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‘Glory’ 4K UHD (Blu-ray review)

Sony Pictures

Midway through Glory, there’s a scene where Matthew Broderick cuts down watermelons with a sword. As Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw—commander of the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, whose brief but heroic career inspired the movie—he rides among melons stuck on posts, practicing his skills at decapitation. The symbolism was not hard to read, even in 1989 when Glory was released: racist stereotypes were ripe to be cut down.

That this bold stroke was being wielded not by Black actors but the lily-white hand of Ferris Bueller seemed odd, even to critics of the day: “Why does the top billing in this movie go to a white actor?” Roger Ebert asked in his original review. “Why did we see the Black troops through his eyes—instead of seeing him through theirs?” Although the term white savior was not yet in common usage, that’s basically what Robert Gould Shaw seemed to be.

True, but also not.

The movie was written by a white man, Kevin Jarre, who first became aware of the existence of the 54th while walking past the regiment’s monument on Boston Commons. Its famous relief sculpture depicts Shaw on horseback, high above the soldiers who fought and died under his command. Jarre was surprised to learn that Black men had fought for the Union: strange as it may seem now, so were many Americans when Glory first appeared.

This may help explain why Shaw takes center stage and not his troops: the movie’s job is not to reveal a Black experience of the Civil War but to let white audiences know that there was a Black experience at all.

When we first meet Shaw, he’s not a colonel on horseback but a freshly minted junior officer, marching to his first battle at Antietam. In a voiceover (quoted verbatim from Shaw’s actual letters), he writes to his parents that “we fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written, but which will presently be as enviable and as renowned as any.” This is wishful thinking on Shaw’s part. At the time of Antietam, emancipation was far from a popular cause in the North.

Seconds later—after watching a comrade’s head liquefied by a cannonball like, well, a melon—Shaw is knocked unconscious by a neck wound. He wakes to hear the movie’s first line of dialogue spoken by a Black character, a gravedigger: “You all right there, Captain?” The gravedigger’s name is Rawlins, and the man playing him is Morgan Freeman, fresh off his turn as Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy.

The battle feels realistic—not just because of the exploding heads, but because director Ed Zwick (creator of thirtysomething) was wise enough to cast Civil War re-enactors as his extras. They bring a texture of realism to the movie—making music, passing out letters, playing baseball. It helps us see the world of frontline camaraderie that Black soldiers were struggling to enter. While the 54th was raised to fight secessionists, in many ways its hardest battle was to win the respect of white soldiers.

A lot was riding on that struggle.

As one of the first Black regiments, the 54th was an elite unit made up of the finest of Boston’s Black society: two of Frederick Douglass’s sons were volunteers. If anyone could succeed in getting Lincoln to authorize the mass raising of colored troops, it was these guys. That the movie mostly depicts the 54th volunteers as runaway slaves is inaccurate but forgivable. The movie regiment stands in for more than 200,000 Black troops who would eventually fight.

Once the regiment is formed, the movie splits along two narrative tracks.

The first is occupied by Shaw and his second-in-command, Major Forbes (Cary Elwes). Matthew Broderick’s tremulous treble makes him look very wet behind the ears, and Broderick leans into it. Forbes’s job is to confirm Shaw’s worst fears about his leadership. Nobody does feckless drunkard better than Cary Elwes, and he plays it deftly, even if he never seems able to tackle his Boston Brahmin accent (this was before Hollywood decided that all Bostonians talk like Southies).

On the other narrative track is a tentful of Black recruits.

A very young RonReaco Lee as a mute drummer boy of 12; Freeman as the wise elder; Jihmi Kennedy as the affecting but unfortunately named Jupiter Sharts; the late and much-beloved Andre Braugher as Thomas Searles, tormented because he wears glasses and reads Thoreau; and his perpetual tormentor, Trip, played with gleeful defiance by Denzel Washington in an Oscar-nominated role.

There could be, and hopefully someday will be, a remake of Glory like the one Roger Ebert hoped for, in which the story is told mainly through this quintet.

