Movie Review: Glory

It’s movie night — and you have no idea what to choose!  Let Gary, one of our Education Program Leaders, give you a suggestion!  Gary provides a great review of the 1989 classic Civil War movie — Glory.


It is now over 150 years since the 54th Massachusetts attacked Fort Wagner in South Carolina, in July 1863, which is the final scene of the movie, “Glory.” The setting is the mid-stages of the Civil War only a few months after the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, granted black men the right to enlist in the Union Army. The proclamation required the troops to be commanded by white officers, and some of those leaders were small minded and believed they were better than their soldiers, abusing their power and treating their men with disdain.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was a 25 year old Army officer who had dropped out of Harvard College at the beginning of the war and was injured in the gruesome Battle of Antietam in Maryland. He was the son of fervent abolitionists and shared their views of the abomination of slavery, believing that blacks should be held in equal status to whites. Once given the command of the 54th Massachusetts, he trained his men with the dedication and determination to provide them the discipline and skills to be useful to the Union Army’s battle against the Confederates.

The story unfolds with Col. Shaw seeing the prejudice within the Union Army, and the unfair treatment that his troops must face in being given menial duties and lesser pay for the same work. He presides over the sometimes barbaric training, finding it difficult to separate his friendship with one of the men with whom he had a close friendship while growing up. Trying to remember the days in school while living in a rather insular environment, the harsh realities of war and the necessity to sometimes beat the discipline into the men causes Shaw to be quite conflicted.

The cast is outstanding, with Matthew Broderick doing an excellent job as the young commander, Shaw; others include Cary Elwes as Shaw’s executive officer, Morgan Freeman as the slave who becomes the first sergeant, Denzel Washington as a strong willed and anger driven soldier, and Andre Braugher as the free black who was Shaw’s close friend before the war. There is an extremely graphic scene where the soldier played by Denzel Washington is flogged. Even before the beginning of the flogging one can see the profound scarring of prior beatings as a slave. Strife between the free blacks and escaped slaves within the company is a prime vehicle for the character development in the film.

Seeing the injustices that his men must face, Col. Shaw joins with the men in refusing to accept their pay from the paymaster until his men are paid the equal of the white soldiers. In addition, when Shaw’s men are brought in to loot, pillage and burn down a Southern town as their participation in the war effort, Shaw uses his discovery of the graft and corruption of the officer(s) leading this type of campaign as leverage to get his company transferred to be made available to actually fight opposing troops in the war. Along the way, Denzel Washington’s brooding character, Private Tripp, is mentored by Morgan Freeman’s sergeant, including when the sergeant points out that white boys in the army having been bleeding and dying for three years for their freedom.

As noted above, the climactic scene is when the 54th is afforded the honor to lead the charge against Fort Wagner. The night before the important battle the black soldiers sit around the fire and sing, “Oh, my Lord”, and share testimonies and prayers for protection in the fight to come. The loner and angry Private Tripp, admits that the 54th is “ … the only family I got.” Colonel Shaw, as well as many of his men did not survive the attack on Fort Wagner, but the 54th was to fight on through the end of the Civil War. An excellent movie which provided insight into the most crucial time of strife in our nation’s history. At the National Gallery in Washington D.C. is the beautiful bronze frieze which commemorated the 54th Massachusetts.

What Civil War movie would you recommend?

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