Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Glory’: Edward Zwick’s Searing and Moving Civil War Story

BY Michael Clark TIMEJanuary 21, 2022 PRINT

R | 2h 2min | Drama, Historical, War | Dec. 15, 1989 (USA)As unlikely a candidate to direct a historical war movie as any, Edward Zwick’s only previous feature film was the innocuous romantic comedy “About Last Night.” Made while Zwick was still the producer and show-runner for the popular but lightweight TV series “thirtysomething,” “Glory” proved he had what it took to deliver something far deeper than middle-brow fluff.

Based on the novels “One Gallant Rush” by Peter Burchard and “Lay This Laurel” by Lincoln Kirstein, the screenplay by actor Kevin Jarre (“Tombstone”) largely adheres to the war-film blueprint. The soldiers start out butting heads, bond after battle, share a moral code, recognize God as an ally, and believe in the need of sacrifice for a greater good. To Jarre and Zwick’s credit, there is familiarity without the air of cliché, relate-ability absent of recycling or rehash and sentiment devoid of maudlin hokum.

The First All-Black Union Army Regiment

As fact-based Civil War stories go, the one behind “Glory” is particularly unique and beyond inspirational. It tells the story—start to finish—of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first such Union corps populated (mostly) by free black men, runaway slaves, or any other man of color willing to join the fight. The “mostly” is key here, as the 54th’s commander was Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), the son of wealthy white Boston abolitionists.

Shaw was only considered after many others who were far more qualified than him turned it down (something barely addressed in the movie). The filmmakers take one of their boldest and daring chances in the opening scene set during the Battle of Antietam where a barely wounded Shaw appears to pretend his injury was mortal and “played dead.”

“Waking” the next morning after being discovered by gravedigger John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), Shaw returns to Boston and it’s clear the guilt of his cowardice is eating away at him. It is worth noting, there is no reputable available source chronicling Shaw’s actions at Antietam, only what is suggested in this film.

When Shaw’s (fictional) friends Forbes (Cary Elwes) and Searles (Andre Braugher) catch wind of their friends’ new assignment, they join him, neither knowing the differing types of displeasure shortly ahead of them. In an attempt to perhaps overcompensate for his Antietam misstep, Shaw becomes an exacting taskmaster—a stickler for protocol, wishing to make a distinctive mark.

In hindsight, the first act portrayal of Shaw as a coward and then an autocrat leading into lionizing him in the second and third acts was a huge gamble and it might have fully worked had Zwick cast an actor with the proper range to pull it off. Aside from bearing an uncanny resemblance to Shaw, Broderick lacks the requisite chops and was the wrong choice for the lead role but, to his credit, he certainly gave it his all.

Robert Gould Shaw who was played in “Glory” by Matthew Broderick. (Tri-Star Pictures)

Freeman, Washington, and Braugher Own the Film

Although each portrays stock fictional characters, Freeman, Denzel Washington (as Trip), and Braugher do so with unerring accuracy and deep commitment. The most established of the three was Freeman, who, at about the same time, was providing multiple voice performances for Ken Burns’s watershed documentary, “The Civil War.” Braugher’s portrayal of the erudite, highly-educated, somewhat timid free man provided superb contrast to Searles’ principal nemesis, the arrogant and headstrong Trip.

Andre Braugher (L), Denzel Washington ( Second L), and Morgan Freeman ( Second R), “Glory.” (Tri-Star Pictures)

Just a year after the end of his role as a doctor on the TV series “St. Elsewhere,” Washington’s rendering of Trip was to become that of legend. Despite an acclaimed performance as South African freedom fighter Steven Biko in “Biko,” Washington remained largely unknown to movie audiences. “Glory” forever changed that.

Receiving a multitude of accolades—including an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor—Washington had cemented his legacy. The scene in the film where Trip is flogged for desertion while looking for shoes is one of the most throttling and visceral in all of movie history.

What ultimately throws “Glory” into iconic status is Zwick’s rendering of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner taking place on Morris Island, just outside of Charleston, South Carolina on July 18, 1863. Shaw volunteered the 54th to lead the attack at dusk ahead of five other Union brigades.

A Real Medal of Honor Winner Is M.I.A.

Among those under Shaw’s command were Lewis and Charles Douglass, sons of former slave Frederick Douglass. Also in the regiment was flag-bearer William Harvey Carney who became the first of 37 Black Civil War recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, although his medal wasn’t actually given to him until 1900. It’s baffling as to why these three non-fictional characters weren’t worked into the narrative, even if only in a fleeting mention.

As cinematic battle sequences go, few are executed with greater historical accuracy and cinematic passion than what Zwick recreated for the closing scene in “Glory” (which was shot in Savannah, Georgia). Despite Wagner being a Confederate victory, the unflinching bravery and dedication of Shaw’s men went far in dispelling the myth that Black soldiers would falter and flee in battle, which led to a heavy uptick in Black volunteers. President Lincoln later credited this one event to be a factor in leading to the end of the war.

ShawMemorial (
Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston Common by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (Public Domain)

In 1996, Zwick reteamed with Washington for “Courage Under Fire,” this time a fictional story set during the Gulf War, co-starring Meg Ryan playing the first woman to ever be considered for the Medal of Honor. Containing many of the same themes as “Glory,” it is also a modern day take on “Rashomon” and on the whole it is actually better than “Glory.” Zwick would never again achieve such greatness as a filmmaker.

Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Andre Braugher
Running Time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: Dec. 15, 1989
Rating: 4 out of 5


Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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