Glory (1989) dramatizes Col. Robert Gould Shaw’s (Matthew Broderick) command of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the American Civil War. The 54th was one of the first regiments composed of Black volunteers who served under white officers. The film singles out Major Forbes (Cary Elwes) in addition to Col. Shaw among the officers while focusing on three Black enlisted men: Silas Trip (Denzel Washington), John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), and Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher).
Director Edward Zwick draws on the war films of Robert Aldrich and John Sturges to construct a spectacle of inspirational set pieces that range from the distribution of shoes to a fateful charge at Fort Wagner. These highly romanticized moments that glorify the honor and valor of patriotic sacrifice are balanced by characters whose archetypal designs lead to morally ambiguous perspectives that often contradict one another. Zwick’s stance is generally progressive though not to the extent that he would exchange the grandiose gestures of the war film for a more realistic portrayal of the characters’ interpersonal relationships.
Glory is a film that heroicizes the empowerment of Black soldiers by white officers and then equates the mortal sacrifice of one with the other. The democratizing power of death is the final image of the film and speaks to the rather simplistic approach that the film takes towards history. This is compounded by the fact that Trip, Rawlins, and Searles each represent a well-worn Black character type. Trip is the loudmouthed rebel, Rawlins the sage or mystic, and Searles is the learned man who is more comfortable among white men than Black men. Their conflicting views add a political dimension of some value to the film that is ultimately tramped asunder by the melodramatic posturing of Zwick’s direction.
Without sustained nuance or an investment in actively subverting popular history, Glory flounders. What should have been a course correction in how audiences view the Civil War becomes a reaffirmation of a liberal value system that has dominated leftist Civil War dramas since at least John Huston’s ill-fated The Red Badge Of Courage (1951). Unlike the “lost cause” oriented Gone With The Wind (1939) or the morally meditative Gettysburg (1993), Glory is a film about Black Americans and the Civil War. Yet, despite its uniqueness, the film fails to commit wholeheartedly to that perspective.
As a historical recreation of the Civil War, Glory is more acceptable. The gore, the trauma, and the racism are all, in so far as we shall ever know, authentic. The Civil War was a bloody affair where technology outpaced strategy ten fold as Napoleonic tactics met nineteenth century technological advancements with disastrous results. This is where Glory excels in terms of recreating combat history. It falters some what with its depictions of commands, rank, and military process but those failures come as a means of prioritizing dramatic effect.
Today, Glory remains the only wide-released Civil War film that even attempts to put the Black soldier at the forefront of its narrative. Even though Glory is only mildly successful as a political provocation it has an intrinsic value because of its narrative. Compared to the underrated Buffalo Soldiers (1997) the politics and historical revisionism of Glory look middling at best. The Black experience of and contribution to the American Civil War needs further dramatizations and explorations in our cinema and our popular culture as a whole.