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Glory Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Glory Review

    "No one will ever take Charleston without first silencing the forts which protect its harbour, and the first one that must be taken is that. Fort Wagner."

    Director Edward Zwick loves his heroics. From the rustic adventure of Legends Of The Fall to the atrocities and chaos of Blood Diamond and Defiance, he thrives on the elegiac nature of rugged duty and noble endeavour in the face of brutality and injustice. With 1989's celebrated and award-winning American Civil War drama, Glory, he fashioned an equally sentimental and rousing slice of history, but also one that was powerful and exciting. Based on the true story of the first black regiment in the US Army, the Northern trained 54th Massachusetts Infantry, Zwick combines legend with fact and the resulting tale becomes likeably mythic and unequivocally stirring. With three Academy Awards to its name, the film struck an immediate chord and was, in no small measure, something of a stepping stone to the mounting of massive period-based action yarns like Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan and Gladiator. Lavishly produced, it felt like a glorious throwback to Gone With The Wind or Spartacus - actually, now that I come to think of it, Glory feels like a cross-pollination of both those epics. The Civil War was also a setting that Hollywood had utilised many times before, though never with any real authenticity. And Zwick was certainly attempting to set that record straight with this painstakingly researched crusade.

    The bloody battle of Antietam educates the young Captain Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) in the methodology of senseless carnage, but his true calling comes as he recuperates back home from a wound sustained in the blistering fire-fight. Promoted and offered the task of recruiting and training the newly created 54th Mass. Regiment, he finds himself in the unenviable position of commanding a rear echelon battalion of black volunteers who, he comes to realise, are little more than a publicity stunt and hardly even considered as fit for active service no matter how well he trains them. Facing distrust and resentment from his men, and mockery from his peers, it looks as though he is doing nothing to help his regiment's cause in the least and, worse yet, possibly playing a part in their subjugation all over again. With vital supplies being kept from them and their basic pay cut down from that of their white comrades, the seeds of dissent are clearly sown. When one ex-slave, the redoubtable Trip (Denzel Washington) seeks to lash out against the injustice that, once again, shackles the black men of the regiment, he becomes a martyr and a severe thorn in Shaw's side. Shaw wants to unite his force, he wants to give them the opportunity to fight, but bureaucracy and bigotry constantly tie his hands and sideline his troops to nothing more patriotic than manual labour. As much a slave to the double-standards that plague his own army as his men, Shaw is forced to make a decision that will provide them with pride and that rare esprit de corps that they long for. Come hell or high water, he will lead them into battle ... and, consequently, into the history books. Together, they will overcome their differences and discover their true glory.

    “I ain't fightin' this war for you, sir.”

    The screenplay from Kevin Jarre is actually culled from the real-life Shaw's own letters and from two books that comprehensively chronicle the North's black regiments and their part in the campaign. Jarre had also written for Rambo: First Blood Part II and Stephen Sommers' The Mummy, but his penchant for combining history with legend found its zenith, perhaps, in the immensely enjoyable Western romp, Tombstone. Here, he has as much genuine background to work from, but manages to rein in the extravagances that the Kurt Russell actioner would revel in, walking the tightrope between fact and fiction with altogether more delicacy, faithfulness and heart. Oscar-winning cinematographer and director Freddie (The Innocents/The Elephant Man) Francis would visually convey the ripe splendour of the blue-and-the-grey and paint it with a scenic brilliance that was both gritty and epic in scope. The battles - taking in wide-open fields and meadows, smoke-filled cottonwoods and the scorched white sand of the ultimate beach assault - are vividly portrayed with a mixture of the intimate and the grand. But it is perhaps in the massed processions and marches, the assembled throngs of troops and the simple, but indelible portraits of the leads that provide Glory with its most iconic images. Broderick framed against a torched house, seemingly becoming part of a burning cross that ironically appears in the flames. The massed array of pointed rifles about to belch lead in hot unison, and the beautifully lensed red, white and blue of the jubilee parade. Broderick's Shaw moving through men that he no longer sees as recruits but as friends, as flags billow sinuously at either side and raised caps weave through the air. A lingering look out at the ocean that a commander knows could well be his last, and the half-smirk from Trip as he and his fellow soldiers march towards destiny, Francis' camera keeping step with the ranks. And, most moving of all, the slow-motion montage of the tumbling dead as they are stockpiled in ghastly trenches. The film is filled with such massive visual vignettes that, in 1989, were powerful statements in their own right. Over the years since the film debuted, they may have been overshadowed by the likes of Schindler's List, Private Ryan and their ilk, but Glory retains its quiet beauty in the face of mass annihilation, making it still one of the most lyrical paeans to man's indefatigable love of endless butchery towards his fellow man.

