Note: I had written this film review for an encyclopedia and then the project itself got cancelled. So, I decided to upload it to my site.
Glory is a 1989 Civil War film that shares the story of the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry regiment, one of the first units comprised of African American soldiers. Directed by Edward Zwick, the screenplay was written by Kevin Jarre, and the film merges historical people and events with fictional characters and subplots. Its ensemble cast shares the story of this unit from its formation to its most prominent place in history: the courageous yet futile attempt to take Fort Wagner in South Carolina from the Confederates. Although the 54th Massachusetts suffered enormous casualties in this historic event, it was the impetus to numerous other African American units forming in the Union army, with nearly 200,000 black soldiers ultimately fighting in the war. Plus, their mettle under fire convinced many people that black men could fight bravely and well.
Glory received numerous award nominations, with Denzel Washington winning an Academy Award for best actor in a supporting role and a Golden Globe for best performance by an actor in a supporting role in a motion picture. Additional Academy Awards won were for best cinematography and best sound.
Robert Gould Shaw
Although soldiers in the 54th Massachusetts were all black men, officers were white, and the unit was led by Robert Gould Shaw. Portrayed by Matthew Broderick in Glory, the real-life Shaw was a member of a prominent abolitionist family in Boston. Early in the film, viewers see Shaw fighting at the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day in American history. Shaw is wounded, lying stunned on the ground when a grave digger, played by Morgan Freeman, checks to see if Shaw was alive before moving on to his next burial.
Shaw is named colonel of the 54th Massachusetts, where Freeman portrays a fictional soldier named John Rawlins. Shaw ultimately comes to rely upon Rawlins for insights into the needs of the fighting men, including one of the most challenging: Trip, played by Denzel Washington.
Racism and Other Challenges
The unit faces challenges because of racism, ranging from that of the unit’s Irish drill sergeant to white soldiers from other units to civilians mocking them as they march. They also face multiple challenges as they learn to become soldiers and to understand what it means to be a black man fighting a war previously fought by only white men.
Clashes also occur between the educated Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) and Trip, who had been enslaved. In the film, numerous characters were former slaves but, historically, the unit was mostly made up of free black men.
The film captures Shaw’s inability to quickly get shoes for his men, plus his tenacity, also portraying how black soldiers received less pay than white ones ($10/month versus $13). In protest, Shaw and the men refuse any pay until there is parity.
54th Massachusetts in the Civil War
Although soldiers were initially recruited in February 1863, they saw no military action for months; instead, they drilled and performed manual labor tasks. In June, they were ordered to torch homes in Darien, Georgia, a tactic that greatly disturbed Shaw. In July, they skirmished at James Island in South Carolina. Shaw then volunteered to lead the charge against Fort Wagner.
Virtually a suicide mission, the men needed to march on a narrow strip of beach along the ocean, making them vulnerable to cannon fire from the fort. The night before this occurs, the film shows the soldiers gathered around a campfire, singing gospel songs and sharing testimonials. Rawlins reminds them that, if they needed to die, to do so facing the enemy.
As the march began on July 18, Shaw hands over his personal letters to a journalist and asked him to remember what he saw that day. The film then showed, in significant detail, the horror of the battle and the bravery of the men who continued to face the enemy despite overwhelming odds.
Shaw was killed in action, with nearly half of his soldiers killed, wounded or captured. The film poignantly ends as the men, black and white, are tossed together in a mass grave.
Film Credits and Criticisms
The roll of credits is especially long, including living history reenactors from numerous states and dozens of stunt professionals.
Criticisms include how the story was told largely from a white man’s perspective (Shaw), but it was his letters that were used to create the film, along with material from two books. Another criticism is that black characters were fictional, rather than portrayals of historical men. Overall, Glory was lauded for its accurate portrayal of Civil War battles and its panoramic yet intimate storytelling.
Canby, Vincent. “Review/Film; Black Combat Bravery in the Civil War.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Dec. 1989.
Ebert, Roger. “Glory Movie Review & Film Summary (1989) | Roger Ebert.” RogerEbert.com, Roger Ebert, Jan. 1990.
Knighton, Andrew. “What the Film Glory Got Right About the American Civil War and What It Did Not.” WAR HISTORY ONLINE, Timera Media, 10 May 2017.
Palmer, Brian. “The True Story Behind the Movie Glory.” Community Table, Community Table, 18 July 2013.
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