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The 1989 film Glory is a classic Civil War film based on the history of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. The film focuses on the courage displayed by the first black regiment in the Civil War, also known as the “Fighting Fifty-fourth.” The regiment headed by the admirable Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Matthew Broderick, must overcome an enormous amount of adversity during the war. The film was daring for filmmakers Zwick and Fields because it was a film not only with, “vivid and frightening battle scenes and finely etched dramatic characters, but a film that shattered the great Civil War taboo-it told a story of African Americans(Chadwick). Many articles and texts leading up to the film failed to mention the participation of African Americans in the Civil War. In fact, the participation of African Americans helped turn the course of the war and nearly 300,000 fought for the North.
Glory earned an impressive three Academy Awards due to its exceptionally talented cast and arguably some of the most realistic and memorable Civil War reenactments ever shot. The soundtrack, cinematography, and acting captivated my attention with a combination of triumph and tragedy. These men were fighting to free their very own race which adds to the emotion and sentiment this movie invokes.
Zwick effectively builds the characters of the 54th regiment by portraying the grueling months of training and development. One prominent example of this is in the end of their movie when the 54th is given the chance to fight in an attack on the beach of South Carolina at Fort Wagner. Determined to dismiss the belief that blacks would not be disciplined under fire, the 54th is at the forefront of the suicidal attack on Fort Wagner. During this battle, the 54th displays the courage that persuaded President Lincoln to enlist many more black soldiers.
Zwick’s choice of characters greatly contributed to the success of Glory. Matthew Broderick was an interesting choice to play the lead role of Colonel Shaw and many film critics criticized Zwick’s choice of Broderick. Broderick’s resume included films such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and War Games. In these movies he was better known as a teen rebel rather than a serious actor. This role gave Broderick the opportunity to extend his range and add to his resume. It was the acting of Broderick that laid the groundwork upon which the rest of the film could be constructed.
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"The first step [in preparing for the role of Robert Gould Shaw in Glory]
was to try to learn as much as I could about the real person. That was mostly from letters, photographs, descriptions and a poem by Emerson. The thing I had to do was bring myself into that situation. I didn't want to be an imitation of what I thought Shaw must have been like" (Canby 7).
Glory would be classified by most as an inspirational tale, but in some cases these types of movies can be taken too far and the inspiration can be overdone. Zwick does an excellent job of not forcing the story. The inspiration is embedded in the characters and the manner in which they overcome obstacles, including, most prominently, their own personal demons. While Broderick gave another perspective to the viewers, Trip, played by Denzel Washington, embodies an entirely different abrasive personality in which he is angry and bitter most of the time. Trip must overcome his own personality to be successful with the rest of the regiment and fight as a member of their group. Denzel commented on the role of Trip in an interview with the New York Times,
"Trip's an instigator - wild, rebellious, angry. He's a product of racism
who's become a racist. He hates all white people, Confederates most of all. But in the end, when he sees the white officers make the maximum sacrifice, he's the most patriotic one in the bunch." (Canby 6).
Denzel Washington’s performance is phenomenal in my opinion and truly uplifts the film.
For the most part, the historical premise on which Glory is depicted is historically accurate. Director, Edward Zwick, put a great amount of effort into the historical accurateness of this film. This is extremely difficult to do and many of the Civil War movies that we have studied have failed to adhere to the historical accuracy as Zwick did. From the uniforms to the camps, Glory captures the feel of battle. Most critics agree that the historical detail was a redeeming element of the film. In his review film critic, Roger Ebert, called Zwick’s portrayal, “a strong and valuable film” (Ebert 9). In the review that was written for the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert credits the amount of effort devoted to accurate period detail. Most of the key battle scenes and the main plot components portrayed in the film are what actually occurred. Even the key characters, which were depicted in the movie, Robert Gould Shaw, Major Cabot Forbes, and Sgt. Major John Rawlings existed. Also, the climax and outcome of the movie remain true to the historical accurateness Zwick used throughout the film.
