So today (July 21st, 2019) Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies are screening the movie Glory on the big screen once again in celebration of its 30th anniversary. It will also play again on Wednesday, July 24th. Check at the Fathom Events website to see where it is playing in your town so that you don’t miss the chance to see this fantastic movie once again up on the big screen, especially if you didn’t catch it way back in 1989. EVERY movie is better on the big screen.
I have a special connection to this film, as in many ways it changed my life and set my career trajectory. Back in 2015, Christian McWhirter (historian at the Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum) asked me to write an essay about the movie for his website, Civil War Pop. I eagerly agreed, arguing that the movie was the best Civil War movie yet to be made.
I think it still is. Here’s the review I wrote in 2015 (with some slight edits):
Seeing Glory was a watershed event in my life and my career is largely a result of it. I bet I’m not the only one.
Growing up in Alabama, Confederate iconography surrounded me. Yet despite my love of history I was not especially drawn to the Civil War. I saw much of Roots (1977) when it originally aired, but I was just a kid. As a young teen, the miniseries The Blue and the Gray (1982) and North and South (1985) both sparked a bit of curiosity in the Civil War, but did not lead to a sustained interest. I watched Gone with the Wind (1939) on VHS when I was in high school and loved it, but mostly because I fell in love with Vivian Leigh (I still am).
I understood the South’s desire to maintain slavery caused the Civil War. (Yes, it is possible to have learned that even in an Alabama public school in the ’70s and ’80s.) Still, that meant little to me. Despite my exposure to Roots, I reflected little on the injustice and evils of slavery. What little interest I had in the Civil War involved the South’s valiant struggle against great odds, my Confederate ancestors, and the heroic example of Robert E. Lee.
But Glory changed all that.
In 1985 (around the time I fell in love with Vivian and Patrick Swayze was breaking hearts in North and South), acclaimed producer Freddie Fields and screenwriter Kevin Jarre were on business in Boston. The story goes that they stumbled upon the magnificent Augustus Saint-Gaudens bronze relief monument that was dedicated in 1897 on the Boston Commons to honor Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first regiment of black troops raised from a northern state. Its stunning depiction of the regiment marching off to war captivated the two men, and both expressed surprise that blacks had fought in the Civil War.
We can forgive their reaction. This was a time when popular culture had long-since forgotten black Union soldiers. Perhaps the most indelible images many had of African Americans in the Civil War at all were the slaves depicted in Gone with the Wind. Despite the war’s liberation possibilities, Mammy, Pork, and Prissy loyally serve Scarlett, and Big Sam is shown going off with other slaves to dig Confederate fortifications, promising to stop the Yankees.
These scenes engrained the Lost Cause depiction of “faithful” wartime slaves into America’s collective memory. Thus, Jarre and Fields were hardly alone in their ignorance as they viewed the monument.
Besides the stunning sculpture, Saint-Gaudens’s masterpiece includes a long inscription providing a broad overview of Shaw and the regiment’s sacrifices, obstacles, and legacy. If you’ve seen it, you know that it is practically an outline of what became Glory. Jarre and Fields immediately saw the potential for a great film from a largely unknown story.
Others were involved in getting the film made. One was Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, who’d written a book on the monument and grown up knowing members of Shaw’s family. Kirstein’s work was heavily indebted to Peter Burchard’s regimental history, One Gallant Rush (1965). Soon, Jarre, Fields, Kirstein, and Burchard collaborated. Jarre wrote the original screenplay, and Tri-Star Pictures (a new studio that pooled the resources of Columbia, CBS, and HBO) committed to the project.
The original script focused largely on depicting a transformation in Shaw. Early scenes painted him as indifferent to abolitionism despite being the son of prominent and wealthy abolitionists. (This is only slightly inaccurate.
As a young and handsome man, Shaw had many other interests besides abolitionism, and thus he came across as indifferent in comparison to his parents.) Providing more background on Shaw, the script featured a ridiculous encounter with John Brown in which the zealot castigated him for his lack of abolitionist fervor. Thankfully, Peter Burchard convinced Jarre to dump such scenes, focusing a bit less on Shaw.
The result fit the formula of most war films (meet the soldiers, see them bond through training, watch them fight), complete with a stereotypically diverse group of comrades played by such gifted actors as Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher. Besides Shaw, the men are composite characters, which is frustrating since the regiment contained individuals who’s lives Jarre could’ve easily researched: Frederick Douglass’s two sons and Medal of Honor winner William H. Carney, for example.
It’s also typical in that although largely an African-American story, it places a white hero (Matthew Broderick’s Shaw) at the center, which sadly was standard practice for Hollywood’s historical epics until recent movies like Selma and 12 Years a Slave. Yet if not for Burchard’s script intervention, it could have been worse. Further, without the Shaw focus, in the 1980s it would have been near impossible to find a major studio to produce the film. It is also undeniable that Shaw’s leadership was important to the regiment’s success.
The film’s biggest inaccuracy is that it depicts the regiment as comprised mostly of fugitive slaves, while in truth 80% of the men were northern free blacks. Yet this too is pardonable, because the film tells a larger story than just that of the 54th. It is about all African American men that served in the United States army during the Civil War, a large percentage of which had fled from slavery.
Another distortion is the whipping scene. While it’s true that Shaw insisted on strict discipline and meted out harsh punishments, the character Trip’s AWOL expedition to find shoes would not have involved flogging—a punishment that was outlawed by that time.
