Review: Glory (1989)

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m going through a Civil War phase (currently reading these books) so I thought I would supplement my reading with one of the many Civil War movies out there. Glory (1989) got some good reviews, so it seemed like a safe bet. However, Glory is a much different Civil War movie, because it focuses on one of the first regiments of African American soldiers who fought for the Union, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Matthew Broderick plays Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who fought valiantly at Antietam as well as many other prominent Civil War battles. Shaw is picked to lead the 54th, perhaps because he counts among his lifelong friends a bookish Black freeman Jupiter (Jihmi Kennedy). Jupiter is one of the first in line when the regiment is formed, which makes for some awkwardness because Shaw must treat Jupiter as a private, rather than as his personal friend. Everyone in the 54th seems to inhabit an uncomfortable personal space. The Irish drill sergeant Mulcahy (John Finn) has to turn these men into soldiers, and frequently transgresses an uncomfortable color line in doing so. These black soldiers feel and frequently are treated as inferiors to their white comrades. The tension of a black regiment led by whites is also palpable.

Glory gives us a lot of fine performances, but for much of the movie Broderick seems a little out of his element, projecting an overly meek and timid officer who has trouble assuming the full weight of command. Overall, the performances are excellent and include Denzel Washington as Private Trip and Morgan Freeman as Staff Sergeant John Rawlins. Movies about African Americans are quite rare. Here we are blessed with a fine set of African American actors and get a chance to inhabit their personal space and issues. Mostly what the 54th lusts after is a chance to go into combat, but once out of basic training their work is logistical and behind the lines. In order to see combat, Colonel Shaw has to sell his regiment to a skeptical set of superiors. When finally allowed to test themselves in battle, they prove their stripes at the cost of many lost.

Overall, Glory delivers the goods: fine acting, a compelling story and a rendering of the Civil War that feels authentic. The movie moves toward its climax when the 54th is asked to lead a doomed attack on a rebel fort in the Charleston harbor. Here is where many Civil War movies would come up short, for it is quite hard to get all the details right and merge them with fine acting. However, Director Edward Zwick pulls it off exceptionally well. The 54th is largely wiped out as a regiment, but their heroism led to greater inclusion of African American regiments in subsequent battles of the Civil War.

This is a Civil War movie in miniature, which gives us the chance to know people and personalities with an intimacy often missing from Civil War movies. While hardly a perfect movie it is compelling and well executed. If trying to get a taste for the Civil War, watching Glory would be a good place to start.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

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