I’m going to write two posts this week. Mainly because I feel inspired but also because I have recently stumbled across a relatively unknown film that is only on television once in a blue moon and I would be remiss if I didn’t take advantage of its being on tonight, twice.
The film is Glory (1989). Released by Tristar Pictures in 1989, Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment: the first all-Black regiment in the Civil War. It tells a true story as detailed in the letters of the regiment’s Colonel: Col. Robert Shaw. It’s a sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes inspiring and all together brilliant film.
The first thing that stuck out to me about this film (before watching it) is the casting. This film combines the acting talents of a young Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Lion King, The Producers) and Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, John Paul II) with that of Denzel Washington (The Bone Collector, Flight), Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, Driving Miss Daisy) and Andre Braugher (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, City of Angels). Odd cast, huh? But it works. It really works!
My favorite scene in the film has to be towards the end when the regiment is singing and praying the night before the big battle. It’s a great moment of comradery and actually gives away the ending. It’s also the “moment of triumph”. The movie isn’t just about the Civil War, which is why the end of the war is never even mentioned in the film. It is about the coming together of whites and blacks as one unit. It’s about respect; what is due and what is given.
To a certain extent, it can almost seem like a cherry coated account of a real event. It seems almost surreal that white officers could really be so good to African American soldiers.
For example, in one scene the soldiers discover that they are not to be paid as much as regular soldiers because of the color of their skin. In response they refuse to accept any wages, prompted by Private Trip (Washington). Their commanding officer, Robert Shaw (Broderick) fires a round into the sky to halt the protest and then shocks the crowd as he tears his own wage slip in half remarking that if they were not to be paid, neither would he. It’s a wonderful scene. It’s cinematically striking (the shot into the air calls the attention of even the most uninvested viewer) and it’s a very inspiring and beautiful moment.
To add to the saintly light cast upon Col. Shaw, there is an important contrasting scene in the movie. Shaw travels at one time with another black regiment to deliver supplies. Where Shaw is compassionate and his regiment is disciplined, the other commander is coarse, rude and unsavory referring to his regiment as “monkeys” and “children”.
When the two regiments arrive at their destination, the commander of the other regiment has his troops pillage the town and requests that Shaw’s soldiers set the town to flame. Initially, Shaw refuses but the other commander threatens Shaw and, in danger of losing his troops to the “evil” commander, he orders that the town be set to flame.
The juxtaposition of these two very different commanders and regiments is meant to glorify the 54th and Robert Shaw. In fact the director, Edward Zwick, does this a lot. Even individually, the members of the 54th serve to contrast each other and make the whole group seem like the ideal regiment.
But these people are believably righteous. Robert Shaw was the child of an abolitionist and grew up best friends with an African American. He really hadn’t experienced the discrimination and hatred towards blacks that was out there in the world. So though he seems “holier than thou”, he really was a nondiscriminatory man.
This film is real, stripped down to the bare bones and it means something. This is the kind of film that I want to make. I want my films to touch audiences who connect with the characters whether it is a period piece or a film about our generation. That is what film is for. Superhero movies and films about magical lands and sorcery are fun and I love them just as much as everyone else, but “poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for” (Dead Poets Society, 1989), and that is what film can be.
I’m quite sure that this trailer is fan made but it does a much better job than the 1980’s one that was created for the film.
Suggestions This Week: Realistic War Films
The Patriot (2000)
Inglorious Bastards (2009)