Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Glory Hallelujah: Courage, Spirit, And Honor

Some links before getting started today, and I've been remiss in doing this. Norma had seven revelations and a where are they now post on one of her books. Parsnip had Easter Scotties and views from home.Cheryl had a crime blotter post. And Krisztina had carrot cake.

Now then, today, April 9th, marks the 150th anniversary of Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox during the American Civil War, the end of major fighting in the Eastern Theatre of that conflict. I thought I would mark the occasion with two movie reviews of Civil War films that really appeal to me. This is the first of the two.

“Why do you treat the men this way, Robert?” ~ Cabot Forbes 
“How should I treat them?” Robert G. Shaw 
“....Like men?” ~ Cabot Forbes

“And what are you? So full of hate you want to go out and fight everybody! Because you’ve been whipped and chased by hounds. Well that might not be living, but it sure as hell ain’t dying. And dying’s what these white boys have been doing going on for three years now. Dying by the thousands. Dying for you, fool. I know, ‘cause I dug the graves. And all this time I keep asking, when, O Lord, is it gonna be our time? Gonna come a time when we have to ante up. Ante up and kick in like men. Like men!” ~ Rawlins

“See, the way I figure, I figure this war would be over a whole lot sooner if you boys just turned right on around and headed on back down that way, and you let us head on up there where the real fighting is.” ~ Trip

“There’s more to fighting than rest, sir. There’s character. There’s strength of heart. You should have seen us in action two days ago. We were a sight to see. We’ll be ready, sir. When do you want us?” ~ Robert G. Shaw

Glory has been called by some the best war movie ever made, and it is a fair comment. Director Edward Zwick (Legends Of The Fall, Courage Under Fire) brought the Civil War tale of African-American soldiers in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment confronting racism, distrust, and the culture of the time as their commanders strove to give them the chance to get into the fight. It not only tells the story of the regiment, whose extraordinary bravery allowed for far more African-American men to enlist, but the experience of such men throughout that terrible war.

The film opens on the fields of Antietam, one of the bloodiest battles of the war, where we meet a young officer, Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), wounded but having had survived the battle. He meets a gravedigger named Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) and returns home to recover in Massachusetts with his parents, prominent abolitionists. There he is offered command of a new regiment to be made up of freemen and escaped slaves. He accepts the command, asking his friend Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes) to serve as his right hand man, and getting his first enlisted man, a born free well educated friend named Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) signing up.

The regiment organizes for training. Most of the enlisted men are escaped slaves, with little education but much will to get into the fight. Rawlins is one of them. Another is a man named Trip (Denzel Washington), a bitterly angry man aching to take the fight to the people who held him and his family as slaves. As training gets underway and the men start to come together as a regiment, they find themselves dealing with life in the military, being treated unfairly or neglected because of officers elsewhere along the line, and their own expectations of what is to come. Shaw and his officers must handle their grievances, balancing the needs of the men and realistic expectations of how they’ll be used. As time goes on, the regiment finds themselves finally drawn into battle in the deep South, at a place where they will meet history.

The screenplay comes from Kevin Jarre, based on the letters by Shaw to his family and friends back home, as well as two books on the 54th. It does make use of composite characters- Trip, Rawlins, Forbes, and Searles are all composites, as opposed to historical figures, but these are based in the sort of men who made up these regiments, both enlisted and officers. The story in the film relates to the overall experience of black soldiers in that war just as much as it tells the tale of the regiment- the obstacles they faced, the prejudices, the reasons these men went to war. Jarre wove that all into the screenplay; while the point of view character might be Shaw the historical figure, his story is interwoven so strongly with the men, and the enlisted men are rendered with depth and complexity throughout.

Zwick certainly has a gift for directing films with strong characterization and yet also managing the ferocity of the battlefield, and both elements of that are in play here. Much of the filming was done on location, with strong attention to detail in terms of period uniforms and clothing, equipment, and settings. Zwick hired on the writer and historian Shelby Foote as a consultant, a wise move, as his thorough knowledge of the war and the times comes through in the storytelling. Throughout the film we feel like we’ve stepped back in time and are walking unseen among these people in this time, silent witnesses to a pivotal period in history. That comes down to the sheer amount of attention to detail by Zwick and his crew.

The cinematography is amazing- it won Oscars for that and for sound, scoring nominations in other technical categories and a win for Best Supporting Oscar. The climactic charge at Fort Wagner, a tactical failure that nonetheless had a huge impact on history to follow, is rendered in an apocalyptic, brutal way that leaves one feeling as if you were there. As terrifying as it is- and we can imagine it must have been to the real soldiers- it also leaves one with a respect for the fact that not one of them let the fear control them. Lastly, the score by James Horner- accompanied by choir on frequent occasions- is his very best, a majestic and dignified score that perfectly fits into the movie.

