Glory: History vs. Hollywood

Do the soldiers of the 54th go through a great change? In what ways?

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Do the soldiers of the 54th go through a great change? In what ways?

  • What is the overall review of the movie Glory according to the following excerpt? Is it a good movie for a history class to watch? Why? Why not?


    Though ranging from factually misrepresentative to essentially truthful, film critics of Glory all agree on one thing: the film is not historically flawless, but in the end it breaks ground in carrying its message of the role blacks played in the success of the North in the Civil War. 

    Glory is, without question, one of the best movies ever made about the American Civil War (a.k.a. "The War Between the States"). The reason isn't just the way in which Kevin Jarre's script illuminates a frequent oversight of history books, nor is it the fine acting or epic feel that director Edward Zwick achieves on a modest budget – although those elements are part of Glory's effectiveness. Rather, it is the way in which the filmmakers weave an impressively large historical tapestry without ever losing sight of the characters that make up the individual threads. Glory has important things to say, yet it does so without becoming pedantic.

    For the most part, the official history texts written about the Civil War ignore the participants of African Americans in the war effort. In fact, nearly 200,000 fought for the North, and, at one point, the South issued a declaration that any black man taken prisoner in a Union uniform would be summarily executed. Glory tells the story of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the "trial balloon" for black soldiers. Commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), the regiment was comprised entirely of African Americans – some of whom were ex-slaves – willing to fight for the North. The U.S. government was undecided about how to use black soldiers. At first, the army intended to use them only for manual labor, but, later in the war, some saw combat.

    The historical backdrop against which Glory transpires is mostly historically accurate. In fact, a great deal of effort went into getting the details correct. The main events shown in the film happened much as they are depicted, some of the key characters (Shaw, Frederick Douglas, etc.) existed, and the outcome was as Zwick presents it. Many of the secondary characters are either partially or entirely fictionalized, but they are intended to represent a broad cross-section of the types of men who joined the Massachusetts 54th. The danger in this approach is that it becomes easy to trivialize the individuals, turning them into types rather than people. Fortunately, Jarre's screenplay avoids the trap. The characters in Glory never seem less than three-dimensional.

    Glory opens with a brief prologue at Antietum, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. During the fight, Shaw suffers a minor injury and is left by the enemy for dead. Later, after returning home on leave, he learns that the United States government is planning to form a regiment comprised exclusively of black soldiers. When offered the command, Shaw accepts, and convinces his best friend, Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), to join him. In addition to focusing on Shaw and Forbes, Glory turns the camera on the small group of men who share a tent: the angry and resentful Private Trip (Denzel Washington); Private Jupiter Sharts (Jhimi Kennedy), a crack shot with a nervous disposition; Corporal Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), an educated man who grew up with Shaw; and Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), a runaway slave who speaks with the voice of wisdom and reason.

    The first half of Glory follows the Massachusetts 54th as they undergo training, some of which is brutal. There are times when Shaw seems out of his depth, such as when he has Trip publicly flogged for desertion (the standard punishment for the act, but, once the scars from past whippings on Trip's back are revealed, it is shown to be the result of poor judgment). During the film's second hour, the regiment goes on active duty. At first, they perform a series of menial tasks, such as burning an unprotected town. Eventually, however, Shaw convinces the army to use the Massachusetts 54th in combat, and, after winning a skirmish, they become the vanguard for an attack on the seemingly impregnable Fort Wagner.

    Glory could have easily become one-sided, but, instead of presenting just Shaw's perspective, Zwick successfully gives us five distinct points-of-view. We see events not only from Shaw's vantage point (his is the "dominant" voice, since much of the narration is taken directly from the real-life historical documents written by the Colonel), but from those of Trip, Jupiter, Thomas, and Rawlins. In the end, none of these men are shortchanged. The sense of balance presented between the characters is one of Glory's strengths.

    Obviously, the issue of racial inequality is at the film's forefront. The Massachusetts 54th began a long and proud tradition in the United States army of black units acquitting themselves admirably on the battlefield, despite rarely being given their due by their fellow white soldiers. What began with the 54th regiment continued throughout the Civil War and through two world wars. The greatest achievement of the 54th was to prove to the army that black soldiers could be relied upon to fight with the same tenacity and patriotism as white soldiers.

    One of the myths of the 1800s is that blacks were treated with fairness and equity in the North. Often, this was not the case. While slavery was abolished north of the Mason-Dixon line, racism still flourished. This is one of the points Glory emphasizes. There are plenty of white, Union soldiers who believe Shaw's men to be incapable of doing anything more meaningful than menial tasks. As an entity, the army practiced racism, offering black soldiers wages of $10 per month, although whites were paid $13.

    Brotherhood is often a key theme of war stories (witness the title of the recent HBO series, "Band of Brothers"), and, to a certain extent, it is here. Because of the outside forces aligned against them, the members of the 54th are exceptionally close. One of the movie's most memorable scenes occurs the night before the assault on Fort Wagner, as various members of the regiment gather to sing songs, pray, and offer up words of inspiration. Glory also makes a point of showing how isolated Shaw is. As a white man and an officer, he is depicted as being separated from his men by a huge chasm – a divide he gradually closes through some of his actions (obtaining shoes and uniforms for the men, agreeing to forego his own paycheck when they decline theirs, and pushing for them to go into battle) and is finally able to bridge at the end. In the heat of the fight, men are color blind.

    Glory is constructed as an inspirational tale, but the inspiration is not forced or false. It is rooted in the characters and the manner in which they overcome obstacles, including, most prominently, their own personal demons. Trip, the angriest and most bitter of them, must learn to fight as a member of a team. Thomas, timid and bookish, must gain mental toughness. In large part because of the film, there has been a greater awareness of the importance of African American soldiers in the Civil War. Even if it were not for that development, Glory would still be a memorable motion picture. It has all the elements of a great film, and it remains as stirring and forceful today as it was during its initial release.

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