A film review by Randy Parker
Copyright 1996 Randy Parker
RATING: ***1/2 (out of ****)
(Review written in 1989)
GLORY--starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan
Freeman--is the true story of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts,
the first black fighting unit recruited by the North during the
Civil War. Broderick plays Robert Gould Shaw, the young white
officer who led the black soldiers into battle. Shaw, the son
of well-to-do abolitionists, hailed from Boston high society.
The letters hewrote home to his parents during the war are on
display at Harvard, and were, evidently, the inspiration for
As the film begins in 1862, Shaw is a Captain in the Northern
forces. Like Private Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) in CASUALTIES
OF WAR, Shaw initially is naive and idealistic about the war--that
is, until his company is attacked by enemy forces. Shaw experiences
first hand the horror and chaos of battle, witnessing mass slaughter
and receiving a minor wound himself when a bullet grazes his
neck. Soon after his recovery, Shaw is promoted to Colonel and
assigned to enlist and train blacks in the war effort.
GLORY is the story not only of Colonel Shaw, but also of the
black soldiers who laid down their lives to free their brothers
from slavery. The film periodically jumps between Shaw's point
of view and the perspective of the black soldiers. The movie
introduces us to a handful of black recruits, and we follow them
from their enlistment through basic training and finally into
The large black cast is uniformly outstanding, especially Washington
who is electrifying as a runaway slave with a big mouth. He is
brash and pushy, always getting into trouble and always looking
for a fight. His bitter, tough guy facade is really just a mask
for his loneliness and vulnerability. Washington provides much
of the film's intensity and emotional power. In one heartbreaking
scene, he is whipped for allegedly deserting the army. When he
removes his shirt to receive the punishment, you cringe at the
sight of his back, which is riddled with ugly scars from his
days as a slave. It makes your blood boil. The humiliation of
the beating is far more traumatic than the actual physical pain
it brings; a tear rolls down Washington's cheek--and will probably
run down your cheek as well. The episode becomes even more tragic
when we learn that Washington wasn't deserting the army at all;
he left camp to look for shoes because his feet were covered
with oozing sores.
Freeman is, as usual, a strong presence, even in a small supporting
role. He plays a grave digger who has buried more white soldiers
than he cares to remember. He quickly becomes a leader among
the black soldiers, holding the group together and serving as
a liaison to the white officers. Colonel Shaw recognizes Freeman's
leadership ability and promotes him to sergeant major, making
him the first black officer in the army.
Andre Braugher makes an impressive film debut in the role of
Thomas Searles, a free black who is one of Shaw's close childhood
friends. Searles is educated and refined, like a white man, prompting
Washington to nickname him "Snow Flake." The burning
question is whether Searles is tough enough to survive basic
training and to kill in combat.
The road from marching drills to battle action is a bumpy one
for the black regiment. The soldiers suffer innumerable hardships,
but somehow they never lose their morale. The army treats the
black soldiers like second class citizens, subjecting them to
racism and discrimination. They are paid only $10 a month, whereas
their white counterparts earn thirteen, and, for a long time,
they have to go without shoes, guns, or uniforms. To make matters
worse, the white military hierarchy is extremely reluctant to
allow the blacks into action, preferring instead to use them
for manual labor. Eventually, however, the regiment receives
its boots, uniforms, rifles, and right to fight, thanks to the
stubborn resolve of Colonel Shaw. Shaw has absolute faith in
his soldiers, and he fights tooth and nail to get them what they
deserve, even if it means threatening a general with blackmail.
Broderick, in fact, is most convincing in the scenes where Shaw
stands up for the regiment. Unfortunately, however, Broderick's
uneven performance is, in many respects, the weak link in the
movie. In an effort to look more mature, Broderick sports a mustache
and a goatee, and throughout the film he slips in and out of
a phony Boston accent. He is never altogether convincing as Shaw
since much of the time his emotions seem forced. The film places
too much weight on Broderick's character and not enough on the
black soldiers, who are more intriguing.
GLORY regains lost ground with its harrowing depiction of war.
The movie shows the devastation of war without resorting to the
unnecessarily graphic gore which marred BORN ON THE FOURTH OF
JULY. GLORY does not try to rattle you with nauseating blood
and guts. Except for a few bullet wounds and one exploding head,
the film, for the most part, leaves the gore to your imagination,
which is not to say that the battle scenes in GLORY are timid.
To the contrary, they are chaotic and horrifying; it's just that
director Edward Zwick (the co-creator of "thirtysomething")
films them with far more subtlety and restraint than Oliver Stone
could ever muster.
The key to GLORY is the group dynamic among the black soldiers.
The movie depicts some of (but not enough of) their customs and
rituals. In one scene, for example, the soldiers motivate themselves
by singing prayers around the campfire. Each man has a chance
to relay a few words of inspiration. A couple of the movie's
most touching moments involve young black children looking up
to the black soldiers with awe, disbelief and pride. The regiment's
greatest triumph comes when the soldiers distinguish themselves
in battle, thereby earning the respect of their white peers and
earning the honor of leading the climactic assault on Fort Wagner.
Like any war film, GLORY has its share of gloom and despair,
but ultimately it proves to be a truly uplifting experience and
an important history lesson, a valuable reminder that despite
what the history books say (or, more precisely, what they do
not say), blacks played a critically important role in the North's
victory over the South--forever changing the evolution of America.