By John H. Foote

24. GLORY (1989)

There were three exceptional films that dealt with racial relations between African Americans and whites in 1989. Do the Right Thing was Spike Lee’s incendiary film about a riot started in the ghetto of Brooklyn, N.Y. on the hottest day of the year, while the Academy Award winning Driving Miss Daisy was the more conservative film of the three, dealing with the friendship developing between a black driver and his employer, the wealthy, haughty Miss Daisy. Two acting greats – Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman – were at their finest in the film, allowing the audience to feel the friendship happening, and see it carried long after their work together is over.

The third film was Glory, a superb film directed by Edward Zwick dealing with the little known black regiment from the North that fought in the Civil War. Of the three films, each brilliant, each dealing with racism in very different was, the most conservative of them, Driving Miss Daisy, was the only one nominated by the Academy as Best Picture, though it was lacking a Best Director nomination for Bruce Beresford. It did not matter, the film won Best Picture, along with Best Actress for Jessica Tandy, Best Screenplay Adaptation and Best Make Up.

Neither Do the Right Thing or Glory were nominated, and both earned shout outs at the Oscars from Kim Basinger and Denzel Washington, drawing attention to the shameful omissions of both films.

The 54th Infantry out of Massachusetts was the first group of black soldiers from the North to fight in the war, and were excited, even honored to be in the war, fighting against slavery. The screenplay was drawn from the letters of their commanding officer, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) and the books “Lay This Laurel” and “One Gallant Rush”, depicting the soldiers from the very formation of the group to the final assault which saw them perish at Fort Wagner.

After suffering an injury at Antietam, one of the most ferocious battles of the War, he is sent home to Boston to recover. There is he assigned as the commander of the first black regiment to fight in the war. Shaw asks his friend Cabot Forbes (Carey Elwes) to be his second in command, and among the men joining are John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) who Shaw recognizes as a stretcher bearer gathering the dead at Antietam, Trip (Denzel Washington) a runaway slave, and their childhood friend Thomas (Andre Braugher), an educated man who can read and write and might be too delicate for the war. Trip, an angry man, targets the weaknesses of Thomas and begins to taunt and bully him much to the chagrin of Rawlins, a quiet leader among the men.

The training is often brutal because Shaw knows what they face in war, he has been there. He does not understand the merriment of the men, their intense bond, how they can be happy and sing as they train. Do they not understand what they are going to face? What he does not realize is they had faced far worse as slaves, inhuman treatment from their fellow man. Yet he drives them hard, ordering the man training them to do his job as he sees fits, which means often brutal treatment even to his dear friend Thomas who does not understand the rank of the men prevents him from fraternizing with the officers.

The military makes their lives difficult, refusing to pay them as much as the white officers, causing Shaw, in a shocking display of unity with his men, earning their admiration to tear his pay in two with them. Yet, he is forced to carry out a whipping of Trip, who they thought was running away, but unknown to Shaw, because no one asked him, Trip was trying to find shoes. He throws open his shirt, revealing a back scarred with whip marks, making clear this is no big deal to him. The crack of the whip, and the marks it leaves an impression on the men. Defiantly he does not take his eyes off Shaw as he is whipped, a single tear running down his cheek. Told the men need shoes, urgently, he goes to the supply store where he is told there are none for his men. He very quickly gets them and returns to the camp with shoes and socks for his men. Trip’s shoes and socks are dropped in his bunk as he is attended too, the men told to take care of him, Shaw silently ashamed.

Finally battle ready, it seems they are never to see a fight, they will be used for routine pillaging, which they and Shaw want no part of. Shaw uses his wiles to bully the commanding officer he answers to, ensuring they will get their chance at last.

