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The Civil War was raging, and good Captain Robert Shaw
Wrote letters to his mother of the army that he saw.
Hurt and honored as a hero, he returned to Boston north
And was named the newest colonel of the Negro 54th.
He struggled with his station as a leader of recruits,
An officer of men who did not share his privileged roots.
He trained his infantry with all the harshness he felt right,
And, earning insult and respect, he taught them how to fight.
Nobody truly thought a colored regiment would see
The bloody badge of battle so their comrades could be free,
But Shaw and all his men insisted they should have their chance
To prove their love of freedom and their merit to advance.
When they at last met combat, Shaw then volunteered to lead
A charge against Fort Wagner, which they could not supersede.
The bravery, the glory of these honored soldiers strong
Ensured that color would not keep our country split for long.

Glory is a war movie that is not only thrilling and tragic but truly glorious. As hellish as battle is, there is a stirring admiration for those risking their lives for the sake of freedom, defense, patriotism, and duty. James Horner’s orchestral score with choral high points possesses a poignancy that captures the elusive “glory” of war itself and beautifies scenes like the final battle with an uplifting paean of majesty. (Strangely, the score wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar, though Horner’s other one that year for Field of Dreams was. Also, I noticed that one section of music sounded quite similar to Horner’s score of The Pagemaster five years later.)

In addition to the prestigious score, the cast is brilliant. Matthew Broderick sheds his Ferris Bueller persona for the role of Captain Shaw, a man caught under the weight of his own responsibility, forced to balance past friendships with expected protocol. Cary Elwes also turns in a serious performance as his friend Major Forbes, who urges him not go too far in his military rigidity. The black soldiers are diverse characters who are neither idealized nor derided. Andre Braugher as Shaw’s unprepared friend Thomas and Jihmi Kennedy as crack-shot Private Sharts provide the human weakness and improvement seen in other “boot camp” movies, while Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his potent portrayal of bitter Private Trip. The infamous “N word” is used frequently throughout the film, and though white characters say it too, Trip is the worst offender, prompting a brilliant reproach from Sergeant Major Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) that indicts not only the sayer of the word but the behavior that can prompt its use.

The period costumes and credible battle reenactments lend the film great realism, as do the repeated voiceovers of the real Shaw’s letters to home. This authenticity complements the film’s balanced storytelling, shifting between the viewpoints of white and black characters with great delicacy. It also points out historical details that many forget, such as the fact that slavery was also present in the Union (in the border states) and that prejudice and atrocities were not limited to the Confederates. Yet neither are whites demonized; even when Shaw is harsh to his recruits, he is attempting to prepare them seriously as few other commanders would and exhibits a keen sympathy despite his distance.

The battle scenes are fierce but not excessive, except for a shocking head shot five minutes in. Though the 54th Infantry’s sacrifice threatens to end the film on an overly depressing note, the intense battle at Fort Wagner (complete with Horner’s score and “bombs bursting in air”) is surprisingly inspiring, and the final scene speaks to the equality of death and what lies beyond. Glory depicts an early and lesser-known high point in African-American history. On this Thanksgiving Day, it seems appropriate to honor those who died to salvage a nation worthy thanking God for. (By the way, I was surprised that the film’s first day of training occurred on November 27, 1862, 152 years ago today.)

Best line: (Shaw, writing to his mother) “We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written but which will presently be as enviable and as renowned as any.”

Rank: 57 out of 60

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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