BACK-STORY: “Glory” was inspired by screenwriter Kevin Jarre’s viewing of Augustus Sainte-Gaudens’ memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Boston. His research relied on the letters of Robert Gould Shaw, Lay This Laurel by Lincoln Kirstein, and One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard. Edward Zwick (“Courage Under Fire”) directed with a limited budget of $18 million. Shelby Foote (of Ken Burns’ “Civil War” fame) was the technical advisor. Morgan Freeman took a pay cut to appear in the movie because he was determined to be a part of the enhancing of African-American history. The movie was critically acclaimed, but only a modest box office success ($27 million). It won three Academy Awards – Best Supporting Actor (Denzel Washington), Cinematography (Freddie Francis), and Sound Mixing. It was nominated for Art Direction and Film Editing.
OPENING: Words tell us Robert Gould Shaw was the son of a wealthy Boston abolitionist. He was 23 at the start of the movie. The movie’s action begins at the Battle of Antietam. Shaw is an officer prodding his unit across a field into the teeth of Rebels ensconced behind a fence. Shells explode (typical of a Civil War film’s inability to depict cannister) and the Yanks are shredded. One man’s head explodes (thus earning the film its unwarranted R- rating). Shaw is wounded when a Minie ball grazes his neck. He returns to consciousness upon being nudged by a grave-digger. This being Antietam, the fighting has moved to a new area of the battlefield as the incompetent McClellan launches another piecemeal assault. Shaw learns of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation while being patched up at a field hospital. An amputation takes place in the background.
SUMMARY: Back at home in Boston, Shaw is discombobulated by the contrast of brain-splattering combat with the genteel upper crust gathering at his parents’ home. A slammed window also subtly reminds us of his post-traumatic stress. Shaw is introduced to Frederick Douglass and is stunned to learn a “colored regiment” is going to be recruited and the governor wants him to command. His boozy friend Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes) agrees to be his exec and his childhood nerdy black friend Thomas (Andre Braugher in his film debut) is the first volunteer. Any doubts about the acting chops of the cast are over at this point.
The new recruits are greeted at training camp with racist taunts from the white soldiers and this is their Yankee comrades! We are introduced to the core black ensemble of the belligerent runaway Trip (Washington), the fatherly ex-grave digger Rawlins (Freeman), the stuttering hick Jupiter (Jihmi Kennedy), and the book worm Thomas. When asked what he has been doing since he ran away, Trip says “I’ve been running for President… I ain’t gonna win though”. Trip takes an instant dislike to Thomas. The field slave versus the house slave dynamic.
Shaw will have to grow into his leadership role and is uncomfortably aware of this. He brings in an Irish drill sergeant named Mulcahy (John Finn) to verbally flog the men into soldiers. His “tough hate” and Shaw’s officer class aloofness toughens the men (with Thomas’ arc being the exemplar). There are hurdles along the way like a Confederate proclamation that any black soldier taken captive would be returned to slavery (and death to their white commanders). They all quit and go home. Just kidding. Along with the Trip/Thomas dysfunction, there is tension between Shaw and Forbes with Forbes feeling that Shaw is too harsh with the men. Forbes feels the regiment is a stunt that will never sniff combat. This comes to a head with the punishment of Trip for desertion (actually AWOL for shoes). A superstar is born with Washington’s flogging scene. This is a turning point for Shaw as he begins to find a middle ground between martinet and milquetoast. When Trip leads a boycott of the inequity in pay for black soldiers, Shaw joins in. The success of the training is capped with a well-staged parade through the streets of Boston. There is no dialogue, just very evocative music. The camera plays on faces in the unit and in the crowd. Pride on display.
The 54th is shipped to occupied South Carolina. This time they march past slaves, giving them a vision of the future. The 54th is teamed with a unit of contraband (slaves freed by Union forces) soldiers. The two units are sent on a raid to Darien, Georgia. The contraband commander is an ex-slave owner Col. Montgomery (Cliff De Young) who knows how to handle “monkey children”. He is a fanatic who believes “Secesh has got to be swept away by the hand of God like the Jews of old”. Montgomery pulls rank and forces Shaw to order a war crime by the 54th.
Shaw has to blackmail Gen. Hunter to allow him to get some of his men killed in combat. Whites will only respect black soldiers if they are blooded. What follows is a sharp little encounter at James Island, South Carolina. This is one of the great Civil War combat scenes (and is reminiscent of the Little Round Top sequences in “Gettysburg”). The 54th stands its ground against Rebel cavalry (the film used special “falling horses” trained to fall on command) and then goes toe-to-toe with infantry. This devolves into a melee that is intensely realistic and visceral. Respect earned.
