Thirty-One Years After its Debut, “Glory” is Still Relevant

Its message is hard to miss, and that’s just what we need.

Steve Jones
Sep 7, 2020 · 4 min read
Whipping scene from Glory. (Courtesy IMDB)

For a filmmaker with a message, sometimes the subtle approach is not the best approach.

Sometimes you have to beat people over the head so they get your point.

That’s the case with Edward Zwick’s 1989 Glory. Glory is anti-war, anti-segregation, and anti-racism all at the same time. It was Black lives matter a quarter century before that phrase came into usage.

There are only a few good Civil War films. Glory is one of them.

Because action and war movies usually need an antagonist — an enemy — to work, Civil War movies are problematic. After all, it was brother against brother, American against American. How do you effectively portray an enemy there?

It’s easiest to depict a man-v.-self scenario, such as The Red Badge of Courage(1951), or a man-v.-society story, such as Lincoln (2012). In that film, director Steven Spielberg wisely avoids historical sweep and focuses on Lincoln’s effort to get the 13th Amendment through Congress.

Glory tackles the same enemy as Lincoln — Black inequality. While Lincoln focuses on abolishing slavery, Glory examines the social denial that Blacks were equal; that they were every bit as capable of fighting as Whites; and that they should be allowed to fight in a war that, by mid-1863, had become about destroying slavery as well as preserving the Union.

Glory has some problems, most notably Cary Elwes, horribly miscast as a composite friend of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick, proving he could handle drama after Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Shaw was a Massachusetts blue-blood whose family were ardent abolitionists. When the North approved enlisting Blacks into the army, the Massachusetts governor nominated Shaw to lead one of the first Black regiments, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

The movie tells the story of Shaw’s struggle to get the 54th into combat. Ultimately, the regiment leads a charge against Fort Wagner, a Confederate coastal fort outside Charleston Harbor in South Carolina.

The personal story of the regiment turns around fine performances by Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Andre Braugher, and Jihmi Kennedy. Washington won a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Private Tripp, a former slave who enlisted in the 54th. All the Black characters are composites of actual people.

The movie does not shy away from the social ambivalence northerners felt about fighting a war for Black freedom and letting Blacks enlist in the traditionally White U.S. Army. Irish Sergeant Mulcahy (John Finn), brought in to train the recruits, unleashes a string of racially charged epithets guaranteed to make advocates of sanitized history cringe. So does, Cliff de Young as Colonel James Montgomery, a Kansas abolitionist who cares about personal glory more than elevating the status of Black recruits.

Glory also has some historical problems. A minor one is that the 54th is attacking the wrong way on the beach toward Fort Wagner in of the movie’s final scenes. They actually attacked from the south, up the beach, instead of from the north, down the beach as the movie depicts.

But a major flaw is the scene which, no doubt, clinched Washington’s Oscar. Fed up with marching either shoeless, or nearly so, because White quartermasters won’t properly supply the Black regiment, Tripp goes AWOL in search of better shoes and food. When soldiers catch Tripp, Shaw sentences him to be lashed to a wagon wheel and whipped.

What a horribly inaccurate scene. Shaw, the abolitionist, would have been well aware of whipping’s symbolism, especially of a former slave. He would never have ordered the punishment.

Plus, in 1861 the U.S. Army had done away with whipping as punishment for any soldier. It simply would not have happened.

The whipping scene is the fulcrum of the movie; the action either leads to it or out of it. And it proves my point.

Whether historically accurate or not, it drives home Zwick’s message. In this story, Shaw, ardent abolitionist, was trapped by rules and regulations. He had to whip Tripp; that’s what the army had “always done” with soldiers gone AWOL.

With the whipping scene, Zwick is targeting the monolithic institutional socio-governmental systems that had supported slavery since 1619 and would allow Jim Crowism after slavery was abolished.

And, whether historically accurate or not, the scene grabs audiences by the throat and makes them pay attention. It is a hammer blow of social realization. The single tear that courses down Washington’s cheek at the climax of the scene drives it home.

Another scene, perhaps ham-handed, attempts a similar message. In it Shaw is taking sabre practice. As his horse runs, he slashes at watermelon halves mounted on fence posts. Watermelons, of course, were long the Jim Crow symbol for Blacks. In hacking away at them, Shaw is the White ally, thinking, perhaps, that with just a little more force, he can liberate Blacks from the White system by himself. Of course, the events of 2020 prove again that changing anything systemic is a collective effort.

At the end of the movie, the 54th Massachusetts breaches Fort Wagner, but supporting regiments fail to capture it. (Hey — there are no spoilers in a 30-year-old movie!) But, just as they did in actual events, the men of the 54th comported themselves with bravery and courage, leading the way for even more victories in the assault against the White system.

Glory has some flaws, but it is a standout movie about race, racism, and the Civil War. It is still relevant, even 31 years on. Just as 2020 has shown us, sometimes we have to be beat on the head the get the picture.

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