On Screen: Engraving Glory


Screenplay by Kevin Jarre

Directed by Edward Zwick

A Tri-Star Release

I know nothing about its production history, but I suspect that few movies have been as well planned, or as carefully shot according to plan, as Glory. This account of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, the first all-black company to fight in the Civil War, moves as inexorably to its dramatically justified conclusion as the real regiment marched to its bloody, piteous justification on the ramparts of Fort Wagner, where half the unit died. If the film’s writer and director, Kevin Jarre and Edward Zwick respectively, haven’t probed the depths of characterization or fully explored the sheerly cinematic possibilities of their subject, they have also refused to wallow in historical “color,” abstained from inventing “love interest” and other anecdotal excitements, and have never substituted hindsight for insight. They are completely empathetic with their characters of 1862-63 and never condemn or patronize them for not being intellectual residents of 1990. Best of all, Zwick and Jarre know exactly what the essential drama of their story is, and lay it bare for the viewer.

It’s common for dramatists or filmmakers to talk about serving their characters well. In Glory, that service becomes nearly literal. For what its makers attempt is to complete the work of their own protagonist, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment’s commander. By volunteering his men for a virtually suicidal (but tactically necessary) mission, Shaw intended to show bigoted whites in the military bureaucracy that blacks were capable of the greatest courage and discipline under fire. He intended this heroism to oblige the post-war rulers to grant blacks full citizenship. “Remember what you see,” Shaw (Matthew Broderick) urges a journalist about to witness the Fort Wagner assault. But, despite historical accounts like Lincoln Kirstein’s Lay the Laurel and Peter Burchard’s One Gallant Ruah, Americans have had plenty of opportunity to forget the 54’s sacrifice. With the visceral power and popular reach of film, Zwick and Jarre have tried to sear it into the public consciousness. They have taken the place of that lone war correspondent from Harper ‘s who witnessed the gallant rush from a safe distance. They have taken Col. Shaw’s bidding as their mandate.

There are three big battle sequences in Glory. The first is the monstrous clash at Antietam, which was Shaw’s initial combat experience. Zwick not only makes this passage of arms horrific in itself, but plants it as a sort of emotional mine in the young officer’s consciousness. Shaw fell wounded but not before he had witnessed some of the worst carnage in the history of the war. Later, home in Boston, attending a party given by his abolitionist parents and receiving compliments from guests, Robert feels disconnected from civilians who are so eager to show pity and admiration for his minor battle wound, which, by taking him out of the action, was the very thing that saved him from being killed. With subtle use of slow motion and slightly amplified sound, Zwick makes us hear and see the guests as Shaw sees and hears them; shrill, fatuous, slightly hysterical. This 23-year-old young man, scarcely more than a boy, who recently saw a man’s head exploded a few paces in front of him, is now expected to react gallantly when a girl gushes over his sacrifices. His is the disillusionment of young veterans so familiar to us from novels like A Farewell to Arms.

Shaw doesn’t get a chance to say farewell but is instead placed at the head of the first black regiment in the Civil War. He must not only return to the horrors of combat, he must also lead novices into it as a way of justifying the abolitionist cause espoused by his family.

The remainder of Glory shows Shaw training his volunteers, then coming to realize that they are regarded by his superiors as, at best, display, or, at worst, a joke, fit only for foraging and the harassment of civilians. Therefore, Shaw maneuvers his regiment towards combat: first, the routing of a Confederate advance in open field; then the diversionary and sacrificial charge on Fort Wagner. Since the Antietam experience is firmly and horribly planted in Shaw’s consciousness (and in ours), he and we know exactly what he is doing when he volunteers his force. His decision has tragic heft. Glory, for Shaw, is first purchased with pain and death and is then to be used as barter for the citizenship of black human beings yet unborn. It is not something that he, a puritan descended of puritans, can ever revel in for its own sake. If the Faustian bargain is to throw away one’s future (i.e., one’s soul) in order to enjoy the world, then Shaw’s decisions seal an anti-Faustian pact with history. He sacrifices his physical existence and that of his men to redeem the future, the future that he will never see.

