Even though the 54th Massachusetts lost half of their numbers during the climactic battle, Glory remains one of the best Civil War films.
The film mixes both real and fictional people in their efforts to tell the 54th’s story. Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is the 54th’s commanding officer. His letters also help to inform the film’s script. Shaw is joined by friend Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes) in his efforts to command the regiment. Forbes is based on both Edward Needles Hallowell and his brother Norwood. Similarly, Sergeant Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) and Private Silas Trip (Denzel Washington) are both based on William Harvey Carney. Carney would survive the war, work for the U.S. Post Office, and receive the Medal of Honor. This is certainly one aspect of the film that borrows from American history while taking dramatic liberties. If they didn’t take liberties, Trip would be alive at the end of the film. Instead, he’s dead on the beach right next to Col. Shaw.
The 54th Massachusetts made its march towards South Carolina in spite of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. If Davis had his way, the entire regiment would be dead. But anyway, it’s after Shaw complains about Col. James Montgomery’s (Cliff DeYoung) tactics that they receive their orders to go to James Island, South Carolina. Shortly thereafter, it’s the climactic Battle of Fort Wagner. One note about the film’s postscript: Union forces did capture the fort in September 1863.
There aren’t that many Civil War films that reach this level of filmmaking but Glory is one of them. It honors a group of troops that came together in brotherhood and courage and rightfully earned their nickname. A group of troops who came together in defense of the Union. The Blu-ray’s bonus features adds on additional insight during this time in our nation’s history. There’s a good bet that some of the same insight was provided earlier this year in Lincoln’s Dilemma. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment is one of the earliest African-American regiments during the Civil War. They did not have the same pay as the white soldiers. Nor did they have access to the same quality of clothing. Corporal James Henry Gooding’s letter to President Lincoln went unanswered. Eventually, Congress came around.
It took their efforts at the film’s climactic Second Battle of Fort Wagner to get Congress to pay attention. They might not have taken the fort but the leaders were listening. Lincoln credited the war’s turn in the Union’s favor with the 180,000 African-American soldiers who volunteered to fight. If not for them, who knows what would have happened.
It is impossible to separate Col. Shaw from the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Even though those leading the 54th are white and the soldiers are Black, this is not a white savior story. At least, I don’t view it that way. Both filmmaker Edward Zwick and actor Morgan Freeman have said similarly. That’s what makes this film even more important. If anything, the film certainly underplays Shaw’s hesitancy towards taking on this new role.
While Frederick Douglass is in the film, his children are not. In real life, two sons would go onto enlist in the 54th. This is where Lincoln’s Dilemma adds extra insight that we do not see in Glory. Neither Charles Douglass or Lewis Douglass are featured in the film. Charles became the first African-American to enlist but it was Lewis who deployed with the 54th and attained the rank of Sergeant Major. The True Story Continues does discuss the Douglass family efforts.
My first viewing of Glory came over a decade ago. At the time, it was because the film was listed on the AFI 100 Cheers list. This time around, my viewing of the 2009 Blu-ray takes a more critical perspective. While Field of Dreams and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade remain among my favorite 1989 movies, films like Glory and Do the Right Thing ought to have been Best Picture nominees. All of these films are way better than Driving Miss Daisy. I hope the film becomes available on 4K Ultra HD at some point but for now, the Blu-ray will have to do.
The film might change people’s names but Glory still honors the spirit of the 54th Massachusetts. In this essence, their legacy will never die. If you wish to know more about their history, please consider looking into books or reading this Smithsonian Magazine piece about where fact meets fiction.
DIRECTOR: Edward Zwick
SCREENWRITER: Kevin Jarre
CAST: Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, and Morgan Freeman, featuring Jihmi Kennedy, Andre Braugher, Cliff DeYoung
Tri-Star released Glory in theaters on December 15, 1989. Grade: 5/5
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