To add to the award winning acting of the film, the musical soundtrack created by James Horner increases the liveliness of the picture. One scene which exemplifies this is the final battle scene at Fort Wagner. Blake Lukas, writing a film review for Magill's Cinema Annual, points out, “Horner chose the Boys Choir of Harlem which creates a moving effect during the death of Colonel Robert Shaw” (Lukas 158). I typically overlook the music in films, but I felt that the music in Glory greatly enhanced the emotions. Horner was rewarded for his hard work with a Grammy Award for the music of Glory. Horner is also well known for his music in Field of Dreams which he won an Academy award for. From 1979 to 1989, Horner composed thirty one motion picture scores. Lukas calls Horner one of most prolific film composer's of all time.
While the acting, music, and portrayal of war scenes were able to captivate audiences, the deep-rooted themes served as another asset to this American classic. There were three themes that I specifically found interesting in this film. These themes can be viewed as the underlying purpose of the movie.The themes portrayed by Zwick in this movie underlined the entire civil war. Brotherhood, achieving racial equality, and courage are all themes both Union and Confederate soldiers had to deal with on a daily basis. In my opinion, Glory does an excellent job of taking these themes and putting them on the big screen to underscore their importance.
The concept of brotherhood is often a prominent theme of war stories, and, in this movie, it is no different. Due to the suffocating amount of adversity placed on them, the members of the 54th were exceptionally close. One of my favorite scenes in the movie occurs the night before the assault on Fort Wagner, as various members of the regiment gather to sing songs, pray, and offer up words of inspiration. It truly shows the compassion and love each of the members have for one another. Glory also makes the point to show the isolation of Shaw. Being white and in command of the regiment, he is initially portrayed as being alienated from his men. Eventually, through some of his actions, Shaw is able to gradually close the distance between him and his men. More specifically, examples of this are shown through Shaw’s agreement to forego his own paycheck when they decline theirs, going through the trouble of obtaining shoes, and uniforms for the men, and, lastly, encouraging them and leading them into battle. In the end, the gap narrows and they are able to act as one. In the heat of battle, the men might as well have been color blind.
Besides the promotion of brotherhood, Glory is essentially a movie about how freed blacks were able to fight through adversity and silence the critics who said they couldn’t help in the war effort. Ultimately, the men of the 54th were able to prove themselves in battle. Historically speaking, the Fifty- fourth regiment could also be considered one of the first times we see blacks look for equal opportunity. In his film review of Glory, Ebert notes the scene when the black soldiers of the Fifty-fourth learn they will not be paid the regular white wage. He states, "Blacks march as far, bleed as much and die as soon, they argue"(Ebert 11). With this being said, blacks would not achieve absolute equality for years to come.
Upon looking at reviews of Glory, there were some critics who question some of Zwick’s intentions. Roger Ebert noted a few criticisms he had in a review of Glory. One of Ebert's criticisms is that the perspective of the movie is constantly seen from one view, that of the white officer. Ebert is not satisfied with the fact that a white man is cast as the lead role when the movie is essentially about a black experience. In his opinion, “Glory could have been told from the eyes of a black soldier in the Fifty-fourth” (Ebert 8). Ebert makes a valid point when he implies, by using the same material, a completely different film could have been created with a black commander. Although, Ebert’s assumption is true, I believe the movie is fine the way it is. I enjoyed Broderick’s performance and I think it adds special meaning by having the color barrier broken and the 54th coming together as one; that is essentially what the Civil War was all about.
Glory is a film which incorporates exceptional with powerful underlying themes and the result was a truly great movies. In my opinion any question of the character development made by critics is overshadowed with the outstanding performances of Broderick, Washington, and Freeman. The authenticity of the storyline and the superior soundtrack enhance the movies as well. Glory is a carefully constructed film with some invigorating themes. It portrays an accurate representation of the lives of Civil War soldiers.
In his article, Lukas states that "Glory offers an idealism and sense of heroism that contrast powerfully to the spectacle of bloodshed and war's waste of life that it also visualizes" (Lukas 19). In my opinion Glory was not a movie about whether or not we as a nation should participate in wars. It was about the advancement of the black race and the vicious battle they had to fight along the way to attain what the truly deserved, freedom. Glory effectively captures that struggle and triumph.
Chadwick, Bruce. The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
Lukas, Blake. Magill's Cinema Annual 1990, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Salem Press,
Ebert, Roger. "Glory." 27 October 1989 8-11. 27 September 2006
Canby, Vincent. "Glory." New York Times 4 August 1989 5-7. 30 September 2006