Yes. People did go to war over the Confederate flag.
During the Civil War, the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was one of the more infamous troupes, due to the fact that they were, for the most part, filled with black men. Some were freemen from the North, others were slaves, but all of them were under the command of Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), a commander who is still reeling from the affects of the warfare he’s experienced in his lifetime. Already, before they even set out for battle, there was already plenty of trepidation towards the 54th, because some believed that blacks could not be controlled, or commanded in such a way that would have them prepped and ready for war. Despite this, Shaw, along with his second-in-command (Cary Elwes), try their hardest to not only discipline the soldiers, but even relate and connect with them, as hard as it may seem to do. Some soldiers, like John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), are more than willing to go along with all of the problems they encounter fighting for a country that doesn’t accept them as human beings, whereas others, like Trip (Denzel Washington), aren’t and want the whole unit to know that they aren’t fighting for freedom at all – they’re just fighting to die. Obviously, this causes problems between each and everyone and all culminates in the disastrous attack on the Confederate fort in Charleston, S.C.
Glory is, as most people say, a “classic war film”. Not to take any spit out of that statement, but that’s sort of true. It’s a very good movie, in fact, and one that shows both the humane, as well as harsh realities of the war. At the same time, however, it’s also a film about slavery, and how two races can simultaneously connect to one another, while also having to prepare for a war that they may not actually win and come away alive from. Edward Zwick clearly had a lot on his plate here and it’s one of the many things that makes Glory a solid war film that deserves to be seen by any person out there who either, loves film, history, or a combination of the two.
But, that doesn’t make it a perfect movie, as some may call it.
For one, its extremely dated in the way the story is told. What I mean by this is that rather than getting a story about black people trying to get by under extreme war-conditions, told by a black person, we are told the story through their white commander, as played by Matthew Broderick. It’s understandable that the reason for this is to show how the black soldiers are helping to make Shaw open his eyes a bit more to the realities that, well, believe it or not, African Americans are humans, too. Even though he lives in a world where slavery does exist (although, not for much longer), he knows that these black men are just as honest and humane as he is, which is why we see the tale told, in his own words, through his own eyes, and in his own way.
However, at the same time, it sort of feels like a disservice to the actual black folks in the story. Why are we being told that these fellas are all magical and lovely people, when we can clearly see that happening, right in front of our very own eyes? Did we really need to deal with Shaw’s voice-over to begin with? In all honesty, probably not, because it’s already understood that Shaw will start to warm up and grow closer to these black soldiers that are under his command. So, for anything else to be thrown on, makes it feel like stuffy and, well, a bit schmaltzy. Not saying that it didn’t happen in this way, but the way Shaw is used as our heart and soul of the story, makes Glory seem like it’s taking the easy road out – rather than letting the story be told by those who are most affected to begin with.
But, everything else about Glory, aside from that little nugget of anger, is great.
Like I stated before, Zwick clearly had a lot to work with here, and he does so seamlessly. He gives enough attention to the black soldiers that matter most and show how each and every personality can, at times, clash, while at other times, rub against one another to create a far more perfect and in-sync union. No character here is made out to be a perfect human being, and because as such, it’s easy to sympathize with these characters early-on – and makes it all the more tragic to realize that, in all honesty, they aren’t really fighting for much.
There’s one scene in which this is presented perfectly when Denzel Washington’s Trip goes on about the fact that even when the war is over and everybody goes home, he’ll go back to whatever slum he’s been forced to stay in, whereas Shaw and his white counterparts will be able to head back and relax in his big old mansion, and continue to live his life of total luxury. This scene, above all else, drives home the point that these soldiers may, yes, be fighting for their lives, but are doing so in a way because, quite frankly, they have nowhere else to go, or nothing else better to make up with their time. Most of the soldiers are slaves, so therefore, they have no freedom to begin with; however, even the ones that are free, don’t really have much to do except still be treated as minorities and non-equals, although not as harshly as slaves.
So yes, it’s a very sad tale, if you really think about it. But Glory shows that there is some light to be found in the folds. There’s heart, there’s humor, and above all else, there’s humanity here that shows that each and everyone of these soldiers were, race notwithstanding, human beings. And because of this fact, the performances are all the more impressive by showing the depth to which these characters are portrayed.
Though Broderick’s Shaw didn’t really need to be the central figure of this huge story, he’s still solid enough in the role to make me forget about that fact. Ever since Ferris Bueller, it’s known that Broderick has always been trying to get past that image and, occasionally, he’ll strike gold. This is one of those times wherein we see Shaw as not only a clearly messed-up vet of the war, but also one that has enough pride and courage to still go back to the battle and ensure that each and everyone of his men are fit for the same battle he will partake in. Cary Elwes is also fine in showing that, even despite him being more sympathetic to the slavery cause, still has to push his men as far as he possibly can, without over-stepping his superior, obviously.
But, as expected, the best performances come from the three cast-members who get the most attention out of all the other black characters: Andre Baugher, Morgan Freeman, and of course, the star-marking turn from Denzel Washington. As an educated, smart and free black man, Baugher’s character faces a lot more tension from the rest of the black soldiers, and his transition from being a bit too soft for all the training, to becoming a far more rough, tough and gritty one, is incredibly believable. Freeman, too, stays as the heart and soul of the black soldiers and proves to be the one who steps up the most when push comes to shove and a leader is needed. Freeman, in just about everything he does, always seems to become a leader of sorts, so it’s no surprise that the role here fits him like a glove.
However, the one that shines above the rest is, obviously, Denzel Washington as the rebel of the group, Trip.
And the reason why I said “obviously”, is because it’s well-known by now that Denzel was given an Oscar for his work here and understandably so; not only does he steal every scene, but when you get down to the bottom of the story, you realize that he’s the heart and soul of the whole thing. Without him, this would have probably been a normal tale of blacks and whites coming together, to fight the obstacles set against them, and fight a war, but it’s Trip who’s the one that hits everybody’s head and wakes them up to the harsh realities that is the world they live in. Denzel is, at times, hilarious, but also brutally honest, and it’s his voice that keeps this movie’s humanity afloat.
Now, if only the movie had been about him to begin with and not the white dude.
Consensus: Heartfelt, emotional, and well-acted on practically all fronts, Glory is a solid war picture, that also happens to have a message about racial equality that doesn’t try too hard to hit you over the head.
8.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Movpins
One of the great WAR films and one of the GREAT films!
Excellent review, Dan. I love this movie, but you make a very valid argument about the point of view. Unfortunately, this is often the case, even today, so its not as dated as you would think. There is name for this particular trope – The White Savior Complex. Look at movies as recent as the despicable Black or White starring Kevin Costner, or all those films where the white teacher comes into the hood and helps all the black and Latino kids become better people. Or, how about The Help, told from the viewpoint of a young white woman and everything actually done in the movie was about the effect on the white women. It might be more glaring in Glory because it deals directly with slavery, but it certainly isn’t unique to that movie or something that isn’t used anymore.
Love this film. Superbly acted. I don’t think I’ve reviewed it for my own site either, which is an egregious oversight I must rectify.
I loved this film, I’m a huge fan of Andre, Morgan and Denzel. Love your work as well.
This still stands up well which is good to see. Great review Dan; remember first watching this as a lad and it really stuck with me.