Entry 16: The Film that Changed Everything

Extra Large Movie Poster Image for Glory

Glory. Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by Kevin Jarre.

Release Date: February 16, 1990.

Glory is my favorite Civil War film, as evidenced by the image in the blog’s letterhead. I have lots of opinions on it and would love to share them with you. However, my good friend Glenn David Brasher is a first-rate historian and has a much deeper personal relationship with this film. Indeed, I believe he’s one of the most qualified people to write about it and I’m delighted to hand the blog over to him. Enjoy.


Seeing Glory was a watershed event in my life and my career is largely a result of it. I bet I’m not the only one.

Growing up in Alabama, Confederate iconography surrounded me. Yet despite my love of history, I was not especially drawn to the Civil War. I saw much of Roots (1977) when it originally aired, but I was just a kid. As a young teen, the miniseries The Blue and the Gray (1982) and North and South (1985) both sparked a bit of curiosity in the Civil War, but did not lead to a sustained interest. I watched Gone with the Wind (1939) on VHS when I was in high school and loved it, but mostly because it is a great film and because I fell hopelessly in love with Vivien Leigh (I still am).

I understood that the South’s desire to maintain slavery caused the Civil War (yes, it is possible to have learned that even in an Alabama public school in the 1970s and 1980s). Still, that meant little to me. Despite my exposure to Roots, I reflected little on the injustice and evils of slavery. What little interest I had in the Civil War involved the South’s valiant struggle against great odds, my Confederate ancestors, and the heroic example of Robert E. Lee.

But Glory changed all that.

In 1985 (around the time I fell in love with Vivien and Patrick Swayze was breaking hearts in North and South), acclaimed producer Freddie Fields and screenwriter Kevin Jarre were on business in Boston. The story goes that they stumbled upon the magnificent Augustus Saint-Gaudens bronze relief monument that was dedicated in 1897 on the Boston Commons to honor Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first regiment of black troops raised from a northern state. Its stunning depiction of the regiment marching off to war captivated the two men, and both expressed surprise that blacks had fought in the Civil War.


The 54th Massachusetts Memorial in Boston.

We can forgive their reaction. This was a time when popular culture had long-since forgotten black Union soldiers. Perhaps the most indelible images many had of African Americans in the Civil War at all were the slaves depicted in Gone with the Wind. Despite the war’s liberation possibilities, Mammy, Pork, and Prissy loyally serve Scarlett, and Big Sam is shown going off with other slaves to dig Confederate fortifications, promising to stop the Yankees. These scenes engrained the Lost Cause depiction of “faithful” wartime slaves into America’s collective memory. Thus, Jarre and Fields were hardly alone in their ignorance as they viewed the monument.

Besides the stunning sculpture, Saint-Gaudens’s masterpiece includes a long inscription providing a broad overview of Shaw and the regiment’s sacrifices, obstacles, and legacy. If you’ve seen it, you know that it is practically an outline of what became Glory. Jarre and Fields immediately saw the potential for a great film from a largely unknown story.

Others were involved in getting the film made. One was Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, who’d written a book on the monument and grown up knowing members of Shaw’s family. Kirstein’s work was heavily indebted to Peter Burchard’s regimental history, One Gallant Rush (1965). Soon, Jarre, Fields, Kirstein, and Burchard collaborated. Jarre wrote the original screenplay, and Tri-Star Pictures (a new studio that pooled the resources of Columbia, CBS, and HBO) committed to the project.

The original script focused largely on depicting a transformation in Shaw. Early scenes painted him as indifferent to abolitionism despite being the son of prominent and wealthy abolitionists (this is only slightly inaccurate. As a young and handsome man, Shaw had many other interests besides abolitionism, and thus he came across as indifferent in comparison to his parents). The script featured a ridiculous encounter with John Brown, in which the zealot castigated Shaw for his lack of abolitionist fervor (although Brown would have been several years in the grave at the time!). Thankfully, Peter Burchard convinced Jarre to dump such scenes, focusing a bit less on Shaw.

The result fit the formula of most war films (meet the soldiers, see them bond through training, watch them fight), complete with a stereotypically diverse group of comrades played by such gifted actors as Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher. Besides Shaw, the men are composite characters, which is frustrating since the regiment contained individuals whose lives Jarre could’ve easily researched: Frederick Douglass’s two sons and Medal of Honor winner William H. Carney, for example.

It’s also typical in that, although largely an African-American story, it places a white hero (Matthew Broderick’s Shaw) at the center, which sadly was standard practice for Hollywood’s historical epics until recent movies like Selma and 12 Years a Slave. Yet if not for Burchard’s script intervention, it could have been worse. Further, without the Shaw focus, in the 1980s it would have been near impossible to find a major studio to produce the film. It is also undeniable that Shaw’s leadership was important to the regiment’s success.

