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June 2024
1min read


Of all the reasons offered, when The Patriot was released last year, for the dearth of films on the American Revolution, the most convincing was the simplest, that there is no satisfying way to present period attitudes toward slavery to a modern audience. Glory , the finest film ever made about the American Civil War, succeeds precisely because it confronts the issue head-on. Whether or not all the men who fought it could articulate it, or even understand it, the war from beginning to end was about slavery. The director Edward Zwick’s 1989 film received some criticism from historians for implying that the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was the first black fighting unit in the Union Army (although the movie does not say this) and for depicting most of the soldiers as former slaves when most in fact were freemen who had grown up in the North. But in this case the rewriting of history was justified. How else to represent fairly not just that regiment but all the 168,000 black soldiers and 30,000 black sailors who fought in Lincoln’s army and navy?

The New Yorker ’s Pauline Kael called Glory “spirit-stirring material that has never before been tapped for movies.” Much of the spirit moving must be credited to the composer James Horner ( Braveheart , Titanic ), whose rousing score, enhanced in the new DVD version, includes choral work from the Boys Choir of Harlem. As CoI. Robert Gould Shaw, the Boston-raised officer who led the regiment, Matthew Broderick has a reticent, slightly dazed look that befits a reluctant and unlikely hero. Denzel Washington, as a rebellious former slave; Morgan Freeman, as a middle-aged gravedigger turned sergeant; and Andre Braugher, as an educated freeman, portray a broad spectrum of black antebellum types without once resorting to stereotype. The screenwriter, Kevin Jarre, whose main sources were Colonel Shaw’s letters and Peter Burchard’s 1965 book One Gallant Rush , has a small part as a white Union soldier who brawls with Washington’s Private Tripp but then later cheers on the 54th to its heroic, calamitous assault on Fort Wagner, in South Carolina. The new DVD wide-screen version appends commentary from the director and a featurette, Voices of Glory , offering production notes and historical background.

—Allen Barra

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