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Glory: Reflections on a Civil War Classic: June/July 2009

By Gary W. Gallagher 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: June 01, 2009 
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Nearly 20 years have passed since Glory, director Edward Zwick's treatment of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, made its debut in December 1989. When Glory opened, there had not been a true Civil War film for nearly a quarter-century—since Shenandoah in 1965, although Westerns with Civil War connections such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967), The Undefeated (1969) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) had appeared at regular intervals. Because Glory was not booked at any of the theaters in State College, Pennsylvania, where I was teaching, I drove with friends to see it in nearby Altoona, and shortly thereafter arranged a screening for students at Penn State University. I subsequently watched it for a third time at a large theater in New York City. As a result of those three viewings, Glory became—and has since remained—my favorite Civil War film.

I find it very satisfying on three levels. First, the principal actors do a fine job. Denzel Washington's Private Trip, Morgan Freeman's Sergeant John Rawlins, Jihmi Kennedy's Private Jupiter Sharts and Andre Braugher's Corporal Thomas Searles comprise a memorable quartet, who as enlistees in the 54th follow Hollywood's venerable tradition of placing men of divergent backgrounds together in military service. I initially doubted whether someone best known as the teenager Ferris Bueller should play Colonel Shaw, but Matthew Broderick proved a very pleasant surprise. Cliff De Young as Colonel James Montgomery, who memorably ordered the burning of Darien, Ga., in June 1863, and John Finn as the unyielding Sergeant Major Mulcahy also contributed riveting performances in supporting roles. Kevin Jarre's screenplay, which drew heavily on Shaw's wartime letters and other historical documents, gave the actors first-rate material with which to work.

I also believe that Glory's staging of a Union attack at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, represents the best combat sequence in Civil War cinema. A junior officer in the 2nd Massachusetts at Antietam, Shaw wrote about his experience shortly after the action: "Every battle makes me wish more and more that the war was over. It seems almost as if nothing could justify a battle like that of the 17th, and the horrors inseparable from it." Those horrors stand out in Glory, as viewers move forward with Shaw's regiment. Artillery rounds burst in trees, Rebel defenders behind a rail fence send a shower of musketry into the blue ranks, and an officer's head bursts into red spray when hit by a shell. Unable to stand the fire, the Federals retreat, including one soldier, his right leg reduced to a bloody stump, who drags himself toward the relative safety of Union lines as a slightly wounded Shaw hugs the ground.

I consider Glory to be most important as the first film to present black soldiers as significant military actors in the Civil War. Prior to its release, African Americans in the Union Army had been largely absent from modern American conceptions of the conflict. Sixteen students at Ohio State University played members of the 54th in the film, one of whom spoke to this point: "This information wasn't in the history books. It's like an unquenchable thirst. The history is so rich—you want to jump right in with both feet." Denzel Washington reacted similarly. "I knew absolutely nothing," he confessed. "I didn't even know that blacks fought in the Civil War."

Theatergoers across the United States left screenings with a similar realization that the military struggle between 1861 and 1865 had not been an all-white affair. In that respect, Glory worked a sea change in popular perceptions about the conflict.

Greater attention to U.S. Colored Troops—as the black regiments were denominated—reached a high point with the dedication on September 12, 1996, of the African-American Civil War Memorial in the historic Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The monument features a sculpture by Ed Hamilton titled "The Spirit of Freedom," around which a series of stainless steel plaques list the names of approximately 200,000 black soldiers and 7,000 white officers who served in USCT units.

In January 1999, a facility that offered exhibits and research materials operated by the African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation and Museum opened a short distance from the monument. Glory surely deserves considerable credit for spurring interest in creation of the monument.

Zwick's film gets most important aspects of the 54th's story right. These include the second-class treatment of black soldiers in terms of pay and duty, open hostility to their recruitment by many white Union soldiers and the importance of military service to the black men's sense of manhood. The film often aligns perfectly with historical evidence. For example, deployment of the 54th to Beaufort, S.C., brings the men, and the viewer, face to face with slavery. The soldiers encounter a number of local black children, and Rawlins urges them to tell their parents that the appearance of the 54th means the year of jubilee has come. On June 8, 1863, Corporal James Henry Gooding of the 54th wrote about recently liberated black residents in Beaufort: "The contrabands did not believe we were coming; one of them said, 'I nebber bleeve black Yankee comee here help culer men.' They think now the kingdom is coming sure enough."

This is not to say that no errors or distortions mar the film. The 54th's climactic assault along the beach toward Battery Wagner goes in the wrong direction, too many members of the regiment are former slaves (most were free black men from the North), Broderick's Shaw lacks some of the real man's ambivalence about abolition and Trip's character betrays anachronistically modern attitudes, to name four instances.

Yet such lapses detract only slightly from a film that combines a compelling story, memorable characters, fine acting, strong direction, beautiful cinematography and a haunting musical score. Glory holds up remarkably well after 20 years, evoking a powerful range of emotions in viewers—including many, such as I, who have seen it multiple times and certainly will watch it again.

 



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