    “So full of hate you want to go out and fight everybody! Because you've been whipped and chased by hounds. Well that might not be living, but it sure as hell ain't dying. And dying's been what these white boys have been doing for going on three years now! Dying by the thousands! Dying for you, fool!”

    Zwick, like Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg, likes to pick handsome, bankable leads and then literally put them through hell, seemingly determined to have them age - or come of age - before our very eyes. Brad Pitt in Legends Of The Fall, Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, Leonardo Di Caprio in Blood Diamond have all undergone that Zwickian odyssey of pain, loss and sacrifice, and Matthew Broderick, alongside Denzel Washington, who has suffered at least three times for the filmmaker, sort of provide the template for such gruelling make-or-break character arcs. When a tear runs from Denzel's eye as the punishing whip finally cuts through his resolve, the whole world suddenly sat up and took notice of a superstar on the ascension. Broderick's path was less meteoric, of course, and his performance in Glory has often been dismissed, but the time is right for some re-evaluation, I think.

    “Rob, is it true? There's to be a coloured regiment?”

    “So it seems ...”

    “The I am to be your first volunteer.”

    Matthew Broderick's undeniable youth and insecurity with such a big role I believe actually aid his credibility as the often awestruck or dumbfounded Shaw. There are many moments when he looks painfully ill-at-ease, miscast even, but Broderick gets it right when it counts most. His anger with the QM for holding out on essential supplies for the regiment, and his indignant blackmailing of a senior officer for pilfering merchandise and conducting illegal hit-and-run missions if he doesn't grant the 54th some actual combat, and his confused and awkward discussion with Trip over why the man refuses to carry the Regimental Colours grant Shaw with an implicit realism and a convincing crisis of conscience. Monstrously out of his depth, the actor may seem, but it is important to note that the character he is portraying is in exactly the same position. It is hardly comfortable being between a rock and hard place and Broderick, going up against deep character actors like Washington and Morgan Freeman, whose laconic, but highly disciplined Sgt. Maj. Rawlings offers sage-like advice, devout counsel and the steadfast reassurance that would keep frightened men together in the face of anything, naturally comes across as nervous and somewhat fazed with the enormity of it all. But there is a misty-eyed idealism that Broderick brings to the part that shouldn't be underestimated. It is also uncanny how much he comes to resemble the real Robert Gould Shaw - whom we see in photographs in the supplementary material supplied on this disc - despite some rather obvious stick-on whiskers. When requesting that his men be honoured with leading the fateful charge, there is a tangible sense of destiny emanating from him, and his choked-up words with the reporter just before they move out make you genuinely believe that Shaw, a surprisingly young commanding officer, knows that this battle is about a whole lot more than simply taking an enemy fort. Suddenly, Broderick's faltering voice, vulnerability and almost comical lack of stature in uniform vanish amidst his dedication to a higher purpose.

    “Don't look at me, look straight ahead! I'll eat your ass up, boyo!”

    “You know, the Irish are not noted for their fondness for the coloured.”

    Cary Elwes, as Major Cabot Forbes, is also an initially strange choice. Incredibly dashing-looking - and still in sword-swishing Princess Bride mode - he lacks the rugged appeal of most Civil War soldiers, affecting the English refinement that his own family background evidently bestows him. Boasting very “American” good looks and recalling a better-skinned Robert Redford, he also rises above any initial doubts about his casting, though seeing him and Broderick together against the ranks of their men does sort of make you think that the 54th is being commanded by a couple of high school kids in fake moustaches.

