The Civil War, as Gore Vidal once observed, is our defining national tragedy. It would seem unlikely then that Glory, a Civil War history lesson directed by Edward Zwick, the creator of TV’s thirtysomething, should be any good. That’s a show, after all, in which tragedy is defined as making the wrong career moves. So despite the good reviews and the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Denzel Washington, you come to Glory’s video version expecting no more than a well-intentioned TV movie about the North’s first black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts.
But what you get is something else altogether — a deeply moving work, on an important theme, that shows up 99 percent of the commercial moviemaking in America today as cynical, unambitious junk. Despite the accolades, Glory was seen by disappointingly few people in theaters, so its release on video is a real occasion.
The story is historically accurate and blessedly simple: How an idealistic young Northern officer named Robert Gould Shaw and a group of free blacks become a cohesive fighting unit in the face of prejudice and hostility from their own side. Of course, the mere fact that this episode is so little known today makes Glory an honorable, even important enterprise. But fortunately — and again, surprisingly — the telling by and large does it justice.
The picture boasts the best ensemble acting in a big-budget, mainstream picture in years. Morgan Freeman and Washington, as the regiment’s most reluctant and complex heroes, have the splashy bravura roles, which they handle with intelligence and imagination (watch the play of emotions on Washington’s face during his flogging scene). But everybody here — including the underrated Matthew Broderick as Shaw and Cary Elwes as his boyhood friend — seems right. Almost as crucial, the cinematography, by Freddie Francis, is a calculated cross between the large-scale and the intimate; the battle scenes have a positively epic sweep.
The movie’s flaws are minor: a script that leaves the white officers’ motivations largely obscure, lengthy troop-training scenes that are familiar from scores of earlier war films. Though the director hardly stints on the war’s nightmarish brutality, the story of heroism he’s telling forces him to prettify the essential ghastliness somewhat.
Still, these are niggling complaints in the face of Glory’s overwhelming emotional impact. I can’t say whether the men of the 54th Massachusetts will rest any easier now that their story has been told, but this movie’s widespread availability begins to correct a long-standing historical injustice.A