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I tend to forget Ed Zwick was the mastermind behind thirtysomething, but it may go some way to explain his resolutely middlebrow, social-conscience-driven movies, the sort that lay a low-calorie morsel in front of an audience under the false pretences that it’s truly nutritious. This is your prerequisite Hollywood war movie; it’s a rotten deal, you know, the fighting, but look, there’s an important theme here, somewhere amid the resolutely clichéd characters and hackneyed tropes. Just forget about any of the personality of a Stone or the stylistic acumen of a Spielberg.

Glory proved popular with critics and was greeted with indifference by audiences, the latter perhaps subconsciously, or consciously, aware of how formalised and liberal-in-a-can its credentials were. Come and see the tale of the (first) black Civil War regiment. Don’t worry, we’ve made it easy for you, as they’re chaperoned by Ferris Bueller. Glory was able to boast some post-Nam “horrors of war”, but short of Oliver Stone turning his hand to a different period, this was destined to remain very much the Hollywood journeyman approach (just look at Zwick’s subjective camera attempting to depict Broderick’s Shaw’s PTSD).

Glory thus presented itself as a “fortunate” distraction from Spike Lee’s troublesome (to industry stick-in-the-muds) Do the Right Thing at that year’s Oscars. Lee’s movie received two nominations (Danny Aiello and screenplay), whereas Glory, missing a nod for Picture, was nevertheless the equal third most-nominated film with five, taking the second highest number of actual awards (three, for Denzel Washington, Freddie Francis’ cinematography – hard to argue, except when you look at Mikael Salomon’s work on The Abyss, or even Robert Richardson’s on Born on the Fourth of July – and Sound). Combined with Driving Miss Daisy, the announcement was “Look, we really care about racism. But on our own, very genteel, very retrospective, congratulatory terms”. Some would argue the same thing happened again with Green Book.

Indeed, it’s ironic that Zwick fares best with his depiction of white lead Colonel (formerly Captain) Robert Shaw (Broderick). Perhaps having his letters on tap helps, perhaps it’s the choice of nondescript Broderick, but this privileged slip of a man with his unconvincing moustache, riddled with doubts and inadequacy yet attempting to conceal it behind a rigid demeanour, is fairly convincing. Possibly because he’s supposed to be weak, and when called upon, spout rousing officerly platitudes, the knowledge that we’re being lectured to feels less prevalent. The men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment are all types, though (as is their Major Cabot, well played by Carey Elwes, but essentially there to be sympathetic and impudent).

Zwick writes us four main recruits: fiery livewire escaped slave Silas Trip (Washington), seasoned wise gravedigger John Rawlins, made a Sergeant Major (seasoned wise Morgan Freeman), educated freeman friend of Shaw, Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) and stammering Jupiter Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy). That’s the latter’s defining trait until he reveals himself as a crack shot.

Zwick’s so linear, these types are considered more than enough, broad strokes in the place of substance. Which means vitriolic Silas, consumed with spleen and ragging on his fellows, gets to be called out by Rawlins. Further, his combative (through looks, rather than words) relationship with Shaw, which has led to his unjustly being flogged for desertion (and two years after flogging was dispensed with at that!) moves in the crudest fashion from disdain (“I ain’t fighting this war for you”) to the dutiful hero; Trip raises the regimental flag, which he earlier refused, after Shaw has been cut down in battle. That Trip is himself then cut down almost immediately is neither here nor there; it’s the aspirational journey that counts. Fiery Denzel becomes good American Denzel, after a white man shows him the best way to die stupidly. Zwick is merely regurgitating the legend, not questioning anything, barring the inevitable hindsight of Denzel questioning what his actions will achieve.

Searles is basically the too-sensitive-for-combat character later played by Jeremy Davies in Saving Private Ryan, except that Searles doesn’t turn out to be a cowardly weasel. The efforts of the actors are consistently undermined by their slender character arcs. Washington won a statuette, sure, but his atypical performance in the early scenes – Denzel the star tends to be the model of restrained, almost stolid composure – gives way to wasteful moral nobility. Braugher’s a fine actor – anyone who’s seen Homicide: Life on the Street will testify as much – but he’s saddled with an educated man whose intelligence is consistently undermined by his belief that he can or should be informal with his old friend. However, come the climactic battle, he’s been tested and found with mettle; look, he can bayonet like the very best of trained killers!

The use of tropes and character types can benefit or detract from a movie, depending on what’s being sought. Where there is already a presiding message overarching the piece, failure to attend to the details often leads to it appearing careless, slipshod, or depressingly patronising. At almost every turn, Glory cannot resist underlining its point to the point of grim absurdity, all the more so when Horner’s sickly soaring strings repeatedly unite for the cause along with the very choirs of heaven. Zwick’s basically laying it on with a shovel, tantamount to your deadly Spielberg and Williams combination.

