Aug. 19, 2009
Glory (1989)
Grade: 84/100

Director: Edward Zwick
Stars: Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman

What it's about. Set in 1862 and 1863 during the Civil War. Based on a true story, although most of the cast play fictional characters. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is an idealistic young man, the son of Boston abolitionists. Partly due to family connections, and partly to his courage, Shaw is promoted to colonel and put in charge of one of the first black regiments. The black soldiers slowly earn grudging respect, eventually receiving rifles, shoes, uniforms, and, finally, field action.

The regiment has perhaps a thousand men, but only four are featured. These include measured middle aged Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), clever but angry escaped slave Trip (Denzel Washington), bookish and spectacled Thomas (Andre Braugher), and stammering farm hand Sharts (Jimhi Kennedy). All, of course, become as courageous under fire as Shaw, who is particularly eager to be die in action, since that plus his 200 letters to home and a prodigious statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens will ensure his lasting heroic fame.

How others will see it. This lavishly produced and historically credible war epic will impress most everyone. Given that it is a war movie and American history lesson virtually without female participation, it is unsurprising that women and non-U.S. viewers see it slightly less favorably, per the imdb user ratings.

Glory was a box office success and picked up three Oscars among five nominations. Denzel Washington won Best Supporting Actor for his proud yet bitter performance. Surprisingly, director Zwick was ignored by the Academy, although ten years later he landed an undeserved Oscar for the bogus Bard romance Shakespeare in Love.

How I felt about it. The most important decision made by Zwick and/or screenwriter Kevin Jarre was to focus the story on the four principal black soldiers, who all share the same tent. This allows character development, albeit at the cost of losing some of the scope of a thousand man regiment. The four characters are different, but all are in the end honorable.

Cowards need not apply, although you know many soldiers of any era have alarm bells going off inside their head that report, "Get the hell out of here!" Laziness, opportunistic theft, and other acts of normal human soldier motivation are also absent. We wouldn't want anyone to get the wrong idea. But there are plenty of racist white soldiers, the better for moral outrage on the part of viewers.

Zwick's second most important call was to downsize the roles of first-billed Broderick and third-billed Cary Elwes, the nice guy young white second in command. Elwes of Princess Bride fame hardly has a line without Broderick standing nearby, and although Broderick shows up regularly, his character never broadens. He's an earnest soldier throughout. In real life, Shaw was married two months before his death, but even this important event is excised from the story.

But it was necessary for Zwick to make a choice. Is the movie about Shaw's inevitable path to immortality, or is it about the first black soldiers of the Civil War? Zwick went with the black soldiers, the right choice since this provides more to work with. Shaw, after all, can only be heroic. Which is uninteresting unless he's leading the charge.