Distributed By: TriStar Pictures
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
A couple of years ago, I had seen the middle of an amazing Civil War movie starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman and more. I got to watch a couple of battles toward the end of the film, but I never got the opportunity to see the whole movie. Being a Civil War aficionado, I really wanted to see the full film. I finally got the chance.
The 1989 film, Glory, is based on personal letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the novel One Gallant Rush and the novel Lay this Laurel. The film tells the story about one of the first military units in the American Civil War Union Army to consist of African American men. Matthew Broderick portrays Robert Shaw, who, as a captain, is injured in Antietam and finds himself returning home to Boston on medical leave. Accepting a promotion to Colonel and command of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, one of the first all-black regiments to be started in the Union Army, Shaw recruits his friend Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes) as his second in command. The first volunteer to sign up is a free black man named Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), who is a friend of Shaw’s dating back to childhood.
As the volunteers sign up, Shaw is quite taken with the response, but his team is not battle ready. That responsibility belongs to the gruff and often abusive Sergeant-Major Mulcahy (John Finn). Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confederacy issues an order that all black soldiers found in Union uniforms will be executed. Offered the opportunity to accept an honorable discharge to save themselves from the wrath of the Confederacy, the men refuse, showing their commanding officer their mettle.
But, though his men are willing to fight, Shaw finds that the government is not willing to treat them as equals. His soldiers are denied necessary supplies, including shoes. They are short-changed on pay. They are not likely to receive officer status. And, he soon discovers, though trained and ready, are not expected to actually be brought in to battle. Showing his troops his complete support, Shaw goes to bat for them, confronting the racist quartermaster to earn them supplies, tearing up his pay stub in solidarity, refusing to allow his men to be treated as simply labor for other divisions and threatening to reveal illegal activities under the command of General Charles Harker (Bob Gunton) to get his men into combat.
Entering into battle, the 54th proves themselves worthy at James Island, South Carolina. Eventually, Shaw volunteers the 54th to lead the charge in securing a foothold in Charleston Harbor by capturing Fort Wagner. Approaching via an open stretch of beach, the battle is sure to involve mass casualties, but the men are up for it, spending their night together in a religious service, asking God for help and supporting one another completely, knowing it might be the last time they see one another in such a setting again. The following day’s battle is bloody and the 54th suffers heavy casualties, including Shaw, but they soldier on, eventually breaking through the fort’s outer defenses. Unfortunately, Fort Wagner was never taken by the Union Army and all in the 54th were lost in the battle.
What an amazing story! I was thoroughly mesmerized by the tale of the Union Army’s first all-black division (minus the white officers). These were men who were not soldiers, but believed strongly in fighting for their freedom and the right to be treated as equals among whites. They came from all walks of life, like the educated free man, Thomas Searles, who would eventually become a Corporal and the former slave Silas Tripp. They struggled to make those in the military understand that they were not only willing, but able to fight the good fight, but demanded respect. And though they experienced all sorts of prejudice at the hands of the very army they were fighting for, none of them gave up and each continued to carry themselves as soldiers, regardless of how others may perceive them.
The acting in this film was superb. Denzel Washington portrayed Private Tripp in such a way that the viewer could actually feel his pain. You could see it in his eyes. You could hear it in his words, dripping with contempt at what had been done to him and his feeling that this war wasn’t going to change much. Andre Braugher was equally excellent in expressing Corporal Searles emotions, whether they be anger at his perceived loss of a friend or anguish and fear at the thought of actually having to kill during battle. Matthew Broderick is a bit stiff in his role and I have always found it hard to believe that he is a Colonel in the Union Army. Not so for Cary Elwes, who seems at home in any role he works at. And Morgan Freeman, well, he’s just one of those actors who would be believable and likeable in just about anything he ventures to perform in. There are just so many great actors in this film, it would be impossible to discuss them all, but look for notable performances by Jihmi Kennedy, Donovan Leitch, Bob Gunton, RonReaco Lee, Richard Riehle and more.
The cinematography of Glory won the film a well-deserved Oscar. The beauty of the countryside as the regiment traveled into war was breathtaking. The battles were incredibly believable. James Horner’s dramatic score for the film earned a Grammy. And Denzel’s performance earned a number of awards, including an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award.
Most importantly, Glory relates an important part of American history that should never be forgotten. As a history buff, I believe that we can learn from our pasts and, in these troubling times, it is important to remind folks some of the less glamorous parts of our history as well as those who fought to make America a better place for everyone. Dramatically speaking, cinematography speaking, acting-wise, Glory is a terrific film that I could watch again and again and definitely one I would recommend to any movie-buff or Civil War enthusiast.