Naturally, then, Glory achieves a certain appreciable engagement and narrative momentum when it comes to the trials and tribulations of training. This is, after all, the same rich, fertile ground as Stripes or Private Benjamin, just with added racism and segregation in the mix. We have the stern-but-fair, blarney-kissed drill sergeant (John Finn, very good, later Michael Krtischgau in The X-Files). He’ll even reprimand the captain for attempting leniency towards Searles: “Your friend, let him grow up some more”. And you know what? It works. He becomes a killing machine! Hurrah! There’s also Forbes showing too much sympathy, such that Shaw must illustrate battlefield conditions to Sharts during target practice (the irony of all that training, just to be mown down in orderly fashion, really ought to have been addressed, though I suppose the battle scenes achieve that well enough).

Then there are the rousing scenes. All men as one under God. Obviously, had Shaw bothered to question why Trip tripped off in the first place (to get some shoes for his mouldy feet) that nasty flogging incident might have been avoided. But when he does find out, look what a fine upstanding fellow he is, demanding the necessary footwear from the mean quartermaster. And when the men are told they are to be paid less than white soldiers, he stands with them (“If you men will take no pay. Then none of us will”). Hurrah!

The battle scenes have a certain lunatic quality, certainly – and one cannot dismiss Francis’ photography – and Zwick is diligent to announce at the outset that this is unexpurgated, including an exploding head shot during the Battle of Antietam. But still, he engages in standard battlefield manoeuvres, if you will, of heroic fighting off the enemy. Even the rout is overegged, as Trip’s body falls protectively atop Shaw’s in the mass grave. Some find such symbolism moving, but I consider it lightly curdled cheese.

Pauline Kael called it “affecting from start to finish”, while recognising “didactic set pieces” “terribly literal-minded, with even-handed pacing, and this fastidiousness mutes it emotionally”. Not a great film “but a good film on a great subject”. It probably helped that it was pro-America, pro-values (she also liked Driving Miss Daisy), as Kael tended to get a bee in her bonnet with any perceived beef. She considered that, whereas Born on the Fourth of July “finds its meaning in seeing through the nation’s call for sacrifice, Glory shows the high cost of war, and yet finds meaning in the sacrifice”. And yet it is hollow, didacticism of the sort Kael identified elsewhere and the exact same crutch Spielberg later relied on with Saving Private Ryan – yes, war is hell, but look, it’s for something here, so every cliché employed from the book is valid and justified. Hence the parting script, which sells it as unconditionally positive (180,000 black volunteers ensued, because Glory’s seeking the coherent narrative of progress).

With regard to the movie’s central premise – the contribution of black Americans towards their own freedom, albeit “Nearly all the regiment were actually free men, not escaped slaves as the movie suggests”, Kael notes “Of course, the Civil War… was not initially a war to abolish slavery…” It has been suggested racism was actually worse in the North than South, and one of the few sections of the picture that carries a genuine thread of the unvarnished finds Shaw and his men tagging along with Colonel Montgomery (Cliff DeYoung), in what proves to be sacking and burning of Darien, Georgia. It’s revealed that that Montgomery, who commands his own black regiment, nurses none of the progressive values Shaw does. The North has nasty racists too, we learn. And this is actually a strong sequence, full of “Well, what can you do?” moments, as Shaw finds his options limited (the actual Montgomery was a staunch abolitionist, and while he adopted extreme measures in his fight was not, it seems of the views depicted here).

On the stolen history side, such lack of demarcation leads into much debate as to what else was really going on in the Civil War that may stray from the official narrative (official narratives invariably being designed to obfuscate, misdirect or overlay a false paradigm). Was Lincoln primarily attempting to break free from banks with the introduction of greenbacks? With no central bank in order to secure financing, it’s been suggested the Emancipation Proclamation was issued as a gesture to the Russian people, owing to the Czar similarly freeing serfs in 1861. Russian involvement being pro North to prevent Europe helping the South (President McKinley later planned a US-Russian rail system). All of which feeds into what was going on in America generally, post-1700, perhaps even taking in Circassians mentioned in Lawrence of Arabia.

Zwick reported he honed down depictions of Shaw in order to focus on the core black contingent of the cast. He’s evidently mindful of the brickbats Spielberg received for The Colour Purple, keeping his hand in with equivalences of persecution/injustice/oppression, such that he offers the shrewd suggestion it isn’t unconscionable he should tackle such material (“You see, Shaw, Secessionists need to be wiped away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old”).

Nevertheless, Glory represents merely Zwick’s first stab at bland issues-led-and-preferably-historical-too pictures; that he isn’t more the awards darling tells you something about how half-arsed most of these efforts are (Courage Under Fire, The Seige, Blood Diamond, Defiance, Dances with Samurais – ironically a return to the white saviour narrative). Cynically speaking, Glory is an easy clutch for respectability and embrace by one’s peers, learned rhetoric that leads by the nose.

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