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Bucket List Movie #477: Glory (1989)

Updated on January 17, 2015
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Edward Zwick.
Edward Zwick. | Source


Today's BLM, 1989's Glory, was a film that tackled issues of diversity by setting it in a time when the word "diversity" may as well not have existed: the Civil War. The screenplay was written by the late Kevin Jarre (who was also the adopted son of legendary composer Maurice Jarre) after he'd learned that there were black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, most notably the 54th Infantry of Massachusetts, lead by Col. Robert Shaw (portrayed by Matthew Broderick in the film). Some were free men, some were runaway slaves, but they fought alongside white Northern soldiers. Sadly, but not surprisingly, they were treated with discrimination by Northern and Southern soldiers alike, and the powers that be gypped them out of fair compensation. Still, they fought loyally and bravely, grateful for being given a purpose greater than they could have hoped for, and they inspired legions of other black men to enlist as well. It is universally believed that the 54th regiment created a ripple effect that helped the North win the war.

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Denzel Washington at the 1990 Academy Awards.
Denzel Washington at the 1990 Academy Awards. | Source

But Glory, like any great war film, never flinches from the mortal price of victory in war (really, is there ever a winner?). The 54th regiment's mission to overtake Fort Wagner was basically a suicide mission, and no one got out alive. Glory is more interested in how men at war sacrifice themselves for what they believe is the greater good. It made heroes out of the 54 regiment, but at the cost of their lives. Jarre did meticulous research and Edward Zwick, who was best known as a director for the TV series thirtysomething, directs with confidence and authority.

Tiresome Rant for the Day: I was born in Massachusetts, but have lived in the South pretty much all my life, and I get weary of hardcore Southerners' insistence on referring to the Civil War as "the War of Northern Aggression". I'm not trying to paint the Yankees as perfect saints (Massachusetts was, after all, the first state to have slaves), but I don't believe for a millisecond that the South was handing out cookies and milk during this time, either. It is a naïve oversimplification to paint one side as entirely good, the other as entirely bad. I love Gone with the Wind, but I often wonder if it did more harm than good in this cultural attitude. Remember: war makes villains of everyone. Glory doesn't deify the North (there were plenty of racist bastards on that side, too), but the North did more to help the slaves than the South ever did, so it's refreshing to see the North be given a break for a change.

Glory is a beautiful movie, in spite of its horrific violence, and has a stirring, unforgettable score by James Horner. Horner is one of my favorite film composers because of his distinctive sound (laugh if you must, but The Pagemaster is among my favorite Horner scores). He's so distinctive, he's downright repetitive, but his music evokes such powerful emotions, you can forgive him anything.

Denzel Washington won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award as the surly Pvt. Trip, who starts out a smack-talking bully, but grows into a thoughtful, dedicated soldier who finally understands the cause he's fighting for. Washington brings what would become his trademark poise and dignity to the part, launching what would be a long, groundbreaking career. Also in fine form is the ever-reliable Morgan Freeman as Rawlins, a kind but stern senior officer who is able to rise to the rank of sergeant major. I especially liked Andre Braugher as Thomas, who is the odd man amongst the regiment: the smart (if slightly effete) son of a free black man and a close friend of Col. Shaw, Thomas is a man without a country, making him an easy target for Trip's sneering antagonism.

If I have one complaint, it's that I wish Broderick and Cary Elwes could have switched roles. Broderick is simply too boyish and twerpy to carry off the part of a military leader. Yes, I get that Shaw was also a young man, but Broderick simply does not have the presence to intimidate his inferiors. Elwes, on the other hand, manages to convey power and the potential for leadership in spite of his comparatively thankless part (apparently, many of his scenes were cut). Put it this way: wouldn't you sooner follow Westley into battle over Ferris Bueller? Broderick was the bigger star, however, and Hollywood is nothing if not a business, so it's something I have to grudgingly overlook.

Glory is one of the most effective war movies I've ever seen, balancing emotion with brutal reality. It never falls into the tropes of Mighty Whitey or the Magical Negro. Col. Shaw is a man with doubts and flaws, and the black soldiers he leads are ordinary men who just want to survive this extraordinary task. Glory is also a relevant parable of what can be achieved when differences are set aside for the greater good.


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