    Winning Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Sound and for Best Supporting Actor, which went to Washington, it is surprising that James Horner's phenomenal music wasn't even nominated for Best Score that year. With that cloud-stroking choir and some of the most momentously yearning passages that he has ever written - and, boy, has he written some momentously yearning passages throughout his career - Horner goes for broke in the heart-string-pulling department. The final charge and, especially, its gung-ho, desperate last climb over the parapet, features some of the most energising and spiritually uplifting pieces of music you are likely to hear. There is a physical surge to the cue that hauls you to the edge of your seat, and if your heart is not pounding away in your chest - as a trooper from the 54th waves a flag from atop the enemy position and screams a primal yell of doomed jubilation, and Elwes gets to work with Errol Flynn-like sword-dexterity - then you may find that it has stopped beating altogether. But, despite all this ethereal clarion-calling, the score is possibly upstaged by the awesome camp-fire, gospel sing-along that the 54th strike up on the eve of their greatest hour that manages to be both hugely poignant and incredibly catchy at the same time. ”Amen, brother!”

    Zwick is sentimental, of that there can be no doubt - he even admits how emotional he gets during certain scenes of the movie in his excellent commentary track. He aims for the heart and hits it dead centre almost every time. Such movie-making can be viewed as manipulative - and in many cases, it most surely is - but in capturing the emotional truth of a situation such as this, Zwick is making the right statement in the only way that really matters. You have to care what happens to these men - it is that simple.

    “That boy is a friend of yours, right?”

    “We grew up together.”

    “Then I say ... let him grow up some more ...”

    The training sequences, which take up the majority of the film, are nothing revelatory. We meet the cluster of front-line regular faces and get to follow them as their bicker, struggle, suffer and finally gain confidence, courage and acceptance. Andre Braugher, of Homicide fame and Frank Darabont's The Mist, is excellent as the educated boyhood friend of Shaw, Thomas Sears. Forsaking his social standing and intellect to take up arms in the fight to free his brothers from slavery, he is not the best material for soldiering, even though his heart is full of fire. The film agonises over Shaw's impartiality to his comrade's pain and the harsh reality of the situation that he finds himself in. In a later conflict, essayed with a clinical eye by Stanley Kubrick, Thomas would have been a shoe-in for Pvt. Pile, but Zwick and his writer are careful to bring everyone through these raw experiences with dignity, resolve and inner-strength. John Finn's Sgt. Maj. Mulcahy barks and terrorises the men like the time-honoured drill instructor of yore, but you never fear or loathe him for all of his yelling and violence. In this regard, the film feels sort of “safe” which, in a way, only adds to the unpredictable volatility of Trip, who often comes across as the most dangerous person in the camp.

    Come on 54th!

    An Oscar-winning turn from Hollywood royalty-in-the-making Denzel Washington provides the backbone for this fable of pride, indomitable spirit and tragic self-sacrifice. Trip is a rebel with the greatest cause of all, but he has no idea how to channel his rage. The turmoil lies in the fact that no-one else seems to know how to handle his justified bitterness, either. But Washington takes his stoic and impetuous ex-slave and embroiders him with texture and authenticity. He wants to fight for his creed, but he is also angry enough at the injustice that he sees all around him, even from the supposedly sympathetic Northerners, that he is willing to fight almost anybody. Harassing Braugher's Thomas, whom he has nicknamed “Snowdrop” for his assumed affinity with the white man, when there is no-one else to pick on, he epitomises the hopeless rage and practically direction-less thrust of their crusade. One of the most frustrating scenes in the film - that moment I touched upon earlier, when Shaw attempts to appeal to his strength of character over carrying the Colours - is also one of the greatest. Regarding the honourable task of carrying of the flag and the standard, and the whole point of the war, itself, neither man is able to articulate what they are really feeling, leading to a conversation that is purposely disjointed and seemingly unsatisfying. Jarre's script and the performances from Broderick and Washington are heavy with the importance of it all, the weight of their exchange, their potential soul-baring if you like, almost strangles the words in their mouths and chokes up any chance of the conventionally intelligent, and highly unlikely sermon that many other films would have stuffed in there. Underplayed and pregnant with morality and grief, this may not be the film's most memorable scene, but is probably its cleverest.

    “I ran away when I was 12 years old and I ain't never looked back.”

    “What ya been doin' since then?”

    “I run for President ... I ain't winning, though!”

