Patriotic Movie Review: "Glory"

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Robert Gould Shaw leads the US Civil War's first all-black volunteer company, fighting prejudices of both his own Union army and the Confederates.
3.5

Rating: R
Length: 122 minutes
Release Date: December 15, 1989
Directed by: Edward Zwick
Genre: Drama / History / War

Many a war film centering on the Vietnam War has been made, and plenty more have focused on both World Wars. For some reason, the Civil War hasn't had nearly as many screen adaptations, although it has been portrayed on television quite a few times. With "Glory," the battle between the North and South held in post-Colonial America gets the entire focus of a film that is as much about brotherhood, adversity and bigotry as it is about war.

The film starts with Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), a young Captain who has just been promoted to Colonel in the Union Army so that he can lead the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. This particular infantry is historically significant as the first unit to include black soldiers. However, the bigotry that still exists in the North means that the soldiers don't have adequate training supplies, including boots to wear. This doesn't deter Shaw or his long-time friend Thomas (Andre Braugher), who along with Maj. Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes) and drill sergeant Mulcahy (John Finn) try to get the men trained and ready for battle. There is every expectation of failure due to decreased pay for the men and lack of supplies, but the unit perseveres.

Among the men in the regiment who begin to bond are former gravedigger Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), who is smart enough to teach a thing or two to everyone around him including the initially insolent Pvt. Trip (Denzel Washington), a runaway slave so psychologically haunted by his torturous past that it threatens to derail his Army career. Together, they learn that they may all be different, but they have to learn to work together if they don't want to end up dead. The regiment has been ordered to Charleston, where they will try to occupy Charleston Harbor by battling it out with a Southern stronghold at Ft. Wagner. It's one of the guts-or-glory battles that is the hallmark of many a war movie, yet the progression of the men from an untrained, motley crew to professional soldiers means the battle has so much more at stake for the audience.

When "Glory" first came out, Washington was best known for his series regular role of Dr. Philip Chandler on "St. Elsewhere." After filming 137 episodes of the beloved show, it was time for Washington to take a go at films. He went in a TV star and came out a true movie star who is still a household name today. He won a well-deserved Oscar for his performance as Pvt. Trip, who is so headstrong that nobody could see his transformation coming. In the span of two hours, Trip goes from a self-destructive soldier to a true leader. This is a huge progression, yet Washington is so skilled as an actor that he makes the change subtly. Washington gives a great performance, but he never overshadows any of the other actors. It's a unique talent that can accomplish that kind of tightrope performance, but Washington does it effortlessly.

Washington isn't the only actor to really break out after appearing in the film. This was Braugher's first-ever screen acting gig, and he nailed it, going on to become a very successful TV and film mainstay. Freeman really should have earned an Oscar nomination alongside Washington, but the fact that he didn't does not take away from his performance. Broderick makes the audience forget about Ferris Bueller, which is no easy thing to do considering that character's pop culture status at the time. Elwes was also trying to shed a character, that of Westley from "The Princess Bride." Like Broderick, he succeeds in making the audience temporarily forget about Westley, even if that character will likely continue to be the one for which he is best known.

In the end, the biggest accomplishment of "Glory" may be that it goes beyond the usual societal shackles that keep people from truly getting to know each other. Things like education, family background and financial security mean absolutely nothing on the battlefield. Instead, a man's worth is judged by his bravery and character, something that doesn't always happen in a world obsessed with status and possessions. It's hard for a film to pull off this lesson without sounding preachy. However, for its 122-minute running time, "Glory" proves that everyone has the capacity for greatness no matter the color of their skin or their social stature. Even people who don't generally like war films can get on board and enjoy this film.