The casting of the film is brilliant. Andre Braugher, who would go on to regular film and television appearances after, and would create one of the best roles in television history in the form of Frank Pembleton on Homicide Life On The Street, gets an outstanding role as Thomas Searles. Thomas is an outsider in the story; when we first meet him, this is a civilian, an articulate, well educated man who’s been friends with Shaw and Forbes for years. He’s been free his entire life, is involved in the abolitionist movement, and is thoughtful and principled. He jumps into military life without really thinking it through, and finds himself isolated. The rules of military structure mean that he can’t freely socialize with the officers he’s known as friends, but his well educated status also isolates him from the other men in the regiment, particularly Trip, who seems to despise him. Braugher has to bring these qualities to the role, and he does so splendidly, the character very gradually coming into his own. It’s a great performance from a great actor.

Cary Elwes gets one of his finest roles as the cynical officer Forbes. He’s not overly ambitious, seems to not take things seriously when we first meet him, including his own abilities as an officer. He’s wary of the notion of accepting the job, and seems to do it more because his friend is asking. And yet as the film goes on, and the stakes get higher, including a Southern proclamation that white officers commanding such a Union regiment will be treated just as harshly as the men, Forbes shows his loyalties to the men and a commitment to the cause, acting much more decisively and with dedication than when we first meet him.

Morgan Freeman had already been acting for many years, but this film, along with Driving Miss Daisy, really started getting him noticed as an actor, and he never looked back afterwards. There is a patient wisdom in his role as Rawlins, a man who yearns for freedom and justice. He has a background as an escaped slave, seeks a world where things can be set right. He’s better tempered than some of the men around him, particularly Trip, but beneath that is a man who sees the horrors of slavery and racism for what they are. Rawlins is one of those men in any army who becomes the backbone of a fighting force, the reliable senior enlisted man who can keep calm under pressure. It is a compelling performance, and a character that is one of the best, if not the best, roles for Freeman through his career.

Denzel Washington won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as Trip, and it is well deserved. It is one of his finest roles, a man of fierce defiance and absolute rage at the injustice done to his people. Trip is deeply cynical, with a huge chip on his shoulder, no respect for anyone, and an eagerness to pick a fight. He lashes out, speaks his mind, tends to alienate others, and yet as the story goes along we see his headstrong courage, his dominant will, and determination to make a difference. His lack of respect for others translates to the officers, only gradually fading away as the story goes along and he understands they have as much at stake as he does, and particularly where Thomas is concerned; there comes a moment between the two later in the film where one is convinced the two very different men might well kill each other, a moment defused by Rawlins in a way that gets Trip to reconsider his own worldview. The performance by Washington is a marvel to behold.

Broderick was ideally cast as Shaw, commanding officer of the regiment. He had already been serving in the army for awhile, facing the worst of the fighting when the command came into his orbit, so Shaw was not fresh to war. He’s an idealist, though, a man of strong principles that have been infused into him by his parents and the abolitionist circles he’s travelled in. Shaw is a man who believes in justice, and takes on a difficult assignment, confronting all of the problems that entails. It requires him to do some give and take with the men- subjecting them to the verbal abuse of an Irish drill sergeant who rightfully has to drill them into shape on the one hand, while taking their side and refusing pay when his men are not being paid the same as white men on the other. Over time, Shaw gains their respect by showing his own respect, and Broderick conveys that in how he plays the character. It’s a mature performance, tightly controlled and dignified, and Broderick brings weight and seriousness to the role. We believe him as a capable commanding officer.

Glory is a film masterpiece, both as a powerful storytelling epic and as a strong character study. It weaves between the horrors and heroics of war while telling the story of the experience of that war through the eyes of some of the unlikeliest soldiers of that conflict. What the 54th accomplished at Fort Wagner is a testament to willpower and courage, and while a tactical defeat, it allowed for thousands of more African-American men to join the fight. Lincoln credited these men with turning the tide of the war. Glory does them credit, serving as a magnificent film paying tribute to their extraordinary story.


  1. I can't see Matthew Broderick as anything but funny.

  2. You've seen a LOT of movies I haven't seen. We must only have superheroes in common!

  3. One summer we took a vacation to see the Civil War Battle Fields, Mont Vernon, Arlington and the White House.
    The battle fields broke my heart. So beautiful today all green and filled with monuments but so sad when you read about the fighting and death.

    Terrific review.
    cheers, parsnip

  4. I remember this film, although it's been a long time since I've seen it. Powerful for sure! The Civil War was so bloody and pain and misery so great ... it's almost beyond comprehension. I know a man, he's a retired Navy captain, and a not an evil person, but he was born and raised in Louisiana in an upper-class family, and even after years in our Navy still cannot rise above his roots. Just the other day he referred to the Civil War as "The War of Northern Aggression."

  5. @Kelly: it is such a contrast to his comedic work, but really shows his range as an actor.

    @Norma: that might be possible.

    @Parsnip: the battlefields are places that have to be seen to be understood, I think.

    @Lowell: there are still long memories. I know to this day the Union general Sherman and the Confederate general Longstreet are still despised in certain parts of the South.

  6. I love Civil War films--the whole thing is fascinating to me. I've seen both of these, but have a feeling I'll have to re-watch them now :)


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