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The 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry consisted of Northern black free men and escaped slaves, the first of its kind. Led by Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick), the son of a well-known abolitionist, the young Colonel was given his first command and put in charge of building a fighting force take to the South, but faced constant setbacks and obstacles as his men were continually denied or given limited access to the same standard the white soldiers in other companies were given. The men persevered under Shaw, but supported by Sergeant Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), an elder soldier with a compassionate heart and natural leadership skills. Their biggest issues is the atrocious lack of supplies, from proper footwear to weapons. One soldier named Private Silas Trip (Denzel Washington) appears to try to go AWOL and is summarily punished in an emotionally devastating moment, but the truth of his motivation is even more heartbreaking. As time progresses, Shaw gets the men ready through solidarity and earned trust, ordered to bring his troops south and into the fighting.
Directed by Edward Zwick, Glory is spectacular filmmaking, a war epic but also an astonishing tale of very brave men. Broderick is very good as the naive young officer thrust into a title and a role he is wholly unprepared for, emerging as a true hero in the tale. The show goes to the black soldiers though, a group of great performances that do more than simply give face to the history, these men create powerful characters who have terrific weight in the story. Freeman and Washington are at the top of their craft with Washington winning his first Academy Award as the rebellious bitter runaway slave with no allegiance to anyone but himself, hungry to fight. Proud yet filled with rage, he is soured by anything and anyone, his only ambition to get a gun his hands. Freeman is his opposite in a subtle and somber but hopeful turn that is both touching and inspiring. In a film that centers on war, it is the peaceful moments of life as a black soldier preparing for death to save their futures that has the most power. Glory is a necessary film.
Trip is an angry man. Scarred by his time as a slave, his life a bitter fight for survival, he has hate coursing through his veins. Now free, the Army opens their arms and he has a chance to put that rage to work against the slave owners and their supporting army. In the 54th Company camp, Trip meets Private Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), a free black man who is also Northern educated and even a friend of Shaw’s. He’s joined the Army as the company’s first volunteer and while making the transition from comfortable citizen to foot soldier has not been easy, he has tried to maintain his dignity throughout. Trip sees it differently. He looks upon Searles as a phony, a pretend black man living a fantasy, thinking his education and appearance somehow makes him look respected and even an equal in the eyes of the whites. When he catches Searles primping his uniform in a reflecting glass, he makes his opinion clear, telling his fellow private that no matter what he does to make it so, the white man is always going to see him as only black. He even compares him to a jungle chimpanzee. The confrontation escalates and they prepare to go to fists when Rawlins steps between them. The Sergeant Major takes Trips by the coat collar and holds him back as Trip berates him with a vicious racial slur. Rawlins counters with a powerful smack across Trip’s face that dazes the soldier and catches his attention as the fired up leader lets him have it, shouting so all can hear that the men fighting in this war are whites, dying for years to give them, the blacks, a free life. Now it’s their turn now to give back. But to do so they have to change their ways, and come together, end this bickering and put aside the hate that is dividing the men. Trip stares into Rawlins’ eyes, the impassioned speech genuinely moving him, awoken to realization he had been blind too since he came to join the Army.
Freeman is a gifted orator, his voice now associated with authority from his many fine performances to his work as a narrator. In this early role, that voice and gift for command is put to great use. In this moment, as the two men face off, it is Rawlins’ towering voice and passionate plea that raises this so high. His speech is sharp, condemning Trip for calling him a ‘n*gger’ and the ‘white man’s dog’. His quick retort and strike across the face is the wake-up moment for everyone. Freeman, who has spent the past three years clearing battlefields of dead bodies and putting white soldiers in graves has seen the price many thousands have paid in this war to free the slaves. It’s a rousing, highly charged moment, made more so by Washington performance as Trip, shocked at the strike, but more so by the powerful words. His expression as he listens to Rawlins is deeply affecting. This moment brings two story arcs to critical mass and stages it so all are resolved, with Trip seeing his selfish and narrow-minded vision with how he deals with Searls and Rawlins. It’s also instrumental for the audience in establishing Sergeant Rawlins as a true leader, but more so, as a man who understands what the war and their fight is about. There is no room for each battle, despite the horrors of what brought each man there. Whoever they are, and for whatever reason they have come to fight, they are one now, a unit driven by a singular purpose. Rawlins explains that the type of man Trip is coming in will be the same man going out if he doesn’t change his ways. Now is the time to ante up and kick in like men, echoing it twice so all around can hear. It’s a crucial line and a significant moment as this is when Trip finally gets it. His visibly shift in attitude begins here and shapes who he will be for the remainder of the story.
Kevin Jarre (screenplay), Lincoln Kirstein (book)
Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman