“The 54th”

The Civil War epic GLORY is based on fiery, spirit-stirring material that has never before been tapped for the movies. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation became law, and a few weeks later the first black fighting unit to be formed in the North during the Civil War—the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry—began assembling. The visionary plan, conceived by the abolitionists, with President Lincoln's blessing, was to prove that black men had the discipline and valor to stand up against the enemy. Roughly a thousand freedmen and escaped slaves signed up. Two of Frederick Douglass's sons were among the enlisted, and the white officers, who came from prominent anti-slavery families, included a brother of Henry and William James. The twenty-five-year-old colonel in command of the regiment was the shy idealist Robert Gould Shaw, the son and grandson of abolitionists; he had left Harvard to enlist, at twenty-one, and had been wounded in the battle at Antietam Creek. The nobility of the men of the 54th has been celebrated in bronze (in Augustus Saint-Gaudens' elegiac bas-relief sculpture on Boston Common) and in poetry (most notably, perhaps, in Robert Lowell's harrowed "For the Union Dead").

GLORY, directed by Edward Zwick, from a screenplay by Kevin Jarre that's based partly on Shaw's letters, is affecting from start to finish, emotionally moving even when the scenes falter. Visually, it's formal yet lyrical and fluid. The cinematographer, Freddie Francis, doesn't try for a shocking immediacy. He uses colors delicately to suggest the vernal freshness of the land that the soldiers pass through, and he distances us slightly in the combat scenes. They're like something purified by memory. They're being poeticized, elegized as we see them, but this doesn't strike a false note. Rather, it seems a way to honor the pastness of the past. GLORY is not as assured in dealing with the infighting that Colonel Shaw has to put himself through when he recognizes that the high command has no intention of arming the 54th—that the generals mean to use the men only in the rear area, for manual-labor. The Colonel has to outmaneuver the Army to get his troops into combat.

As the small, sad-faced Shaw, who saw Hell at Antietam and is determined to prepare his men for what's ahead, Matthew Broderick shows us the misery of a softhearted commanding officer. His Shaw is not a natural hero: he has to work at it. Even Broderick's drawbacks (the flat tone of his voice, his relative inexpressiveness) seem to help here. Shaw is decent, uncertain of himself—a worrier. It's a lovely performance, as remote and touching as a daguerreotype. Broderick keeps a sense of proportion; his presence never dominates the black actors.

Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher, a low-voiced young dynamo from the stage, are performers of such skill that they're vivid, and almost persuasive, in hand-me-down roles. Except for Colonel Shaw, the principal characters are fictional, and you know it instantly, because they're the usual representative group of recruits who bicker and quarrel before they shape up and become fine soldiers. As Trip, a runaway slave with flogging scars on his back, Denzel Washington is the high-tension Bogart-Brando figure—sullen, cynical, smart. As a former gravedigger, a calm older man who steadies everyone's nerves, Morgan Freeman is a towering version of the Spencer Tracy figure. Andre Braugher is a smiling, educated black in specs, a childhood companion of the Colonel's— they were raised together. Now he has to learn to live without the urban amenities; he has to develop his body to match his mind. (Franchot Tone used to play this part.) The conceptions are based on white icons, but the actors perform these roles as if they'd never been played before.

We get to know the three characters in the tent that they share with a backcountry man (the quietly impressive Jihmi Kennedy), who has a slight stutter and a pure, radiant faith in God, and with a mute drummer boy. Denzel Washington's ornery, troublemaking Trip jeers at Braugher's ill-at-ease intellectual for being "a nigger who talks like a white man"; Trip calls him Snowflake. The putdown recalls the taunts in black exploitation pictures, and Trip's snarling manner recalls a whole raft of angry young men strutting their stuff. His style of defiance is modern; so is Washington's acting style. When he's about to be whipped, he pulls open his shirt and flips his hands in the air in a gesture that spells out "Method Actor." He has a modern charge of ferocity; you're aware that it's anachronistic, yet it lifts you up. The three black powerhouse actors get to play something besides dignity. Their collisions may be based on scenes worn to the bone, but they have new undercurrents, a new friction, and, of course, a new face. Braugher, the bookish soldier, with his volume of essays by the Transcendentalists, can no longer talk to his old friend Shaw or the other white officers he used to be on equal terms with that would be "iraternizing” — and he's a freak to his fellow-enlistees. His attempts to defend himself when Trip humiliates him are gallant and discombobulated; he seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The way Braugher plays the role, we don't dissociate ourselves from his physical weakness. We respect his coming apart.

It takes Morgan Freeman to moderate Trip's rage. We first meet his character at Antietam: there's a lyrical moment when the wounded Shaw, lying on the ground, feels a boot testing whether he's dead, and looks up at the tall gravedigger, his head backlighted by the blazing sun, who asks, "You all right there, Captain?" Now, when Trip, who has picked a fight with Union soldiers from another regiment, expresses his hatred of the whites, the tall man speaks to him. As he sees it, whites have been fighting for them for their freedom. And whites have been giving their lives; he knows, because he was digging their graves. With all the moral authority this superb actor can muster, he raises questions in Trip's head. Freeman's character is saying that not all whites are their enemies, that some whites (such as Colonel Shaw) are even willing to die fighting for the end of slavery. Trip's cynicism about white men has an inflammatory, rabble-rousing appeal for movie audiences. But when the gravedigger speaks for the facts, for sanity and justice, he carries the day. (Of course, the Civil War, which freed four million slaves, was not initially a war to abolish slavery; it turned into that through the actions of Lincoln and, some say, of the slaves themselves—they fled to Union Army posts. But the gravedigger isn't wrong.)

