In Glory Director Edward Zwick brings to life the story of the 54th Massachussetts Infantry (Colored). Drawing heavily from One Gallant Rush as well as letters from the time, he remains true to history in all essentials.
The film picks up a small part of the political struggle before the unit formed. We briefly see Frederick Douglass, the strongest contender for enlisting black men. He claimed that "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth ... which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States." This stood in sharp contrast to the popular view that black men were incapable of bravery in battle. Unfortunately Douglass' belief and that of other abolitionists that military achievement would open the doors to the rest of society took three major wars, not one, to materialize. But the 54th Massachussetts, home of two of Douglass' sons, was fittingly the first to demonstrate to the general public the character of the black man under fire.
Matthew Broderick plays Robert Gould Shaw, the son of influential Boston abolitionists, who is chosen to command the controversial black unit. After the unit forms, its troubles have just begun. From being denied muskets to lacking shoes to drawing lower wages, they faced one obstacle after another. Finally, they win the right to deploy. Still, they are kept away from any serious combat for a maddeningly long time. The 54th is caught in the Army's dilemna.
Many officers did not want the black soldiers to have a chance to prove their courage. Even some of the officers commanding the colored companies trained them inadaquately. The movie shows one company that had never been allowed to fire its muskets. On the other hand, some officers were genuinely afraid that if they gave the black soldiers a tough assignment and a company was slaughtered -- as happened to white companies more than once during the Civil War -- the abolitionists would accuse them of slaughtering them because they were black.
After some very minor action in Georgia and South Carolina in June and July of 1863, the 54th Massachussetts finally gets its chance. The Union is attempting to take Fort Wagner near Charleston, SC. The plan calls for massive naval bombardment of the fort and a daring charge over an exposed area. Some unit is going to take heavy losses. Shaw volunteers.
In this assault Sgt Carney (Morgan Freeman) takes the flag forward, the subject of much of the artwork surrounding the 54th.
This was not the first battle in which African American troops fought gallantly for the Union. But this time reporters were on hand to take the story to the Northern masses. Here Shaw's men proved not only their courage, but the potential of their entire race.
For all the importance of the story this film tells, it is not without its problems. Some of the acting is confusing. Broderick successfully portrays Shaw's difficulty establishing rapport with his troops. But he leaves the viewer confused. Is he a racist like some of the other officers? And why is he so hard on Thomas, the black man with whom he grew up? And why is Thomas crying half the time? Is he not soldier material? These questions do not overshadow the value of the movie, but they do cast a shadow on it.
Parents and teachers will be concerned about the movie's "R" rating. As would be expected in a war movie, the battlefield violence is strong, though not as strong as some more recent battlefield movies with the same rating. The language is shocking for the period. Glory has these 1860's soldiers cursing as voluminously and in the same terms as 1990's soldiers, a historical goof.
The movie could tell the story better, but it brings to life a critical piece of African American history. For the mature viewer, it is worth watching.
See more on the life of Frederick Douglass
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