Glory are based on good history, but a bit more ambivalence in some of the characters (in response, say, to the Confederates’ death sentence on the whole regiment) would have made the film feel more grounded in reality.
Nevertheless, the men who made up the 54th regiment are worth celebrating as pioneers in American history, helping Lincoln’s Unionists to win the war and – in their way – pave the way for real African-American Presidential candidates, though of course the road from 1863 to 2008 was far from smooth. Glory is epically cinematic, perhaps too cinematic to ring completely true as an historical account; but the story that is told, and the evident dignity of the men who fought for a just cause, makes the film one that will not easily fade from the memory.