(United States, 1989)

The first time I became aware that there had been African American soldiers fighting for the Union during the American Civil War was when I watched Glory. I was not the only one who experienced an awakening of sorts when the movie was released. In fact, several of my black friends were as surprised by this revelation as I was. Less than a year after Glory's release, Ken Burns' massive documentary, The Civil War, was broadcast on Public Television. This film further illuminated the roles of black soldiers in the army, but Glory had beaten it to the punch, so to speak. Today, high school history classes no longer gloss over or ignore the importance of African Americans to the Civil War effort, and Glory is frequently shown in schools to italicize the point. Of course, such a statement makes the movie sound dry and tiresome two qualities which don't apply. This is a passionate and involving motion picture, and was in part responsible for kindling my own interest in the Civil War. (It was shortly after viewing Glory that I read Michael Shaara's meticulous account of the Battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels.)

Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Glory opens with a brief prologue at Antietum, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. During the fight, Shaw suffers a minor injury and is left by the enemy for dead. Later, after returning home on leave, he learns that the United States government is planning to form a regiment comprised exclusively of black soldiers. When offered the command, Shaw accepts, and convinces his best friend, Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), to join him. In addition to focusing on Shaw and Forbes, Glory turns the camera on the small group of men who share a tent: the angry and resentful Private Trip (Denzel Washington); Private Jupiter Sharts (Jhimi Kennedy), a crack shot with a nervous disposition; Corporal Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), an educated man who grew up with Shaw; and Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), a runaway slave who speaks with the voice of wisdom and reason. The first half of Glory follows the Massachusetts 54th as they undergo training, some of which is brutal. There are times when Shaw seems out of his depth, such as when he has Trip publicly flogged for desertion (the standard punishment for the act, but, once the scars from past whippings on Trip's back are revealed, it is shown to be the result of poor judgment). During the film's second hour, the regiment goes on active duty. At first, they perform a series of menial tasks, such as burning an unprotected town. Eventually, however, Shaw convinces the army to use the Massachusetts 54th in combat, and, after winning a skirmish, they become the vanguard for an attack on the seemingly impregnable Fort Wagner.

Glory is, without question, one of the best movies ever made about the American Civil War (a.k.a. "The War Between the States"). The reason isn't just the way in which Kevin Jarre's script illuminates a frequent oversight of history books, nor is it the fine acting or epic feel that director Edward Zwick achieves on a modest budget although those elements are part of Glory's effectiveness. Rather, it is the way in which the filmmakers weave an impressively large historical tapestry without ever losing sight of the characters that make up the individual threads. Glory has important things to say, yet it does so without becoming pedantic. It has all the elements of a great film, and it remains as stirring and forceful today as it was during its initial release.

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