Freedom is something that everyone strives for yet few ever truly attain it. If there was a movie to watch in honor of Black History Month, it’s has to be Glory. The story of the first African-American regiment that served in the Union Army during the American Civil War. It’s a story of honor, hope and the relentless fight in order to preserve the freedom that these men are fighting for. Directed by Edward Zwick, this movie is not only a great period piece but also an incredible take on the bloody battles of the Civil War; not to mention the brutal conditions under which the soldiers endured and the struggles of one man’s journey to lead troops of African-Americans into battle to fight against the Confederate Army. It’s a brilliant film that is memorable, sad and one of the most audacious war films of its genre.
So, why is a film such as Glory good to watch for Black History Month? What makes the film so special? What do we learn after everything is said and done? And is something that happened almost one-hundred and sixty years relevant today?
Taking place during the height of the Civil War, the movie follows a young Captain by the name of Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) who barely survived the Battle of Antietnam (still on record as the bloodiest day in American History that saw over 22,000 deaths) and sees his recovery in his hometown of Boston. After his recovery, he’s promoted to Colonel and is offered to command the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, which is the first all-black regiment in the Union Army. He proudly accepts and from there we see how the men are trained in preparations for a battle that could come at any time.
The man who trains this up-and-coming regiment is none other than Major Mulcahy (John Finn). He’s tough and often treats these new recruits (or volunteers for lack of a better word) very harshly. Upon seeing the treatment, Shaw realizes that this is appropriate due to what the men will face in the battlefield. During the whole training process is where we meet three central characters that are key to the film. We have Private Trip (Denzel Washington), John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) and a personal friend of Shaw who offered to volunteer Thomas (Andre Braugher in his film debut) who’s a free man.
Each of these characters are fully-fleshed out and quite unique. I won’t get into the full details but I’ll go with a brief summary. Trip is a man who’s full of anger, hate and rage. Whatever happened to him prior to us meeting him wasn’t good and he stands out the one soldier who sees his white commanding officer as a threat and no better than the men who once brutalized him. Rawlins had seen his share of violence and cruelty and is eager to take the fight back to the Confederates. He’s much older than the rest of the group and sees the world for what is hoping for a resolution in the end. Thomas, on the other hand, believes in what he’s doing although he’s keen into reading books that getting down in the mud and taking not a single breath when the moment comes at which he much decide if he can kill a man.
The movie’s main goal is to tell the audience of how this regiment can to be and the struggles that Shaw was faced with. Most Officers didn’t consider that this regiment would serve on the battlefield and are instead better suited to labor details. Shaw is disappointed and eagerly speaks out for his men in order for them to fulfill their goal to serve on the battlefield. After many hiccups along the way, they are able to achieve what they’ve been seeking and fight the Confederate Army leading to an ending that is poignant, emotionally wrenching and something that is unforgettable. On par with other war films including Saving Private Ryan, Platoon and Black Hawk Down.
From the opening battle sequences, the training and the finale at Fort Wagner, the cinematography makes us feel as if we are there on the battlefield. From the guns firing, the cannons exploding and the screams of the soldiers who are charging with their bayonets fixed to their rifles, everything is well established. In fact, Glory was nominated for five Academy Awards winning three. Best Supporting Actor for Denzel Washington (his very first Oscar win), Best Sound and Best Cinematography for Freddie Francis. While the movie is primarily about the black soldiers preparing for the ensuing conflict, the movie is also about Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. He’s a young man, in his early twenties, and while he knows what he’s doing, he’s still quite young and from the looks of it, perhaps younger than the men he’s training.
In speaking of the sheer look of the film, another key element in the musical soundtrack from the late yet amazing James Horner. He’s perhaps best remembered for his work on Titanic but his score from Glory is rife with raw emotion and is yet another example of what makes this film so memorable. Case in point, is the beach sequence leading up to the Battle at Fort Wagner. Colonel Shaw dismounts his horse and readies his men into battle. During this sequence, the music acts in the manner similar to a musical overture and despite knowing what is about to happen, the score by Horner fills the screen with emotion and tenderness. It’s one of the best moments in the film and even after watching the film after a fifteen year hiatus, I was brought to tears during this scene. Edward Zwick may be the man who helmed the picture but its James Horner who delivered the icing on the cake.
Glory is an exceptional piece of filmmaking and the perfect film to watch for Black History Month. It teaches us that good people out there exist and will do everything in their power to do what is right. In short, people like Colonel Robert Gould Shaw makes this world worth living and giving all he did in service to the men he commanded, it inspired countless more African Americans to enlist in the Army to fight the Confederate Army. It’s an inspiring story and one that will stand the test of time. Not only is Shaw’s story an important but also the three central characters aforementioned. Each of them have something to offer, it’s only a matter of time until they discover what that is.
Even though the Civil War is long over, as a nation, we still have to deal with racial divides that occur nearly at a daily rate. Glory inspires not only as a retelling of history but serves as a hopeful cause that peace can finally proper. The men in the 54th fought not only for the freedom of the country but for their individual rights as well. Shaw stood behind his men with the actions he took and the decisions he ultimately made. His story can only be told as the Commanding Officer of the 54th and the men who fought alongside him.
Some critics have stated that Broderick was miscast as Shaw to which I strongly object. Not only does Broderick resemble the real man, but it’s perhaps the best performance of his career. He is exceptional here and I like the fact that he doesn’t play the character as a rough tough leader but a charismatic one. I don’t want to forget about Jihmi Kennedy, Cary Elwes and even Cliff DeYoung; all of whom give powerful performances.
In closing, Glory is one of finest war films ever made, even when compared to other films relating to the Civil War. It’s a powerful film with an inspiring message and an ending that no one will forget. From the excellent direction from Edward Zwick, to the amazing acting, the gorgeous cinematography and the musical score from James Horner, Glory is a true masterpiece.
Two last things to mention, if you ever find yourself in Boston there’s a memorial site dedicated to Robert Gould Shaw located in the Boston Common. So, if you plan a visit be sure to check this wonderful memorial out! If you didn’t hear the news already, Glory will be playing on the big screen later this summer in July for a special two-day event. You can watch the film at home, but it wouldn’t be quite the same as having the true theatrical experience!
In honor of the 54th Regiment, Glory tells their story in spectacular fashion and is still one hell of a movie to witness! Mark your calendars for July 21st and 24th to see Glory in its true glory!