Interesting story though not a very good film
Although it is not a Western, I watched Glory on Netflix the other day. It’s a Civil War drama, as you probably know, and its subject matter is interesting in that it deals with a story that had been largely ignored hitherto, until the screenplay writer and Civil War buff the late Kevin Jarre (most famous among us Westernistas for Tombstone) saw a memorial on Boston Common and became fascinated with the affair of the 54th Massachusetts, a “colored” regiment which served in the war, notably in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner (1863).
Jarre used as a basis the books Brave Black Regiment – History of the fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (1891) by the 54th’s Captain Luis F Emilio, Lay This Laurel (1973) by Lincoln Kirstein and One Gallant Rush (1965) by Peter Burchard as well as the (eloquent) personal letters of Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment’s commander. Despite all this, Glory is far from accurate historically.
The 54th was not actually the first such regiment, as the film suggests; that honor goes to the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment, organized by Senator James Henry Lane. But the 54th, pioneered by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew and the abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman Frederick Douglass, became very famous and did indeed achieve ‘glory’.
So Glory was a worthy effort and is worth a watch. It isn’t a good film, in my opinion, but perhaps that’s by the by.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way. I don’t really count the historical inaccuracy. Hollywood films are entertainments, not documentaries, and they frequently play fast and loose with history. But the picture does suffer from two major weaknesses, poor direction and quite dreadful music. It was helmed by Columbia’s hire Edward Zwick – not a director I knew but then he hasn’t done any Westerns, though he was a producer of the 2017 bio of ‘Catherine’ – actually Caroline – Weldon, Woman Walks Ahead. Glory suffers from sluggish pacing and is often mawkish, sentimental and cloying. Of course this maudlin tone might be what appeals to some viewers, in which case, fine, but it doesn’t to me.
As to the music, that of course is a matter of taste, and many people may admire James Horner’s score and have it on their iPods or phones or something but I found it really bad. It was technically poor, perhaps not Mr Horner’s fault, in that it was way too loud so I had to turn the sound down but then couldn’t hear the dialogue, but worse, it veered erratically between the ultra-slushy and the woo-woo. Ugh.
There was a strong cast, with some African-American actors who have become big names, some perhaps partly because of their parts in this film. For example, second-billed Denzel Washington played the angry young man Trip (the scene of his flogging was extremely well done, if historically inaccurate) who finally manages to integrate and dies a heroic death, and the great Morgan Freeman is the grizzled and worldly-wise fellow who becomes a sergeant-major. However, aside from Shaw, none of the members of the regiment seen in the movie are real people.
Paradoxically, though, in a way anyway, top-billing and most limelight was accorded to Matthew Broderick, as Shaw. I say paradoxically because you might have thought, this being the story of the heroism of the enlisted African-Americans, that they would be the principal focus, but the white officer is the one to whom most attention is given. Actor Morgan Freeman said, “We didn’t want this film to fall under that shadow. This is a picture about the 54th Regiment, not Colonel Shaw, but at the same time the two are inseparable.” But it did fall under that shadow. Furthermore, Broderick as Shaw does look a bit out of his comfort zone in this picture but perhaps that was good – Shaw, who was only 25 at his death, may have been out of his depth.
The battles were well staged and impressively done. There was a decent budget. The appallingly brutal frontal-assault style of combat of the time is accurately and powerfully portrayed. It has been well said that any war film is really an anti-war film and you get that watching this one.
We are also shown some of the incompetence and corruption that was prevalent in the army, as well as the prejudice: we expect loathing of the “Negro” soldier from the Confederate side but not so much from the Union one. The Washington Post review of the film said that in those days, “Americans (on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line) considered blacks childlike, immoral and militarily incapable.” Shaw himself used what we would today call racial slurs in his letters. There is a suggestion that many Northerners wanted regiments such as the 54th to be confined to manual labor. In the movie Colonel Shaw asks the commanding general for the honor of spearheading the assault on Fort Wagner, a key position overlooking the water approach to Charleston Harbor, knowing that the regiment will have to cross a narrow causeway in a frontal attack and will certainly suffer heavy losses. I don’t know if that’s what happened, or whether a “colored” regiment was considered more expendable and could go in first.
At any rate, the 54th did suffer terrible losses, if not quite as terrible as shown in the film, in which they are pretty well totally annihilated. The regiment actually suffered casualties of 20 killed, 125 wounded, and 102 missing (presumed dead) – about 40 percent of the unit’s numbers at that time. We see the corpses unceremoniously tumbled into a mass grave, with Private Trip lying dead practically in the arms of Colonel Shaw, a scene that would have been touching were it not for the schmaltzy Disneyesque music.
I wouldn’t want to see Glory again; it’s too weak a film for that. But it was certainly interesting for a single watch, and did prompt me to get a few books out and look things up.
Leonard Maltin wrote that the film was “grand, moving, breathtakingly filmed (by veteran cinematographer Freddie Francis) and faultlessly performed,” calling it “one of the finest historical dramas ever made.” I tend more to agree with the Washington Post, which said that the film’s “liberal-hearted, misty-eyed giddiness (thanks chiefly to the gushy, rhapsodizing score by James Horner) frequently gets way out of hand.” Rolling Stone said, “Though the film has an evocative look reminiscent of Matthew Brady’s period photographs, Zwick has stuffed the actors’ mouths with numbing bombast. Glory is a shame.” I wouldn’t go that far myself, but it really isn’t very good.
The film grossed $27 million worldwide on an $18 million budget and was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning three, so the producers, cast and crew did something right.
A happy Christmas to all my many readers and may you both have a prosperous, healthy and enjoyable 2024.