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January 3, 2008

The Civil War in the US was fought between the Union( comprising the Northern and Midwest) and the Confederates(South and Southwest) over the issue of slavery. The Civil War had its own heroes like Gen Thomas Stonewall Jackson, Gen Robert Lee( Confederate) and Ulysees Grant, William Sherman(Union). However one of the most significant features of the Civil War was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. Along with the Ist South Carolina Volunteers Regiment, this was one of the first professional Army Regiment made up entirely of Black Soldiers. And this regiment gained prominence when it mounted an attack on the strategic Fort Wagner located in South Carolina. This was also the first instance of Black Soldiers taking part in full scale combat.

The 1989 movie Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman and directed by Edward Zwick, was based on this historical incident. The movie basically takes a look at the 54th Massachussets Regiment and the events leading to the climactic assault on Fort Wagner. The movie revolves primarily around 6 characters.

Mathew Broderick is Col Robert Gould Shaw. The main character of the movie, Col Shaw, is an abolitionist by nature. He hates slavery and takes up the cause of his soldiers. He tears up his own paycheck, when the Black soldiers protest against the low wages offered to them. A ruthless task master, he drives his men the hard way. But he is a leader respected by his own men, as he stands up for their rights and leads from the front in the battle, ultimately sacrificing his own life. A true hero to the core. .

Cary Elwes is Major Cabot Forbes. He is second in command after Shaw, and his friend too. He has differences with Shaw on the way he drives his soldiers, claiming he is too harsh and ruthless. However when Shaw dies during the climactic assault on Fort Wagner, it is Forbes who assumes command and leads the assault into the Fort.

Denzel Washington is Pvt Trip
. One of the most important characters in the movie, a former black slave, a rebel and having a huge chip on his shoulders. He is quite sceptical of Col Shaw’s intentions, claiming that however well the Black people do, they would always be 2nd class citizens. As he tells in a memorable quote “Let me tell you something, boy. You can march like the white man, you can talk like him. You can sing his songs, you can even wear his suits. But, you ain’t NEVER gonna be nothing to him, than an ugly ass chimp… in a blue suit.”. He is flogged when he sneaks out to buy a pair of shoes.

Morgan Freeman is Sgt. Major John Rawlins.
An grave digger by profession, and a worldly wise man, he believes that blind hatred of whites, is counterproductive and would not fetch any results. Trip mocks at his ideas calling him a nigga, and there is a memorable scene when he slaps Trip, and asks him to stop indulging in blind hatred. Watching the two great actors Washington and Freeman go face to face is a memorable experience, showing what acting is all about. He acts as a confidante to Col Shaw,giving him valuable information about the troops.

Andre Braugher is Corporal Thomas Searles. Shaw’s childhood friend, he wants to be educated and join the mainstream. He joins the 54th out of loyalty to Shaw. He is often the target of Trip’s ire who keeps calling him Snowflake, a derogatory term for blacks who were friendly with whites, much like the way whites friendly to blacks were called as Nigger Lovers. And finally Pvt Jupiter Sharts, one of the best sharpshooters, a person with a stammer. Illiterate and uneducated, he finds a friend in Thomas who helps him out.

The key to any period epic, is maintaining a balance between drama and spectacle. And very few movies achieve the balance like Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus. And is to director Zwick’s credit, that he pulls it off pretty well. Though based on a historical event, most of the characters are fictional except for Col Shaw. But the success of director lies in the way he brilliantly builds up the tension between the characters and interpolates it with real life. For eg the conflict between Trip and Thomas, was in effect a depiction of the division between the educated Black class and the uneducated Black labor. Again Freeman’s character depicts some of the more moderate members of the black society who wanted reconciliation with the whites, rather than hostility. Glory in effect looks not just at white vs black, but also the divisions between the black community itself.

Glory also shows that inspite of drafting the Blacks as soldiers, the White community still treats them as second class citizens, by paying them lower wages compared to a White soldier, and refusing to give them proper footwear and ammunition. Many Union soldiers regard them as incapable of combat, and fit only for menial tasks. It is on Col Shaw’s insistence that finally the black soldiers get their due. There are many memorable sequences in the movie, but some of them stand out. For eg there is a scene when just before the day of battle, the blacks gather singing songs, and drinking as an attempt to motivate themseves. When Pvt Trip is asked to speak he is overwhelmed, an orphan since childhood, he has never known love, and has grown up a bitter man. And he says

“I ain’t much about no prayin’, now. I ain’t never had no family, and…killed off my mama. Well, I just… Y’all’s the onliest family I got. I love the 54th. Ain’t even much a matter what happens tomorrow, ’cause we men, ain’t we? We men”.

But for me the most memorable scene is when the black soldiers march out for the final battle. As the black contigent marches to the battlefield, under the command of Col Shaw,the white soldiers look at them with a mixture of awe and respect. And then one of the white soldiers shouts out “Give em Hell 54”. And then all the white soldiers around join in the chorus, and mixed with James Horners memorable score, and the sound of cannons firing, this scene just gives you the goose bumps. And in the same scene, again Col Shaw stares at the ocean and the sea gulls, maybe as a premonition that he would not come back. And the final part, he asks, “if this man falls who shall take his place”, pointing at the flag bearer, and then Thomas steps forward saying “I will”. This 20 minute sequence itself is worth the price.

Glory also has some superlative performances. Matthew Broderick does well as Col Shaw, providing the right mixture of heroism, vulnerability and emotion. But still i felt a Liam Neeson or Daniel Day Lewis in that role would have been much better. Cary Elwes and Andre Braugher provide a good support act. Morgan Freeman again proves why he is one of the finest actors we have, with a superb performance, especially in the scene when he rebukes Trip. And then there is Denzel Washington, who gives a performance that is just brilliant. The scene where he is flogged is testimony enough to that. As he is being whipped, he stares at Col Shaw, and maybe even us, with an expression that conveys anger, defiance, pain all in one go. No dialogues, Denzel simply speaks with his eyes, and that is why i always rate Denzel as one of the best actors. So my recommendation is go for this movie, it is an unforgettable epic. He totally deserved the Best Supporting Actor Award.


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