With the victory at James Island, the 54th has earned the right to get slaughtered for liberty. They are tasked for Charleston where the siege of Fort Wagner continues unabated. Shaw volunteers to lead the assault and the evening and morning are rife with foreboding. That evening the men have a revival style meeting where they each testify. The highlights are sincere turns by Trip, Jupiter, and Rawlins. Trip has come full circle from black sheep (sorry) to accepted member of the family. The next morning on the beach as the unit prepares for its bout with destiny, Shaw releases his horse in recognition that this is a suicide mission. Shaw has also come full circle as his men chant his name. Shaw asks who will carry the flag if the flagbearer falls and Thomas volunteers. Book worm no more.
|"Last one in the fort is a rotten egg!"|
CLOSING: The men double time over the beach with musical accompaniment which transitions to the sounds of battle. Cannonading forces them to take refuge in the dunes and wait for nightfall (so it can be more dramatic cinema-wise). The night is lit by flares (rockets?) and punctuated by grenades. Shaw orders the renewal of the charge and the men struggle across a ditch lined with stakes. Shaw is killed on the upslope of the parapet and Trip grabs the flag and follows him into the afterlife. Shaw’s death inspires the men to bash their way into the fort and perhaps they might just pull it off. The belated appearance of cannister ends that dream. Surprise, historically ignorant audience expecting the usual Hollywood happy ending. As a post script, Shaw is buried with the enlisted men.
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Although there is no significant female character, the movie is clearly not intended for just a macho audience. Shaw’s mother (Jane Alexander) was left mostly on the cutting room floor and a hinted romance for Shaw with a teacher in South Carolina was completely edited out. Although Rated-R, the film is far from graphic (with the exception of the decapitation) and the language is not full of four-letter words. Mothers will love the fact that Shaw writes home to his mommy.
|"Hey, the script said we win"|
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: “Glory” is an excellent example of a movie that takes the basic historical facts and constructs a narrative around them to bring recognition to a military unit in a way that is attractive to a mainstream audience. The film does a lot of tweaking of the facts, but none of it is egregious and all of it advances the narrative arc.
The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was the brainchild of Gov. Andrew. Frederick Douglass was a leading influence for the creation of all-black units as a means of getting respect for African-Americans and giving them a stake in the future of the Union. Andrew began the process after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Two of Douglass’ sons volunteered for the unit. The 54th Massachusetts was the first regiment recruited in the North. The 1st South Carolina Volunteers was already in existence. The film glosses over the difficulty of recruiting enough Massachusetts blacks to fill out the unit. In fact, Andrew had to send recruiters throughout the North. The unit was comprised almost exclusively of freed blacks. A runaway slave like Trip would have been a rare exception. Speaking of which, none of the members of the unit (other than Shaw) were real people.
Capt. Shaw was at Antietam, but his unit was not involved in any charges similar to that of the movie. He saw no serious fighting. However, he did receive a neck wound from a spent bullet. When Gov. Andrew offered command of the regiment, through Shaw’s abolitionist father, Shaw turned it down at first. He reconsidered over night and accepted. The second in command was Lt. Col. Norwood Hallowell. Forbes bears little resemblance to him. On the other hand, the depiction of Shaw is spot on. He was 25 and looked younger. Broderick gets the evolution from in-over-his-head rookie colonel to confident leader down pat. His ruminations are based on Shaw’s actual letters. The movie does omit Shaw’s courtship and marriage to Anna Haggerty.
The movie undoubtedly fleshes out and enhances the trials Shaw and the unit go through in training. The template is appropriate. The unit was assigned to Readville, Mass. for boot camp. When Shaw arrived, the men already had their “blue suits”. The Mulcahy (John Finne as one of the great cinematic drill sergeants) character is fictional, but does reflect the antipathy of many Irish toward blacks during that era. The flogging of Trip uses dramatic license because AWOL offenses were normally treated with spread eagling or some similar punishment. I found no evidence the unit was deprived of shoes by the quartermaster although the general theme of neglect feels genuine. I also found no evidence that Shaw had a rocky road to gaining the men’s respect. That arc may not have been accurate, but it is absolutely crucial to the theme of growing into leadership and is a strength of the screenplay. This arc builds to the mutiny over the pay. This is classic tweaking. Congress did allocate $10 (minus $3 for uniforms) for black soldiers. The twist is Shaw initiated the protest. And the pay issue did not come up until they had reached South Carolina. The Confederate government did issue a proclamation threatening to enslave any blacks captured in uniform and to execute their white officers.