All tragic action is drastic action. But might it not be argued that Shaw’s final sacrifice — both in dramatic and human terms — is too drastic, is an arrogant assumption of necessity when no real necessity presented itself? After all, once the 54th proves its worth in a virtually toe-to-toe encounter with an advancing Confederate line and receives the raucous homage of nearby white Union troops, isn’t that enough of a beginning? Can’t Shaw simply wait for another opportunity to arise and hope that his men’s gallantry will gradually become apparent to the public? What real need is there for such overwhelming, irrevocable sacrifice?

I think that Zwick and Jarre were aware of this possible objection and, in fact, have tried to put it to rest with two devices meant to sustain Shaw’s decision.

One device, quite neat, is to spotlight Shaw’s awareness of the reporter from Harper’s. After the successful initiation of his troops in battle, the colonel is counting on this journalist to report the justification of the use of black troops. But the excited correspondent informs Shaw that two enormous Union victories have been won on the very day of the 54’s testing. His men’s achievement now obscured, the idealistic abolitionist feels impelled to try something desperate and volunteers his men for the suicidal charge. This is believable.

Less so is the use of the character of the runaway slave, Trip, whose sullen refusal to believe that any substantial improvements can be won for his race by the war is supposed to be another spur to Shaw’s decision. The trouble here is that the filmmakers try to pack too much into one late scene: an intimate colloquy in which Shaw tries to get Trip to explain why he won’t take up the company standard if its designated bearer falls in combat. At this point, Shaw barely knows Trip, having only once punished him for going AWOL. Matthew Broderick is supposed to read in Denzel Washington’s sullen, opaque countenance the frustrated yearnings for freedom of an entire race.

But, for this encounter between a stiff-backed New Englander and a semi-articulate, taciturn ex-slave to work, for significant sparks to be struck, a combination of the most subtle cinematic choreography and the most concentrated, pungent, yet reticent dialogue is required. Here Zwick and Jarre simply don’t deliver. The dialogue is both too vague and too glibly metaphorical. (Both Trip and Shaw speak of a need to be “clean”; but war as violent purification is not the point here; rather, war as an indelible imprint on the public consciousness.) And Zwick’s staging for his two good actors is routine: a passably intelligent cutting from talking head to talking head, rather than a vivid use of space, body language, pantomime, and vocal rhythm to define the abyss between two good men and the urge of at least one of them to bridge that abyss.

Considering that Zwick’s two previous major credits have been small in scope — the TV show thirty-something and the intimate, four-character comedy About Last Night — the directorial weaknesses and strengths in his latest film are surprising. His mountings of the battle scenes and most of the other panoramic moments are handsome, controlled, and even rousing. Each of the three major battles is staged in a different manner. Zwick and his veteran cameraman, Freddie Frances, dared to keep much of the Antietam carnage on the edges of the screen. This doesn’t muffle the horror but amplifies it. Whenever we catch some atrocity out of the corner of the eye, we wonder, “Did I really see what I think I just saw? Was it really that horrible?” And just as we shift our sights to verify, another horror takes place back at center screen, and this deepens the confusion that we share with Shaw. The regiment’s first trial under fire is staged more directly, with the camera confined to the thick of the action, with furious choreography of hand-to-hand combat. This well conveys a more geographically limited attack.

The final catastrophe at Fort Wagner is a complexly orchestrated spectacle in which Zwick pulls out all the stops: fast cutting, panning cameras, slow-motion, fast shifts of point-of-view — all to convey the idea that a terrible summation is being reached. This ability to indicate the different textures and pressures of several battles is an impressive achievement from a filmmaker who has never had to work on such a scale before.

But equally surprising is the relatively dull staging of the various dialogues. Most of these are so sparely written and juicily played that they hold the attention anyway (and Zwick must surely be partially credited for the performances), but the director’s perfunctory cutting back and forth from speaker to speaker, from one over-the-shoulder shot to the other, gives these scenes a tedious rhythm. Contrast Zwick’s method with Kenneth Branagh’s articulation of the foiled conspiracy scene in Henry V, or the way Bruce Beresford stages any of the many conversations in Driving Miss Daisy, and you will understand how mere talk can be made as cinematic as spectacle.

