Thursday, 5 September 2013

Movie Review: Glory (1989)


Based on the true story of the first all-black unit assembled by the Union to fight in the Civil War, Glory is a sincere drama, capturing some of the earliest steps in the long struggle towards civil rights.

Union Colonel Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is relatively young, but has already experienced Civil War combat, and the bitter taste of a heavy defeat at the Battle of Antietam. With the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in ten rebel states, Shaw, still in his twenties, is tasked to lead the new all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. A large number of ex-slaves join the unit, including the hot-headed Silas Trip (Denzel Washington), the older and wiser John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), and Shaw's former house servant, the studious Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher).

With the help of his second-in-command Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), Shaw starts the process of training the men and readying them for combat. The newly minted soldiers learn quickly and are eager to prove their abilities, but the unit receives minimal attention from headquarters, and it takes a long time for the 54th to be supplied with proper boots, uniforms, and pay. Once fully trained and equipped, Shaw has to forcefully insist that his unit is more than a symbolic gesture, and that the 54th should be allowed to join combat operations. He finally gets his wishes in the assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner.

With the 54th having seen limited combat action, Glory is less a war film than an exploration of a quiet seismic shift, a society redefining itself through men in training during war, the change unfolding in a barely controlled mess. The script by Kevin Jarre focuses on the human details, black men entering the white man's world, yearning to be treated as equals but facing attitudes that are both entrenched and yet enabling change, with the changes both incredibly rapid and yet not rapid enough.

The Union wants to create the 54th but does not want to treat the unit equally; the army invests in training the former slaves but does not want to put them into battle; and the black men know that neither they nor their ancestors ever had it as good, and yet their condition remains unequal and therefore not good enough. Glory rides along a seam in history, a time of tumultuous change both in defining the soul of a nation and redrawing the practical implications to its people.

Edward Zwick directs with deliberate pacing, allowing the characters of Shaw, Trip, Rawlins and Searles to evolve and find their place in the chaos of civil war.

Matthew Broderick's performance is hesitant, the film and the role simply too big for him, but this is a case where the hesitancy actually fits the context. Shaw was promoted beyond his experience and abilities, and his command of the unit would be more bravado and theory than true application of earned knowledge. Broderick rarely appears comfortable, and in trying to lead a collection of coloured men into a brave new world of freedom, likely neither did Shaw.

Denzel Washington adds the dash and energy as the young ex-slave with a large chip on his shoulder, and earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. Silas Trip may be angry, ungrateful, selfish, and looking for a fight at every opportunity, but Jarre also allows him to be the most perceptive soldier. Regardless of who wins the war, Trip is under no illusions about the future. For black men, meaningful change is a not few months away, but rather generations removed.

Glory's final battle, while overdrawn at the edges, is beautifully filmed and captures the lyrical horror of war. Zwick is in his element finding the human hearts in the middle of inhuman carnage, as a brave victory for the ages emerges from the brutal defeat of the day.






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