Saturday, May 31, 2008


Films that portray history, in my opinion, have an obligation to be accurate, whatever viewpoint towards history they may take. Although Glory (1989) deviates in many details from the facts, it is in general an accurate account of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. One might argue that from an ideological standpoint accuracy is less important than political content. Glory celebrates what for many may have been a forgotten but important episode from the Civil War.

Glory is not really a film about the south. It is a film that occurs both in the north and the south, and it certainly has pertinence to the south, but it is more concerned with national issues of history, race, and the struggle for freedom and equality. The racism portrayed in the film is mostly that of Northern soldiers and officers. Col. Robert Gould Shaw believes the men in his regiment can be as successful at soldiering as white soldiers. He meets a number of officers who do not share his opinion. A quartermaster refuses to supply shoes for the men because he regards them as soldiers who will do manual labor and never go into battle—therefore they don't need shoes as badly as men who are likely to see battle. Another officer encourages his black platoon to pillage and burn Darien, Georgia. When one of the soldier strikes a white women, the white commanding officer shoots the soldier. The film emphasizes that most of Shaw's fellow officers believe that training black soldiers for battle is folly.

Glory is about free African Americans and former slaves fighting for self-worth, dignity, and freedom. They want to prove their worth as soldiers, and therefore as human beings, and they are willing to die to do so. In the film, Colonel Shaw volunteers his regiment to lead the charge against Fort Wagner in South Carolina. As they march towards the front lines, the white soldiers in other regiments cheer for them, acknowledging their bravery. Of course, all the principal characters in the regiment are killed in the brutal attack that follows. Historically, nearly half the regiment died or was wounded in the attack, which failed to take the fort. The heroism of the men, their willingness to die for one another as well as for the country they fought for, is the point.

When Shaw volunteers his regiment to lead the charge, their deaths are a foregone conclusion. What kind of favor is he doing for these soldiers he loves so well—to lead them to their deaths in a charge that accomplishes nothing? Such questions, I suppose, are not appropriate.

Robert Lowell's poem "For the Union Dead" extols the heroism and the memory of the 54th regiment. At the end of the film as the credits roll close-up images of what appears to be the monument in Boston about which Lowell wrote his famous poem are highlighted.

One small galling deviation from fact: in the opening scene soldiers are preparing for the Battle of Antietam, which took place in September 1862. As soldiers ride down a road, we see dogwood trees in bloom. Dogwood trees bloom in the spring, of course.

This is an excellent war film. It never fails to move me. Matthew Broderick, not known when the film was made for his acting ability, is excellent as Colonel Shaw. Broderick's natural awkwardness and slightly mannered way of talking supports his portrayal of Shaw as a somewhat naïve but also fiercely idealistic and committed individual—committed both to the defense of his nation as well as to the soldiers of the 54th Regiment.

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