The parade through Boston is accurately depicted. The parade was witnessed by Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and John Greenleaf Whittier as well as Shaw’s parents. The arrival at Beaufort, South Carolina is realistic as well. The unit was greeted by freed slaves. Beaufort was part of the Port Royal Experiment in which Northern abolitionists educated the newly freed slave children.
The raid on Darien, Georgia is substantially accurate. The 54th was paired with the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers under Col. James Montgomery. Montgomery was the jerk the movie portrays. He did utter the line “they will be swept away by the hand of God like the Jews of old”. He did order his undisciplined contraband soldiers to sack the town. Shaw did reluctantly participate in the atrocity as depicted in the film.
Their first combat experience came about from a letter Shaw wrote to Gen. Strong (not from threatening Gen. Hunter with exposure of his corruption). They were moved to the Charleston area and received their baptism of fire on July 16, 1863 in a spirited skirmish between pickets that involved four of the companies on James Island. The 54th retreated slowly to allow the 10th Connecticut to withdraw. There was Confederate cavalry involved, but it is doubtful they charged an untouched unit as is shown in the movie. That would have been unrealistic tactically. The depiction of volleys followed by a bayonet charge and then hand-to-hand was typical of Civil War combat. This action did earn the respect of the white units.
The prelude to the attack on Ft. Wagner was well researched. Shaw did have a premonition of death. He did give a stack of letters to Edward Pierce of the N.Y. Daily Tribune. He did send off his horse. However, Gen. Strong asked him to lead the assault, not the other way around. Also, it was Strong who asked who would pick up the flag and it was Shaw who said he would.
The charge is close to the truth. The locale for the filming and the fort itself are authentic. There was a stake filled moat and a rampart. For cinematic purposes, the movie starts the charge in the daylight when it actually began after dusk. Shaw did lead the charge (which would not be out of the ordinary for a war where casualty rates for officers were greater than for the enlisted). The Rebels opened fire at about two hundred yards with cannon fire. At the moat, the unit was hit by massed musket fire. Shaw was shot at the crest of the rampart and fell into the fort. (The movie dubiously leaves out the story of Sgt. William Carney who earned the Medal of Honor for planting the flag on the parapet and then despite several wounds getting it back to the camp. He famously said, "Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!") Several of his men followed Shaw in, but most of the unit was forced to retreat. The adrenalin-fueled run led by Forbes is pure fiction, but cool.
The aftermath of the battle is true to the facts. Shaw was buried in a mass grave by the Confederates in an act intended to dishonor him. Tellingly, Shaw’s parents insisted he remain interned with his men after the fall of the fort. The movie gives the impression the unit was devastated by the attack. In reality the unit suffered 272 casualties out of 600 men. 45% is very high, but this means more than half were not even wounded.
|a different take on Shaw's death|
The Battle of Fort Wagner did not mark the end of the 54th’s service. It covered a Union retreat at the Battle of Olustee in Feb., 1864. It made an unsuccessful assault on a strong entrenched position at Honey Hill in November. Lastly, it participated in one of the last actions of the war when it attacked a Rebel force defending an abandoned fort. In a reversal of Fort Wagner, the Confederates fled and the 54th suffered only two dead.
|Matthew Brodererick: serious actor|
CRITIQUE: “Glory” has no weaknesses. The acting is stellar. The cast is amazing and balanced as a team effort. The standout is Washington, of course. His Best Supporting Actor nod was possibly the most deserving ever. He is absolutely mesmerizing when he is on screen. The scene where he is flogged is a tour de force. That tear! The rest of the ensemble does not just stand around and watch him. All of the major roles could not have been better played. Freeman is his usual solid self. Andre Braugher made his film debut! Talk about coming out the blocks fast. On the other end of the spectrum is Jihmi Kennedy who had the only significant role of his aborted career. The sweetness of his Jupiter balances the belligerence of Trip. Cary Elwes is an excellent foil for Broderick. (He and Broderick did not get along during the shoot, by the way.) The biggest shock here is Broderick. He would seem to have been an obvious weak link, but he holds his own. The critics who faulted his “shaky” performance did not realize that it is an accurate depiction of a young man thrust into a difficult position. Critics seem to have overlooked the use of Shaw’s own words to show his feelings. Broderick acts like the man who wrote those letters and he looks like him, too. And don’t forget the reenactors that lend their special skills to any quality Civil War movie. The movie was partly filmed at Gettysburg during the 125th anniversary.