However, the scene is one of the film’s best punches, teaching an important historical lesson. Trip (Denzel Washington) has his back exposed, revealing horrific scars indicating a lifetime of resistance to master control, and yet also reminding audiences of slavery’s brutality. He then haughtily flips off his shirt, eyes Shaw and spits defiantly, and manfully readies himself for the blows. As the lashes are laid on, director Edward Zwick’s camera slowly zooms on Trip’s face and we watch in agony as he remains defiant even as each stroke takes an increasingly painful toil. When this hardened and resistant man finally breaks, it’s in the form of a quivering face and a tear sliding down his cheek. The whole scene conveys more about slave resistance than we’ve seen even in more recent films. (It’s also one of the most brilliant scenes by an actor using only his face, and I believe it alone won Washington his first Oscar).
There are several other forgivable inaccuracies, but as a whole the film is solid history. It becomes clear that at a time when few whites believed that blacks could be effective soldiers, Shaw was intent on proving them wrong by taking the 54th’s training seriously. Glory accurately reveals that if captured, the soldiers risked enslavement, and the officers risked a death sentence, yet they heroically remained committed. As seen in the movie, Shaw was impressed by how quickly and readily the men learned, and his respect for them grew accordingly. The film reveals the racism the men encountered from white northern soldiers and a Congress that denied them full pay. Yet, many white soldiers’ opinions about black soldiers evolved during the war, a dynamic captured well in one particularly moving scene near the end of the film.
It’s here in the third act that Glory is the most impressive, as the men are finally allowed in combat. The night before their largest battle, we watch the men in a religious gathering, and it’s a moving and particularly accurate depiction of slave “shout” songs and worship. It is also true that Shaw sensed his impending death, and yet was focused on what his regiment’s actions could accomplish for the reputation of black soldiers and their race. The final battle scene is stunning and largely true to eyewitness accounts of the attack on Fort Wagner, including Shaw’s last moments.
I was unaware of all these accuracies when I saw it as a college student in 1989, I was just engrossed in a great movie that hooked me immediately with its realistic depiction of Antietam. Yet as I sat in the theater, something slowly changed in me. I recall fighting my own tears during the whipping scene and thinking “there was something bigger going on in that war than the heroics of Lee’s army.” My heart soared when Morgan Freeman announced proudly, “we runaway slaves, but we come back fighting men!”
I still can’t watch the movie without getting emotional during the religious shout when Trip says, “We men, ain’t we? We men.” For me, this is the climax of Glory, and what the whole damn thing is about: men fighting against slavery, racism, and a culture (both North and South) that insisted they were less than human, fit only for manual labor, and not deserving of citizenship. No, they demonstrated by their actions, they were men, willing to “go down, standing up” against their oppressors. It’s powerful stuff.
The gut-wrenchingly realistic and beautifully filmed final battle is more the movie’s coda than its climax. Yet it caused the moment when I knew that my perception of the Civil War had been forever altered. When the rebel flag came up over Fort Wagner indicating that the northern attack had failed, I palpably felt my heart sink in pain. From that moment, my attitude about the Confederacy changed. The good guys had not won that day.
After seeing the film, the Civil War became my passion. I devoured the works of Shelby Foote, James McPherson, and Bruce Catton, but was always drawn back to the African-American perspective of the war as a fight for freedom and citizenship rights. Soon after, I became a ranger at Richmond National Battlefield Park, working on the battlefields of the Peninsula Campaign. This experience, combined with my interest in black participation in the war, led to a graduate school seminar paper, a master’s thesis, a PhD dissertation, and ultimately my book, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation (which I am proud to say won the Wiley Silver Award–now if I could just get a filmmaker interested in it).
But I’m not alone. Due in part to the fact that Glory sparked popular interest in African-American soldiers, scholars have dug deep in the archives and explored many angles of the black Civil War experience, black reenactors have multiplied and educated the public, monuments have been dedicated, and there is now an African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in DC. Few today would be surprised to discover that African Americans were in the Civil War. We’ve become generally aware that freedom was not bestowed on blacks, they fought and died for it.
There are other historians with similar stories as mine, and it’s testament to the power of popular and pubic history. A monument inspired the filmmakers, and their resulting movie caused a shift in historiography (few can make such a claim). Hollywood often gets history wrong, and this film has significant flaws. But Glory inspired a generation of historians, got us asking different questions, and thus is still the best Civil War movie ever made.
* The film depicts Shaw’s acceptance of command of the 54th as a quick decision with only slight hesitance. In fact, he originally turned down the offer, but changed his mind after weeks of reflection.
* Completely missing is that just before going off to war with the 54th, Shaw quickly married his fiancée despite his mother’s objections. He did so largely because he felt that given the risk of what would happen to him if captured, he would not survive the war.
* Frederick Douglass is depicted in a very brief moment near the start of the film in a scene that does little justice to the role he played in the recruitment of the 54th and the sacrifice he made in sending his two sons off to war in the regiment.
* The movie’s characterization of Colonel James Montgomery is a bit unfair, but the scene of his burning of Darien, Georgia, is accurate, including his sadistic promise to eliminate secessionists “like the Jews of old.” The line is as recorded in Shaw’s personal letters.
* Medal of Honor winner William H. Carney won the award for his gallantry in bringing the American flag back from the doomed attack on Wagner. As noted, he’s not a character in the film, but during the thick of the battle scene, there is a quick shot of a soldier standing defiantly on the fort’s wall waving the flag. I like to think it’s Carney.
* The film shows a group of reporters gathered on a knoll to get the “best seat in the house” to view the attack on Wagner. This is accurate, and it’s clear the filmmakers used much of the reporters’ eyewitness details in staging the battle scene, making it all the more meaningful when Shaw tells one of them, “if I should fall, remember what you see here.”
* A fair criticism of the film is that it appears that the entire 54th was destroyed at Wagner. In truth, they continued their service until the end of the war, winning more fame at the Battle of Olustee.
* Does it mention slavery? Obviously so. As indicated above, the whipping scene says much about the institution’s brutality and slave resistance, and the religious shout meeting is highly accurate and reveals much about slave survival tactics.