The 1989 “Glory” was the first major movie to tell the story of the African American experience as soldiers in the American Civil War. The movie won three Academy Awards including one for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Denzel Washington.
The movie is about the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-black regiment in the Union Army. Although it is based on the letters written by the 54th’s commander, Captain Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick), this isn’t a movie about Shaw as it is about the regiment that he led. The movie portrays Shaw as a single man, the son of white abolitionists amongst the Boston elite.
In real life, Shaw was married (2 May 1863) to Annie Haggerty and honeymooned before he and his regiment left Boston. They had become engaged after the Battle of Antietam and before the proposal of a black regiment by the Massachusetts governor John Andrew in January of 1863. Shaw also had four sisters. Two of those sisters as well as Shaw’s wife watched the 54th march out of Boston.
The movie “Glory” begins at the Battle of Antietam where Captain Robert Shaw is injured. While recuperating at home in Boston, he accepts the command of the first-all black regiment, the 54th, as well as a promotion to Colonel. With him, he brings a childhood friend Second Lieutenant Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes) as second in command at the rank of major. Another dear friend, an intellectual free African American named Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) also joins as a soldier. The gravedigger John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) that Shaw met at Antietam also joins as does a surly escaped slave, Silas Trip (Washington) and a stuttering sharpshooting country boy Jupiter Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy).
As one might predict, the uneducated, but work-hardened Trip does take well to the bookish Thomas. Thomas isn’t strong, he isn’t nimble and he isn’t a good shot. Thomas and Cabot both are sharply reminded that here they are no longer friends with Robert Shaw. He is their commanding officer.
The Confederacy reacts harshly to news of the black regiment: All black union soldiers and their white officers will be executed. There will be no gentlemen’s agreement and no trading of captives. Shaw at first balks ag the strict training the men receive under the Irish Sergeant-Major Mulcahy, but he realizes that Mulcahy is fierce but fair and that Cabot needs to be stricter.
The troop does face racism on two fronts. They are being denied regular supplies, something that comes to light when Trip is charged with being away without leave. Shaw orders him flogged despite Cabot’s objections–it was standard punishment for the time. However, Shaw sees that Trip has scars from far worse floggings he received as a slave. Trip, Shaw learns from Rawlins, went looking for shoes. Shaw confronts the quartermaster.
Trip later incites the men when the soldiers learn that black soldiers are being paid less than the promised wages, the $13 a month that white soldiers were earning. Shaw supports the protest by tearing up his own pay stub.
As the men leave for South Carolina, Rawlins is promoted to sergeant-major–the highest rank available to black soldiers as they are not allowed to be commissioned officers.
The 54th is under the command of General Charles Garrison Harker. Harker’s second-in-command, Colonel James Montgomery, is a greedy man who orders the 54th to loot and burn down a small town in Georgia. Shaw at first refuses, but reluctantly obeys. Otherwise, his troop is confined to manual labor. Shaw threatens to expose Montgomery’s activities and is finally able to get his troop some action at their first battle on James Island, South Carolina, forcing the Confederates to retreat. During the battle former foes becomes friends: Thomas saves Trip. Thomas was wounded, but refuses to take leave for recovery.
Eventually, Shaw volunteers the 54th to lead the charge on Fort Wagner, knowing that as the first regiment, the 54th will suffer great losses. The black soldiers ask for God’s help the night before, each giving their own personal reasons.
Spoiler alert: Shaw is shot and killed. Although a group of soldiers break the outer defenses the Fort remains under Confederate control. Besides Shaw, Forbes, Rawlins, Thomas, Jupiter, Trip and Charlie Morse all die.
Some people criticized the movie for taking Shaw’s viewpoint, but the movie is based on his letters and his leadership shaped the 54th.
The movie was given a limited release on December 14, 1989 and then on February 16, 1990, was given wide release.
Matthew Broderick was already well known for the 1986 “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and had a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for “Brighton Beach Memories” (1983). He would go on to win Best Actor in a Musical for “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” in 1995. He was nominated again in 2001, but lost to his co-star in “The Producers,” Nathan Lane.
Denzel Washington won his first Oscar and Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor for “Glory.” In 2001, he added a Best Actor Oscar for “Training Day.” Washington won a Golden Globe for “The Hurricane” in 1999 and in 2016 was awarded the Cecil B. DeMille Award.
Morgan Freeman won an Oscar for the 2004 “Million Dollar Baby.” He had received his first Oscar nomination in 1987 for “Street Smart.” He received a Golden Globe for the 1989 “Driving Miss Daisy.” In 2012, he received the Cecil B. DeMille Award.
Cary Elwes had already starred in the 1987 “The Princess Bride” but it had yet to become a cult classic. He’s part of the horror Saw series. He supplied the English dubbing voice in several Ghibli films (“The Cat Returns” and “Porco Rosso”). He had recurring roles on “The X-Files” and “Psych.” He currently is in the Crackle series “The Art of More.”
Cliff DeYoung went on the play Detective Frank Pembleton on “Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1998) for which he won a Primetime Emmy (1998) and Captain Raymond Hold on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” He also recurred on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (2011-2015) as Bayard Ellis and on “House” as Dr. Darryl Nolan (2009-2012).
Jihmi Kennedy had a role in the 1986 “Gung Ho,” and recurred in the series “Tour of Duty” (1990).
John Finn (Mulcahy) has had recurring roles on “Dawson’s Creek,” “The Practice,” “The X-Files,” “Chicago Hope” and “Brooklyn South.”
“Glory” is currently streaming on Hulu or can be viewed on Amazon Video ($2.99).