Through them we see the indignities of men being issued pikes and shovels instead of rifles, of being forced to march in disintegrating shoes instead of regulation boots, of being trained—that is, screamed at and abused—by an openly racist drill instructor (The Walking Dead’s John Finn). One day they’re assembled for the announcement that the Confederate Army has pledged to execute or enslave any Black soldier taken in arms. Then comes the final humiliation that the Union government will not be giving them equal pay with white troops.

All of these episodes are historically true, but the movie mostly treats them as problems for Shaw to solve (and thereby show his quality).

This is what leaves the movie open to charges of white saviordom. When the soldiers refuse their lower pay in protest, Shaw sides with his men: if they won’t take pay, then neither will he. All well and good, until you consider that Shaw’s family was rich and losing his pay was no hardship. A scene that rings more honestly is when Trip leaves camp to get decent shoes and is arrested for desertion. As Trip’s shirt is torn away for the ordeal of whipping, we see that his back is already covered with scars he received from his plantation overseers. As Denzel Washington stares into Matthew Broderick’s eyes—refusing to cry out from the lash—his meaning is plain: How are you any different? Shaw is ultimately shamed into becoming a leader.

Glory follows a structure familiar to war movies: first you see them train, then they do it for real. This is where the movie finds its moral center: because the “for real” part either reduces them to manual labor, or forces them to take part in war atrocities like the burning of Darien, Georgia. Dark moments like this are uplifted by more inspiring scenes, as when the 54th is greeted by a gaggle of enslaved children: “Ain’t no dream,” Rawlins tells them. “We ran away slaves and come back fighting men.”

As ever, Freeman brings amazing sensitivity and depth to Rawlins.

When Trip starts a scrape with white soldiers retreating from battle, Rawlins tries to break it up—but even though he’s wearing a sergeant major’s stripes, a white private refuses to accept his authority in the crudest terms possible. Later, when the 54th is preparing for its doomed assault on Battery Wagner, that same private calls out, “Give ‘em hell, Fifty-fourth.” His change of heart may seem like a melodramatic touch… but it does accurately reflect how many white Union soldiers responded when they saw how Black troops faced death.

When the men of the 54th finally get that chance to “ante up and fight like men,” as Rawlins puts it, our cast shows itself at its finest. There’s little dialogue in the final battle scenes—none that can be heard over cannonfire—so everything has to be communicated in their faces. Just before the fatal charge begins, the bespectacled Thomas, wounded in a recent skirmish, nearly falters. Trip, who once mocked him as a house servant, gravely reaches out to steady him. It’s a poignant moment that both actors play flawlessly, and it perfectly captures the grace and dignity of Boston’s memorial to the 54th: the solemn gravity of soldiers about to sacrifice their young lives in a cause they know to be just.

Thirty-five years on, is Glory still relevant?

Fundamentally yes, more than ever. Along with Ken Burns’s The Civil War, the movie raised awareness that Black soldiers not only fought in that war but helped to ennoble it. Sadly we are now in the process of forgetting that.

First, neo-Confederates created the thoroughly debunked counter-myth that Black troops also fought for the South. Now there are many classrooms in the former Confederacy where students are forbidden to learn that the Civil War had anything to do with slavery at all. The struggle that Glory represents is not outdated, because it’s not really behind us.

Civil War films tend to age poorly.

They either romanticize white supremacy (Gone With the Wind) or both-sides history to to dullness (Gettysburg). You can fault Ed Zwick and Kevin Jarre for centering Shaw… but it would be hard not to center him, considering how his story ended. Faithful to history, the movie’s final scene depicts Shaw’s dead body being thrown into a mass grave with his soldiers. Though it was meant as an insult, Shaw’s father refused to have his son reburied: “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers… what a body-guard he has!”

Which is just right. Shaw died leading his troops, but the troops were the ones whose sacrifice rose above humiliation to glory.

Extras include audio commentary, video commentary, deleted scenes with optional commentary, featurettes, and trailer.

 

 

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