Glory begins in 1862, when the fratricidal bloodbath was still a white affair. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), a young, idealistic officer, fights at Antietam. That battle amounts to a glorious stalemate, but it grants President Lincoln just enough good news to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, thus forever changing the tenor of the war. This clears a path for an all-black regiment, and Shaw’s powerful abolitionist parents pull the proper strings to place him in command. Barely into his mid-20s, Shaw is reluctant at first, but can’t resist the pull of such a historic opportunity.
The movie then shifts its focus, from the white officers to the black recruits who fill Shaw’s enlisted ranks. We settle on three men, all of whom get played by actors with serious dramatic chops: Trip (Denzel Washington) is a surly runaway who has more rage than his body can contain. Free-born Thomas (Andre Braugher) is an intellectual and a tenderfoot, who struggles to earn the respect of his hard-bitten peers. Finally, Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) projects wisdom and natural leadership, and he seems destined to rise as high as society will allow him to go.
Which, for much of Glory, is not very high. Black troops were famously treated harsher, paid less, and promoted far less often than their white counterparts. They were jeered and humiliated along the way. Midway through the film, we see another irony of the war: While all this ignorance and arrogance billowed from the North, Southern leaders knew exactly what an army of angry, well-trained black soldiers represented, and they quaked with fear. When the Confederate government got wind of the 54th Massachusetts, they issued a trembling edict that any captured black troops would be sent back into slavery. White officers at the head of those soldiers would be executed on the spot. Thus wedged in a precarious socio-political spot, black troops were placed in the familiar position of doing whatever they had to for survival.
Judged on its own filmic merit, Glory is an all-out masterpiece. No movie has ever captured the awkward, undulating terror of a pitched Civil War battle with the precision this one does. Shelby Foote, one of my favorite authors, served as a technical advisor to the production. The result is film that feels authentic, right down to every piece of rank insignia.
That compliment extends to director Edward Zwick, who had previously made his name in television dramedy. He and cinematographer Freddie Francis craft a visual work of art, resplendent in all its vibrancy and color. There are moments in the climactic battle where it feels like a painting from the era has been rendered to life onscreen. The late composer James Horner supplies the film with a score that’s over-the-top with emotional sweep, and its exactly what the drama needs.
Glory is also served by all of its performances. Denzel, playing a young man who must learn to be more than the chip on his shoulder, rightfully took home the Oscar. But Freeman, projecting that reservoir of quiet strength we would see in Shawshank, is every bit as good. As Shaw, Broderick might seem out of his depth, but this unsteadiness actually suits the manor-borne commander to perfection. Cary Elwes delivers able supporting work, as Shaw’s pretty, petulant executive officer. Finally, Braugher might be the film’s most underrated presence, as the bookworm who constantly has to prove he belongs, no matter where he is.
Despite all this cinematic perfection, Glory‘s greatest asset lies with its subject matter. More than anything else, the Civil War was a referendum on the very nature of humanity. In Scott v Sanford, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that a black man “had no rights a white man was bound to respect.” He’d hoped that would settle the issue, once and for all: Black men and women weren’t citizens. They weren’t even humans. A runaway slave had no claims to freedom, nor due process, because and he wasn’t entitled to fight for what he didn’t deserve in the first place.
Howell Cobb, the Governor of Georgia, was even more blunt: “If [blacks] make good soldiers, then our whole idea of slavery is wrong.” The men of Glory proved he and his colleagues were epically, fatally wrong. In the actual battle depicted in this movie’s final act, Pvt. William Carney became the first black man to win the Medal of Honor. The bravery of he and his regiment inspired 180,000 black men to enlist in the Union Army. Together, they formed a tidal wave that would drown the Confederacy once and for all.
122 min. R.