3 out of 5
Directed by: Edward Zwick
Man, the battlefield during the Civil War era – at least as represented in Edward Zwick’s 1989 film Glory – must’ve been horror. Not that being in hostile territory with whatever weapons and aggressions aimed your way is ever, I assume, not terrifying, but during those single-load rifle times, when the apparent strategy was to stand single file and just throw men at bullets, aiming your own weapon into a miasma of noise and dust, with there being no determination beyond luck as to whether or not you get shot in the face… what a waste.
This is something that comes across effectively in Glory – when Zwick isn’t getting too poetic about it, as in the opening sequence – even in its evenly tempered, PG-rated tone: the “glory” is in accepting that you’ll die, and that that death may not be especially, y’know, glorious. The rest of this story about the first African-American regiment in the War, the 54th, as led by their very white Colonel, Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick) and his Major, Capot Forbes (Cary Elwes), is split in its effectiveness: scenes that focus on the boys and men of the troops, distilled down to representative “tough guy,” “wise guy,” and “naive guy” personalities by actors Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher, are pretty gripping, and carry with them a sense of gravity and relative reality similar to the battle sequences. And despite the movie having to rely on the aforementioned personality buckets, these are certainly notable actors, and they bring a sense of history to their roles. However, when the movie switches over to Broderick, struggling with getting his regiment proper representation – and the right to fight – the movie can’t seem to decide if Shaw knew what he was doing or not, with Broderick maybe a little too baby-faced to help smooth out that wishy-washiness. This makes the white savior aspect of the film rather cringey – a more decisive script or terse actor may have distracted from that (or even added dimension to it) – making a non-student of history such as myself question the reality of what’s being depicted; however, it is interesting to note that these two elements are pretty separated, and the majority of the screentime felt like it was allotted to the troops, their story being wholly more compelling.
And Glory succeeds in that juxtaposition of people fighting for representation, just so they can have the right to die on their own terms… As a historical epic, it feels all too simplified and easy, designed more to make audiences feel pretty good about our past than actually think too hard about anything, but there are enough counterpoints sprinkled throughout to possibly interest those paying attention to find out more.