Other flaws are in the script. Certain relationships, like Shaw’s with a former classmate who becomes his aid, are detailed up to a point, then attenuated. Trip’s objective in volunteering is never made clear — was it merely to kill Confederate whites? A mute drummer boy is just a maudlin device. What is the point in making him mute? Just to pluck at our heart-strings? (When, just before Fort Wagner, Morgan Freeman bids farewell to the lad with “I’ll see you inside the fort, honey,” my heartstrings were plucked despite myself. But that was due strictly to Freeman’s acting.)

And why were Shaw’s letters to his parents used only as an introductory device, then virtually dropped? I deplored Oliver Stone’s use of letters home in Platoon because they conveyed no necessary information of character or circumstance (and were idiotically written, to boot). Yet if Jarre had used not only Robert’s letters but the parental replies as well, the ancestral puritan and abolitionist pressures on this ethically precise youth would have been brought more poignantly home.

I agree with all those critics who have heaped praise on the black actors involved. Much of the evocativeness of this picture comes from them because the single major white character has a rigorous, withdrawn nature. Morgan Freeman as the former grave-digger who becomes the 54th’s emotional bulwark conveys authority without having to raise his voice. Denzel Washington as Trip cannot fill in the cracks left by the scriptwriter but does make us feel the unredressed grievances that burn within the runaway slave. (Before doing his flogging scene, though, Washington should have watched the scene from One Eyed Jacks in which Brando endures a lashing. A tough man used to pain may keep from crying out but will nevertheless show his resistance to pain. Washington doesn’t even tense a muscle. That’s a mistake.) Jihmi Kennedy effortlessly, effulgently embodies the sweet simplicity of Sharts, a pious field hand. It’s the kind of perfect performance that gets less praise than Washington’s flawed one, because you don’t see Kennedy struggling with his part. Andre Braugher as Serles, the educated childhood friend of Shaw, is superbly vulnerable and many-sided in his reactions to many kinds of torment.

Still, the one performance that has drawn as much condemnation as praise is Matthew Broderick’s. His Shaw has been disparaged as too modern and too wispy. I couldn’t disagree more. Broderick has some difficulty with the speech of a Boston aristocrat (he sometimes says “gonna” instead of “going to”) but not with the bearing, reactions, and physical rhythm of the man. When Broderick shaves in his tent, we see that the care he takes with his toilette isn’t a matter of vanity but the concern of a conscientious officer to look spruce in front of his men. When he spurns the blandishments of a dishonest quartermaster, the actor projects just the exact degree of freeze that a gentleman would show. As for Broderick’s alleged slightness, what I saw was a fierce spirit dwelling within a slender, self-reined body. On balance, this is an even more impressive performance than the more highly touted (and, yes, quite good) one of Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July.

Speaking of which, I have now reviewed three major war movies in as many months for Crisis: Henry V, Born on the Fourth of July (not exactly a war movie but certainly a homefront film), and now, Glory. All three of them effectively convey the horror of combat. Born and, especially, Henry are more fluid, technically secure works than Glory. In fact, Henry V is probably a masterpiece, as well as the finest film I’ve analyzed in these pages. But there are elements of strain in both Henry and Born that aren’t in Glory. Branagh’s adaptation must somewhat glide over the fact that the British invasion of France was sheer power wedgery if we are to be moved by the plight of soldiers trapped in enemy territory. (It’s to Branagh’s credit and, of course, Shakespeare’s, that both play and movie skim but don’t completely muffle the hard facts.) Born strains so hard to proclaim that all wars are unethical because many men are maimed and killed by them that we begin to wonder if Oliver Stone is next going to make an anti-Detroit movie because many people are killed on highways. Born is a pre-political scream of agony desperately passing itself off as political.

But Glory‘s makers are fully at ease with their subject matter, and though they may embroider and invent for dramatic emphasis, they don’t have to muffle or overstress any of the major implications of their story. They understand just what their heroes are hoping to accomplish with their lives and deaths, and they are emotionally at one with their heroes. That is why this is the first American war movie in years that completely forgoes both the macho puffery of Rambo and the self-despising flagellation of Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, Born on the Fourth of July, et al.

Remember what you see,” a young Col. Shaw told the reporter. Now, on film, with abundant verve and no little depth, talented filmmakers have remembered well.


  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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