When I saw that there was an American film about the Civil War called Glory that needed to be watched for the 1001 list I made the, not unfounded, assumption that this would be some three hour epic. And so I have pretty much avoided this film for a while, but thought it might make for a good time sink for this trip to Greece. Turns out that it’s just over two hours, which ended up being an ideal length for the rail trip back form Meteora.
The term ‘important’ is banded about a lot in the world of cinema. However, Glory feels like one of those films that deserves such an adjective. Why? Well, because it depicts the 54th battalion – the first all non-white battalion to fight in the American Civil War – from their conception to their disastrous battle at Fort Wagner. As a Brit I had made the somewhat naive assumption that, given that this was a war for America’s survival, people might have been able to put aside racism in order to battle for the Union. Shows what I know, doesn’t it.
This was always going to be a difficult topic to deal with given the attitudes back then and the attitudes in more modern times, but they broach it with an earnestness that does the film credit. It should also be noted that the cinematography and art departments did a fantastic job in bringing this film to life. Where the music was overly sweeping or the speeches overly inspirational, the world around them remained grounded in trenchfooted reality.
There is some debate online about the casting of Matthew Broderick in the lead role as Colonel Shaw. However, given his rank and what he managed to achieve, this is still a well-connected man who was given an incredibly high office at the age of 23. I actually like that Broderick’s portrayal depicted him as unsure and as a person who makes bad judgements. Whilst Shaw has been mythologised since his death at 25, it’s worth remembering the letters we have of his… which do tally up with Broderick.
In contrast, there is no real debate over the casting of Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, Andre Braugher and Denzel Washington (in the role that gave him the first of his two Oscars). In fact the ensemble cast of the 54th battalion give a wholly strong performance as this first volunteer regiment of black men who answered a call that most whites were too racist or politically motivated to make.
Whilst Glory does go waist deep into the swamp of sentimentality on a number of occasions, there is a lot to appreciate here. You’ll just have to brace yourself for the manipulative score.