The film is technically sound. Edward Zwick did not have a massive budget, but he does a great job. The training camp set and the Fort Wagner re-creation are outstanding. The uniforms and weaponry are accurate. The sound effects were Oscar worthy. Most impressive is the musical score by James Horner (“Enemy at the Gates”, “Braveheart”). He makes awesome use of the Harlem Boys Choir to give parts of the score a hymnal quality. It is absolutely incredible that the music did not get an Academy Award nomination!
The screenplay is solid, but breaks no new ground. The themes include the rookie commander who grows into his leadership role and adjusts his by the book approach to the personality of his unit. You also get the obligatory redemption arc of Trip. It was a nice touch to have him decline carrying the flag, but otherwise his evolution was comfortably predictable. A double dose of cliché came with Trip and Thomas coming to respect each other and the antagonistic white unit learning to respect the 54th. The heterogeneous small unit ensemble is nothing new, but was essential to the plot. It goes without saying that the film has an anti-war bent.
“Glory” has an
excellent blend of combat action and dialogue which is rare for a war
movie. The two combat scenes are among
the best ever. The James Island skirmish
comes as a big payoff for all the training scenes. They earned the right to die, which was
another theme. It is worth the wait and
a great prep for the climactic assault.
In fact, the flow from scene to scene throughout the movie is
commendable. Zwick places the parade in
the middle of the film as a halftime interlude.
Best of all is the scene with the soldiers “testifying” before the final
day of many of their lives.
The dialogue is what helps the movie stand out as a war movie. This includes one of my favorite exchanges in movie history:
[Trip and Thomas are about to fight when Rawlins steps in]
Rawlins: Look, goddamn it! The whole world gotta stomp on your face?
Trip: Nigger, you better get your hands off me!
Rawlins: Ain't no niggers around here! Understand?
Trip: Oh, I see, so the white man give you a couple a stripes, and suddenly you start hollerin' and orderin' everybody around, like you the massa himself! Nigger, you ain't nothin' but the white man's dog!
[He starts to walk away, Rawlins stops him and slaps him]
Rawlins: And what are you? So full of hate you want to go out and fight everybody! Because you've been whipped and chased by hounds. Well that might not be living, but it sure as hell ain't dying. And dying's been what these white boys have been doing for going on three years now! Dying by the thousands! Dying for *you*, fool! I know, 'cause I dug the graves. And all this time I keep askin' myself, when, O Lord, when it's gonna be our time? Gonna come a time when we all gonna hafta ante up. Ante up and kick in like men. LIKE MEN! You watch who you call a nigger! If there's any niggers around here, it's YOU. Just a smart-mouthed, stupid-ass, swamp-runnin' nigger! And if you not careful, that's all you ever gonna be!
CONCLUSION: “Glory” and I have a long relationship. I saw the making of documentary on CBS before the movie came out. I remember being very skeptical about whether it would be good. I also questioned the casting of Ferris Bueller as Col. Shaw. My fears were for naught, thankfully. I took my American History classes to see it (which would be impossible now that there is a ban on R-Rated movies for school purposes – thus eliminating virtually all modern war films). I was already covering the 54th Massachusetts in my Civil War unit so the story was not new to me. I’ve always gone out of my way to highlight individuals and groups that deserve recognition, but have been overlooked by the curriculum. And not just for African-Americans. All Americans should know this story and cinema can play this role. Unfortunately, cinema often botches the one chance to get it right (e.g. “Braveheart”). But occasionally, the ignorant masses get a rousing history lesson like in “Glory”, “The Lost Battalion”, and “The Great Raid”.
The placement of “Glory” in the top ten is certainly warranted. In truth it could be argued that it is the best war movie ever made. It has great acting. It has some remarkable combat reenactment. It is technically outstanding. The score is iconic. It is historically accurate for the most part and where it fudges, it does so to advance the story-line. Most importantly, its infotainment at its most magnificent.
Acting - A+
Action – 7/10
Accuracy – B
Plot - A
Realism - A
Overall = A+
Rawlins chastises Trip