Released in 1989 Glory is a modern classic film featuring Stellar performances from many actors. The movie tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, its formation, and activities during the Civil War leading up to the charge on Fort Wagner. At this point, the movie has been out for 30 years now so I’ll assume that I won’t be spoiling the movie for anyone by discussing specific events in the film.
Glory opens with the reading of a letter from Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) while he heads off into battle. These voiceovers occur throughout the film and were based on actual letters that Shaw wrote to his family.
War is often glamorized and romanticized but the film shows the true carnage of battle. Fighting in the Battle of Antietam, Confederate and Union Soldiers face off in a field where both sides suffer heavy losses. As Shaw sits in a battlefield hospital getting his wound stitched up we catch glimpses of a man undergoing an amputation which at that time meant little in the way of anesthesia and no antiseptics. It’s during this scene that Shaw learns of the rumor that President Lincoln intends to issue a proclamation freeing the slaves in the rebel states.
Due to his injury, Shaw returns home to Boston to recuperate on medical leave. During some sort of celebration, he learns that an all-Black regiment is being formed. Shaw is offered and accepts command of the new 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment as a colonel. He then enlists his friend Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes) as a major and his second in command. Friends since childhood, the group is rounded out by Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), a free Black man who grew up with Shaw and Forbes.
As the regiment begins to take shape, Black men arrive from the local area as well as far-flung places eager to fight against the Confederate Army. Once sorted, the core group of soldiers that the film follows are assigned to share a tent.
The firebrand of the group is Private Silas Trip (Denzel Washington), an escaped slave who ran away from Tennessee at the age of 12. We don’t quite get his full story but it’s obvious that this is a man on a mission to have his personhood recognized. Trip is aggressive, angry, and brash. At points, he bullies and antagonizes the other soldiers. But given the obstacles that the regiment faces it becomes easier to imagine what Trip might have seen and experienced in his life.
At first, he comes across as being annoying and insufferable but he motivates the men to challenge the injustices they face. He pushes the men to grow and push beyond the confinements of slavery by standing up for themselves but he also experiences growth himself. Washington is electrifying as Trip and this was the role that catapulted his career. I’d rank this performance up there with his portrayal of Malcolm X.
Sergeant Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) is quite the opposite of Trip but he also serves a similar purpose within the group. Rawlins is also an escaped slave but he has been with the Union Army working as a gravedigger. He appears to be several years older than the other men and with his age, there is more patience and calm. Rawlins is as eager to fight as the other men but maintains his self-control and doesn’t rush into things. It’s easy to regard him as being meek and mild but he’s not a coward. He’s diplomatic and manages to stand up to both Trip and Shaw without belittling or embarrassing them in front of the other men.
As a childhood friend of Shaw and Forbes, Corporal Thomas Searles shares some intimacy with the superior officers. And up to this point, Searles has led a pampered life in comparison to the other men. The combination of these experiences results in him having a difficult time adjusting to life in the regiment. Searles might not view the other men as being beneath him but rather sees himself as being different given his upbringing. He seems to assume that the close relationship he shares with Shaw and Forbes will continue during their military service. Yet, Shaw demands a professional distance to ensure the observation of rank and order.
The other members of the group are Private Jupiter Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy) and a Mute Drummer Boy (RonReaco Lee). Sharts is a good-natured man who is eager to do well but he stutters and seems to have a nervous disposition. He is also an escaped slave who ran away to join the Union Army. Sharts is jittery but has become a good marksman as a result of hunting. Given his inability to speak, we don’t learn much about the past of the Mute Drummer Boy but the older men take him under their wings and look out for him.
As with most films of this nature, the group starts as a rag-tag bunch and transforms into a well-functioning unit. The regiment is in training to head off to war. But, the military establishment doesn’t appreciate them at the outset. Thus they’re allowed to play around rather than receiving serious training. Being an all-Black regiment, they are not held to the same expectations as their White counterparts and thus are not given the same resources.
On the one hand, you can’t help but wonder what is the point of forming this regiment and wasting time putting them into a camp with officers if you aren’t going to make use of them. But, the ideology (at least within Glory) is to draw potential resources from the Confederate Army and demoralize the South by seizing and destroying their property. The Emancipation Proclamation supports this point of view by only freeing the slaves within rebel states rather than all slaveholding states.
It’s also clear that the 54th Regiment is not seen as being important to the war effort as they do not receive proper shoes, uniforms, or pay. For the first half of Glory they’re fighting for the respect and acceptance of their army. Before even meeting the enemy on the battlefield, they have to deal with the enemy within their camp. It makes you wonder about priorities when you see someone in the war department taking gleeful joy in withholding shoes and uniforms of which the Black soldiers are in dire need.
The Confederacy issued a proclamation advising that captured Black men serving in the Union Army would be immediately enslaved. The 54th was given the option of leaving without repercussion but the majority if not all chose to remain, showing their resolve to fight for their freedom.
If only the injustices they faced in Glory were a figment of someone’s creative imagination. But, Glory touches on the reality of the 54th receiving inadequate resources and unequal pay. The Civil War was never about freeing the slaves, at least not for the Union. The sacrifice of the Black soldiers is not given the same amount of respect as other soldiers. This shouldn’t be surprising given that their lives aren’t given the same value as other men. The original plan seemed to be to use the Regiment for manual labor rather than fighting. Some of the White officers within the film expressed discomfort with even arming Black soldiers.
