I am not a fan of the Civil War, which I actually found kind of boring, though it was kind of fun to hear The Boy swear for months every time he did a search on “Civil War” and got superhero stuff instead of the military info he was interested in. Dumb Marvel jokes aside, what I’m getting at is that I didn’t see this Matthew Broderick movie when it came out. Glory was part of this month’s “Denzel Washington” theme, but while he may be the main character of the story from a dramatic perspective (more on that later), most screen time is devoted to the young, essentially untried Colonel Shaw who is put in charge of a negro regiment during the War of Northern Aggression.
Edward Zwick was at the height of his “Thirtysomething” success when he directed this, and it fits neatly into his white-guy-teaches-natives-how-to-fight series, along with The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond. I’m kidding, of course, though I somehow doubt this story (based on a real guy who did many of the things presented) would be made today.
Basically, Shaw is abolitionist loudmouth who ends up having to lead a troop of free blacks when a significant portion of the command structure wants them to fail. This bizarre situation was a recurring one in American history. Many black men were denied the right to fight in the Revolutionary War, and sometimes were allowed to fight only to return to their lives as slaves afterward. In WWI, the black troops, the men were delayed and delayed and delayed until the war was over. (This is detailed in George Schuyler’s terrific autobiography.)
Shaw has to train them, with the help of his initially somewhat less committed pal (Cary Elwes), and they are stymied at every turn, with the army infrastructure denying them shoes, equal pay, and putting them on what is essentially clean-up duty rather than letting them fight. Although he’s occasionally shocked by the social consequences of actually helping blacks, he doesn’t really waver in his support for his men and their potential worth, ultimately proving to believe enough to make the ultimate sacrifice.
This makes him less interesting than Denzel’s character, Trip. He shares a tent with Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher, and he is the sort of cynical character you’d expect from a onetime uppity slave. He’s defiant and he’s got the scars to prove it—but he’s also obnoxious as hell. In that sense, his begrudging transformation into someone who finally dares to care about something is the highlight of the film.
The film won three Oscars, including a supporting actor Oscar for Washington. As with a lot of Zwick’s stuff, though, it just feels like entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, but I sometimes think I’m “supposed” to regard it as a more serious work. On the one hand, The Last Samurai was more entertaining, but on the other, Defiance seems less slick and a lot more heart-felt and complex. (To say nothing of way less politically correct.)
But, hey, maybe Zwick just got better over 20 years! Glory was his second feature (after the bowdlerized, forgettable About Last Night…) after all, and it’s a darn good film. We all liked it. The kids, I think, liked it better than they expected to.