    The firing of the Southern-sympathisers' town is clearly meant to be a pivotal turning point, but it just misses the right amount of emotion and anger to have the correct impact required. There is a certain contrivance to the sequence that is not as forgiveable as all the rest of the usual “take 'em an' shape 'em” clichés of the common filmic theme of turning men into soldiers. However, it would be a heart of stone that was not touched when the union trooper (played, incidentally, by screenwriter Kevin Jarre) who initially bad-mouthed the regiment finds his voice and suddenly cries “Give 'em hell, 54th!” as Freeman, Washington (wow - what fitting names for this conflict, eh?) and their earnest, and patriotic battalion march past on their way to historic oblivion. Freeman's Sgt. Maj. Rawlings' kindly drawled “We'll be along directly,” to the little drummer-boys who are clearly mesmerised by the sight of them all amassed on an, otherwise, picturesque beach and heading off to war is equally touching.

    “If I should fall ... tell of what you saw here ...”

    The fact that the uselessness of their assault - in strategic terms, anyway - is so bullied home speaks volumes for the new vogue of war-time realism that was ushered-in during this period. Things happen that you didn't expect to, or rather you didn't expect to happen in quite such a fashion. The violence of war is battered home with all the arbitrariness of a real battle. It doesn't matter if you are the star of the film - once the musket-balls are flying and the shells are dropping, you are just as prone to disintegration as the man next to you. We aren't talking Saving Private Ryan here, though. Zwick is not going for the extra dimension in carnage, which is something that, unfairly, begins to nag when I watch the film nowadays. The blood-letting, excepting in a couple of places - a Union commander's head erupting near the start, for example - is neither documentary in style nor prosaic. The battles don't feel toned-down, however. Once the action gets in close and considerably personal, the bayonets do some severe stabbing, twisting and puncturing. But this is not a film that is remembered for its violence, unlike Ryan, or Black Hawk Down, whose notoriety is propelled by their mayhem. Zwick even replicates the futility and imbecility of Civil War tactics. Rows of soldiers from both sides stand in line and discharge their weapons in the direction of the enemy and then stand defenceless as the opposing ranks do exactly the same to them. These Napoleonic strategies must be a joy for the thousands of battle re-enactors to replicate and Zwick, very wisely, fills his screen with such “living history” buffs. This also provides a highly plausible impression of 19th Century society even when we are taken away from the skirmish lines, and Glory easily ranks alongside other notable period entries such as Gangs Of New York, The Last Of The Mohicans and Dances With Wolves in terms of costume and cultural authenticity. And I can't recall ever having seen the famed, but rather eerie-looking Zouaves captured in a movie before this one. These guys fought on both sides of the conflict and, in their exotic and colourful European regalia, looked not unlike some form of aggressive, multi-hued clowns. Which, considering most peoples' irrational fear of those mischievous circus-pranksters, would make them doubly terrifying when charging at you!

    “If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry on?”

    “I will.”

    “I'll see you in the fort, Thomas ...”

    I love the way that Cary Elwes allows himself a half-hidden grin as the final orders are given for the formation and charge - it helps convey the genuine impression that, live or die, this is the very moment that they have all strived to get to. There is a very real, very tangible joy that he expresses in this one brief instance. But, for sheer lump-in-throat tenderness, just look at the way that Zwick has Broderick move through the ranks just beforehand. With Horner's main theme coursing through the scene like film's very own life-blood, and the heavenly voices of Harlem Boys' Choir stirring up unapologetically tragic pride in what is about to take place, Glory lives up to its title and finds that perfect elegiac note. At the risk of sounding horrifically sentimental, myself, it is not hard to imagine that the troops who undertook that fateful charge for real heard just such angelic voices, themselves, as they moved out in the direction of the enemy guns. Devoutly religious to a man and unbreakable in their resolve, they would have been under no illusion as to the foolhardiness of their mission yet completely smitten to the cause that triggered it. The ramifications of the glorious sacrifice that they were about to make would not have been lost on a single one of them and, damn right, they would have heard angels singing as they seized their God-given chance to fight intolerance.

    For all of this talk of angels and destiny, Glory is a wonderful movie that flies way over and above what could be considered sentimental overkill. The weight of the matter is clearly evident in the eyes, expressions and voices of the black actors and, even for a resolutely American tale, the message of pride, conviction and total sincerity and sacrifice can be lost on no-one who watches the film.

    A welcome release on Blu-ray, folks, Glory comes very highly recommended.