A memorable scene in Glory is Trip being perceived as a deserter (though he should have more likely been considered absent without leave). Trip is punished without Shaw asking for an explanation of where he went or why. Stripped of his shirt to receive lashes, his back is shown to bear the marks of many such previous punishments. And while most people would be inclined to cry out in pain, Trip silently receives the lashes with tears rolling down his cheeks.
At a later point in Glory, Trip expresses reservations about the likelihood of life getting better for ex-slaves as a result of fighting in the war. His reservations are incredibly valid knowing a little bit about what these men endured in bondage and seeing the opposition they face in the fight for their freedom. The 54th is preparing to fight against the Confederate Army but unlike White Union soldiers, they must also do battle against institutional racism in the Union Army at every turn. Trip is not an educated man and so he does not say things in delicate or diplomatic terms. But he’s able to look at situations with a certain mental clarity that allows him to see things for what they are. And he dares to speak the truth regardless of how difficult it might be to hear.
Now I don’t like feet, but Trip’s feet are a special breed of being a mess as a result of being barefoot or wearing old/improper shoes. Many of the men’s feet are in similar condition and it takes Trip’s unintended act of rebellion to get the problem addressed. Likewise, it takes him recognizing and calling out the unfairness of receiving unequal pay for everyone else to take notice and action. Without Trip there to ruffle feathers and make everyone uncomfortable with the situation, the rest of the men would have likely gone along without asking questions. These temper tantrums that Trip throws can be mistakenly dismissed as childish but they’re indicative of this individual demanding recognition and respect of his personhood.
During the unit’s basic training, we see glimpses of just how ignorant the men have been kept, for example not knowing left from right. For the time, it’s unsurprising that many of the men in the regiment could not read. It’s ironic that once things are up and running, the enlistees are incredibly disciplined and eager during training but jovial when off duty. Shaw surmises that this is probably a result of having spent hours doing mindless work. So in a sense the conditions intended to keep them enslaved also prove useful for helping them gain their freedom. Both the Confederates and Union question the intelligence and capabilities of these men and through them the abilities of Black people in general. Yet, when challenged and given the opportunity, they show themselves to be more than capable.
Arriving in the South after training is a return home for many of the soldiers but under markedly different circumstances in some ways, while things are much the same in others. The first towns the troops meet are not occupied by Confederate soldiers just civilians. The Black populace is mostly happy and quite proud to see the 54th dressed and marching in a dignified manner. The 54th joins another Black regiment and is tasked with helping to set fire to towns, pillage homes, and perform backbreaking labor. The 54th has endured indignities during training only to be forced into immoral actions and menial work.
There’s an ongoing theme of low expectations being set for the 54th and their manipulation into a disadvantaged position. Fortunately, events occur which allow Shaw to push back against these assignments and the 54th is reassigned to combat duty.
A lot of times, in films and mainstream media, Black people are dismissed as uncouth or inappropriate when they react passionately to being mistreated. Their very human reaction to being treated inhumanely is used as justification for their inhumane treatment. Respectability politics come into play and there’s an unreasonable expectation for Black people to remain calm and respectful in even the most trying circumstances.
To some degree, Rawlins fits the mold of what is deemed the acceptable Black character in such situations. Morgan Freeman is an amazing actor but excluding his role in Lean on Me, he’s often typecast in this ever-patient / magical negro role serving as a guide to some befuddled White character. It was refreshing to see the character of Rawlins juxtaposed against Trip. They’re both escaped slaves who have seen and experienced their fair share of misfortune in life but they are very different people with different outlooks.
Likewise, having Searles and Sharts round out the group adds more personas and perspectives of how Black men might have seen and experienced the world at that time. I applaud the creators of Glory for not limiting the primary Black characters to mere stereotypes but rather allowing for some complexity.
It’s also commendable that the film shows the participation of Black soldiers in the Civil War. As the story goes, Kevin Jarre was partially inspired to write the screenplay after seeing the 54th Regiment Memorial at Boston Common. A lot of people (including Jarre) were/are unaware that Black soldiers fought for the Union Army.
Some people will forever hold on to the idea that the Union fought the Civil War to free the slaves rather than the reality that they fought to preserve the union of the United States. But, Glory shows that Black men were not waiting for a savior. Instead, they pushed to fight in the Civil War in hopes of attaining freedom for themselves and their people. They fought with courage and dignity despite the Confederate AND Union armies believing they were unfit and undisciplined for battle.
That being said, while Glory is a great movie it does have some flaws. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw is based on a real person while the Black soldiers are either partially or entirely fictionalized despite there being a lot of information about and pictures of the real soldiers who served in the 54th Regiment.
The troops within the 54th Regiment were all-Black while the commanding officers were all-White. Within the context of the 54th, it would be most logical to have the story told from the perspective of the soldiers who are facing discrimination and prejudice. Instead, the story is told through Shaw’s eyes and he functions as the White Savior who fights for the soldiers and gets them their shoes and uniforms. Glory is an example of the many great stories to be told from the annals of Black history but it also shows the importance of Black people telling our own stories.
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