To count down to Memorial Day, we’ll be presenting a daily war movie to get you in the fighting spirit. Today, Boots on the Ground presents:
In 1989 Edward Zwick had one credit as a film director. He had also created the television series “Thirty Something” and had directed episodes of the show. There was really nothing in Zwick’s credits that could have prepared anyone for his second feature film, the Civil War drama, Glory.
His film about the Civil War that depicted the pain and the triumph of the first African American military regiment made up of volunteers from Northern states, the 54th, showed that there was more to Zwick than anyone could have imagined because, with a beautiful soaring James Horner score driving home the sacrifices of the men of the 54th, Glory lives up to its name.
The film opens with the Battle of Antietam, introducing us not only to Robert Gould Shaw, who would eventually be asked to lead the 54th, but also to the gruesome reality of the Civil War. Marching to their doom on an open field while Confederate cannons and guns reduce soldiers to body parts, Shaw and the audience experience the down side of glory. A neck wound sends Shaw to the field hospital as the Union army retreats. As an officer Shaw is fussed over. Behind a thin curtain a soldier is having his leg amputated. Not much glory in that.
The film moves to Boston where Shaw is home, recovering from his wound and the horrors of Antietam. Lincoln is poised to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. More symbolic than anything else, the proclamation will be bolstered by the creation of an all volunteer regiment of ex slaves and freemen. Of course it will be led by white officers. Shaw is made a colonel and accepts the commission to lead the 54th. He is 23 years old.
The regiment is portrayed by a group of phenomenal actors including Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of an ex-slave turned Union soldier. Morgan Freeman, who pulls the wounded Shaw from the Antietam battlefield, joins the regiment. These are men who now can take a proactive role in their own lives and make their mark on history. Harvard graduate, Thomas Searles played by Andre Braugher, is a friend of Shaw’s. His idealism leads him to join the 54th but his education can’t prepare him for life as a soldier, particularly a black soldier. Used to a life where he’s been treated as an equal Searles is in for a shock.
Robert Gould Shaw came from an abolitionist background so it was no surprise he’d taken on the task of leading the 54th. As portrayed by Matthew Broderick, in what I think is his best film performance, Shaw is a quiet, thoughtful, but steel willed young man who is willing to sacrifice his life for the cause.
His regiment as much bigotry from the Union Army as so many of them experienced from their former Southern slave owners. Initially they’re not trusted to have guns and something as simple as shoes and socks are denied them. When they get their uniforms their wear the Union blue with pride, even if they know they’re not trusted or accepted.
In an intense and pivotal moment in the movie, runaway slave, Trip, Denzel Washington, is punished by Shaw for having left camp to look for a decent pair of shoes. It’s a reality check for the idealistic Shaw who hasn’t really grasped the reality of the lives his men have led. The punishment is a flogging and when Trip removes his shirt his back is cover with the scars of beatings he endured as a slave.
It’s a turning point for Shaw who now understands what he and the men in his command are up against. The lack of respect for the volunteers in the 54th because of the color of their skin is coming from the very military that recruited them.
Glory was what the men of the 54th yearned for. They want a chance to prove themselves in battle. Their opportunity arrives off the beaches of Morris Island, South Carolina. There stands the impenetrable Fort Wagner, a stronghold of the Confederacy and it’s the 54th that volunteers to be the first to wage an assault on the fort.
This piece of history is treated with reality and reverence by Zwick. There are great performances by Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Andre Braugher, Cary Elwes who aren’t cardboard heroes, but very much flesh and blood men.
The need for glory, for these men, many of whom had been reduced to nothing more than property for much of their lives, is something to be remembered and celebrated. Men who weren’t even considered citizens of their own country gave their lives for it.
Robert Gould Shaw was killed leading his men on that first charge on the Fort. The 54th suffered tremendous casualties. Their remains were treated with disrespect by the Confederates at Fort Wagner. Thinking they were dishonoring Shaw, the Confederates buried him in a mass grave with his men. When his parents were told he could be disinterred and his remains returned to them, they declined. They knew his resting place, with the men who fought so bravely beside him, was an honor.
Celebrate your War Movie love and read more Boots on the Ground.