In the worst of the film's didactic set pieces, Trip refuses the honor of carrying the regimental colors into battle. He tells Colonel Shaw that he doesn't want to carry Shaw's flag, that even if the war ends slavery it won't end racial oppression. But when the flag-bearer falls during the climactic charge, at Fort Wagner, on July 18, 1863, Trip picks up the colors. GLORY gives Trip present-day disaffected attitudes. Then it says that he became disaffected because his parents were sold off—he was orphaned and mistreated. Now that he's found a home in the regiment, he's straightened out. Disillusionment is used to give the antihero glamour and hipness, but then the movie wants him to be a foursquare hero with heart. It's a painfully used-up plot idea, and it makes GLORY seem a bit of a cheat. Denzel Washington brings passionate conviction to his man-to-man talk about the flag with Colonel Shaw, but he can't rescue the scene; you half expect the prescient Trip to proclaim himself a man of the Third World.

The big Hollywood directors of the thirties and forties would have given dramatic flourishes like Trip's becoming the flag-bearer (and the film's final one, by which Trip and the Colonel are joined forever) a simplistic patriotic flash. Those directors would have yanked at our emotions. Zwick doesn't —and he's right not to—but he doesn't throw out the flourishes, either. He includes them halfheartedly. (He also includes a touch that's way off key: Colonel Shaw, on horseback, slashes a series of watermelons. Presumably, he's destroying stereotypes of blacks.)

The script is just a conventional melodrama. Zwick has made something more thoughtful than that. He uses James Horner's (sometimes intrusive) orchestral score and the Boys Choir of Harlem to compensate for the moviegoer's tendency to see battle scenes simply as exciting spectacle. And this musical equivalent to the righteousness of the men's cause can work on you even if you try to fight it. But Zwick can't always transcend the limitations of what's written: when the men sing around the campfire on the night before the battle at Fort Wagner, there's an emotionally perfect image of Morgan Freeman's huge, elongated hands clapping in syncopation, but there's also a flabby moment when Trip blurts out, ''Y'all's the onliest family I got—and I love the 54th." A scene at an elite Boston party, and Colonel Shaw's meetings with his venal superior officers and other whites, could be out of any starchy historical picture, and, despite the effort to achieve authenticity, the dialogue is frequently tone-deaf for the period. (The Irish drill sergeant is a clean century off, and his use of female comparisons to insult the black soldiers seems witlessly gross.)

Some of the incidents aren't rounded. The movie shows what happens when the soldiers of the 54th are issued their pay vouchers and discover that they're to be paid ten dollars a month instead of the thirteen dollars that soldiers in other units receive. The angry Trip moves among the men, urging them not to accept, and they rip up their vouchers; pieces of vouchers flutter in the air, and, in a gesture of solidarity, the Colonel tears his in two. But the movie fails to tell us what happens next. Did the men get their equal pay, and how long did it take? (The historical fact is that many of the men died in battle before the thirteen-dollar payment came through.)

The Colonel volunteers his regiment for the foredoomed task of leading the assault on Fort Wagner, the Confederate stronghold that guards the entrance to Charleston Harbor. He and six hundred of his men advance over the sand dunes toward the fort. We're meant to feel that the soldiers' disciplined attack, with fire coming directly down at them—their willingness to be annihilated—establishes their right to be free men. (In the actual battle, forty-two per cent were killed.) Zwick may not want to put any stress on the Catch-22 irony that the black soldiers could prove themselves only by sacrificing themselves, or on the irony that the Colonel's leading his troops to their death seems meant to represent the white man's redemption. We in the audience, with our inescapably modern attitudes, can't help wondering if Shaw, in volunteering his regiment for the honor of being massacred, wasn't doing just what his racist superior officers hoped for. But our suspiciousness is beside the point. The movie 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.

In the early scenes at Antietam, when body parts erupt and hover in the air, the randomness of the carnage seems appropriate. By the end, if the movie is to live up to the feelings it stirs in us, we need to see the bravery of the troops as they steadily move toward the concentrated firepower of Fort Wagner, the dead piling up on the slopes of the bastion and on its walls. This defeat (they couldn't take the fort) is meant to be experienced as a triumph. But the staging has a leapfrogging clumsiness. Zwick doesn't have the instinct for images that would burst the written framework. Like the inexperienced Colonel Shaw, he can take only measured steps. The movie is terribly literal-minded, with evenhanded pacing, and this fastidiousness mutes it emotionally. Still, Zwick's failure to inspire the awe that you feel in front of the Saint-Gaudens memorial or when you read Lowell's words about "man's lovely, peculiar power to choose life and die" doesn't make the movie a failure. GLORY isn't a great film, but it's a good film on a great subject.

[February 05, 1990]