Their first skirmish proves their mettle, especially Trip who finally has a place for all his rage. They win the conflict convincingly and head further south to the sandy beach and stormy ocean near Fort Wagner. The confederates have tried to storm the fort, but each time have been held off. Looking for volunteers to be the first wave, expecting heavy casualties, Shaw volunteers his men who each to a man want to fight. The night before what most know is a suicide mission, but the way the African Americans sing and pray, celebrating their fellowship with one another you would never know they faced almost certain death the next morning. Trip the most rebellious of the men talks about the troop being the only home he ever had, as do most of the men, and they celebrate Shaw. The next morning they gather on the beach, Thomas steps forward bravely saying if the flag bearer falls he will pick up the flag and take over, making him a target. Shaw lets his horse go free, and they move towards the fort. The men that formerly disparaged them, insulted them now cheer them on recognizing their obvious courage and fearlessness, aware many are going to die.

As expected, the casualties are many, with Shaw shot to pieces. Enraged at the death of his commander, Trip runs up the hill and he too is shot to death. Still the men forge on, until they reach the centre of the fort where a cannon is waiting and pointing at them. The next morning the beach and pathway to the fort is littered with the dead, now being gathered and thrown into an open mass grave. Though they often fought in life, together Shaw and Trip are side by side in death, their bodies rolling to the bottom of the grave, where one appears to be sleeping on the others shoulder. It is among the most powerful image on film I ever seen.

Glory was a solid hit when released, and critics liked what they saw. Many named the film the year’s best, which made the sting of not being nominated for Best Picture more painful than ever. Nominated for just five Academy Awards it would win three on Oscar night: Best Supporting Actor for Denzel Washington, Best Score, and Best Cinematography for the haunting images and odd beauty of war painted in the film.

I have always maintained Morgan Freeman deserved a nod for Best Supporting Actor in the film as well, but it was not to be. Matthew Broderick gives what might be his finest performance in the film, the fine young actor putting the quirks on hold and he portrays beautifully a young man cut down far too early. Though never nominated for an Academy Award, if it was going to happen I wish it had been for this film, he gives an exquisite performance as Shaw, courageous yet equally terrified.

Freeman is the quiet soul of the film, painfully aware of the devastating impact of battle having picked up the dead on the field, which is where he first met Shaw. Knowing that his friends are thought of as ignorant buffoons, he does his best to bring them dignity through his noble confidence and devotion to Shaw.

Denzel Washington won a well-deserved Academy Award as Trip, the raging runaway slave who is not fighting for the army, or the North but for himself. He fights for every lash that exploded across his back, leaving deep scars for the rest of his life as a reminder of what he was, a slave. A man bought and paid for by another man, and then treated like an animal. His is a powerful performance, simmering with rage and indignation and when he finally gets a chance to fight is it really a surprise he is a superlative soldier? But he is conflicted at the pull the squad has on him and finally admits they are his family, the only one he has known. He would become one of the finest actors in American film history and remains one of the screen’s greatest actors.

There are no false performances in the film, each cast member is perfect on their role.

Edward Zwick does a magnificent job directing the film, never allowing the story of Shaw to overpower the story of the men in the platoon. So often attempts to tell the stories of African Americans, or black history, end up being scarred with really being about the white man in the story. Not here, because Shaw was linked inherently to the story of the squad, and one could not exist without the other. The men collectively become Shaw’s soul, not that he never had one, but it was never really complete, he was never quite sure of what he was fighting until he met these men and fought not only for them, but beside them. In return, they became everything he hoped they would become, and the pride with which he talks about them on the beach the morning before the final battle is truly a breathtaking scene.

It seems to me every country on this planet has something in their history that is insidious, ugly and have in their own way dealt with it on film. Germany has dealt with the Holocaust in Sophie’s Choice (1982) and The Pianist (2002), and Hitler with Downfall (2005), but America has never truly explored the issue of their own Holocaust: slavery. Men owned other men, women and children, tore families apart because they did not consider their slaves truly people.

Zwick was among the first filmmakers, Glory among the first films to truly call out America on their past and show that the slaves were willing to die for President Lincoln and his own war against slavery.

Glory is an astonishing film, and sadly the racism in Hollywood was reflected by the fact neither this nor Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing were not Best Picture nominees. That lack of attention does not stop either from being among the very best of the decade.

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