The film’s biggest inaccuracy is that it depicts the regiment as comprised mostly of fugitive slaves, while in truth 80% of the men were northern free blacks. Yet this too is pardonable, because the film tells a larger story than just that of the 54th. It is about all African American men that served in the United States army during the Civil War, a large percentage of which had fled from slavery.

Another distortion is the whipping scene. While it’s true that Shaw insisted on strict discipline and meted out harsh punishments, the character Trip’s AWOL expedition to find shoes would not have involved flogging–a punishment that was outlawed by that time.

However, the scene is one of the film’s best punches, teaching an important historical lesson. Trip (Denzel Washington) has his back exposed, revealing horrific scars indicating a lifetime of resistance to master control, and yet also reminding audiences of slavery’s brutality. He then haughtily flips off his shirt, eyes Shaw and spits defiantly, and manfully readies himself for the blows. As the lashes are laid on, director Edward Zwick’s camera slowly zooms on Trip’s face and we watch in agony as he remains defiant even as each stroke takes an increasingly painful toil. When this hardened and resistant man finally breaks, it’s in the form of a quivering face and a tear sliding down his cheek. The whole scene conveys more about slave resistance than we’ve seen even in more recent films (it’s also one of the most brilliant scenes by an actor using only his face, and I believe it alone won Washington his first Oscar).

There are several other forgivable inaccuracies, but as a whole the film is solid history. It becomes clear that at a time when few whites believed that blacks could be effective soldiers, Shaw was intent on proving them wrong by taking the 54th’s training seriously. Glory accurately reveals that if captured, the soldiers risked enslavement, and the officers risked a death sentence, yet they heroically remained committed. As seen in the movie, Shaw was impressed by how quickly and readily the men learned, and his respect for them grew accordingly. The film reveals the racism the men encountered from white northern soldiers and a Congress that denied them full pay. Yet, many white soldiers’ opinions about black soldiers evolved during the war, a dynamic captured well in one particularly moving scene near the end of the film.

It’s here in the third act that Glory is most impressive, as the men are finally allowed in combat. The night before their largest battle, we watch the men in a religious gathering, and it’s a moving and particularly accurate depiction of slave “shout” songs and worship. It is also true that Shaw sensed his impending death, and yet was focused on what his regiment’s actions could accomplish for the reputation of black soldiers and their race. The final battle scene is stunning and largely true to eyewitness accounts of the attack on Fort Wagner, including Shaw’s last moments.

I was unaware of where the film was accurate and inaccurate when I saw it as a college student in 1989, I was just engrossed in a great movie that hooked me immediately with its realistic depiction of Antietam. Yet as I sat in the theater, something slowly changed in me. I recall fighting my own tears during the whipping scene and thinking “there was something bigger going on in that war than the heroics of Lee’s army.” My heart soared when Morgan Freeman announced proudly, “we runaway slaves, but we come back fighting men!” I still can’t watch the movie without getting emotional during the religious shout when Trip says, “We men, ain’t we? We men.” For me, this is the climax of Glory, and what the whole damn thing is about: men fighting against racism and an institution that insisted they were less than human, fit only for manual labor, and not deserving of citizenship. No, they demonstrated by their actions, they were men, willing to “go down, standing up” against their oppressors. It’s powerful stuff.

The gut-wrenchingly realistic and beautifully-filmed final battle is more the movie’s coda than its climax. Yet it caused the moment when I knew that my perception of the Civil War had been forever altered. When the rebel flag came up over Fort Wagner indicating that the northern attack had failed, I palpably felt my heart sink in pain. From that moment, my attitude about the Confederacy changed. The good guys had not won that day.

After seeing the film, the Civil War became my passion. I devoured the works of Shelby Foote, James McPherson, and Bruce Catton, but was always drawn back to the African American perspective of the war as a fight for freedom. Soon after, I became a ranger at Richmond National Battlefield Park, working on the battlefields of the Peninsula Campaign. This experience, combined with my interest in black participation in the war, led to a graduate school seminar paper, a master’s thesis, a PhD dissertation, and ultimately my book, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation (now if I could just get a filmmaker interested in it!).

But I’m not alone. Due in part to the fact that Glory sparked popular interest in African American soldiers, scholars have dug deep in the archives and explored many angles of the black Civil War experience, black reenactors have multiplied and educated the public, monuments have been dedicated, and there is now an African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in DC. Few today would be surprised to discover that African Americans were in the Civil War. We’ve become generally aware that freedom was not bestowed on blacks, they fought and died for it.

There are other historians with stories similar to mine, and it’s testament to the power of popular and public history. A monument inspired the filmmakers, and their resulting movie caused a shift in historiography (few can make such a claim). Hollywood often gets history wrong, and this film has significant flaws. But Glory inspired a generation of historians, got us asking different questions, and thus is still the best Civil War movie ever made.

Additional Dispatches:

  • The film depicts Shaw’s acceptance of command of the 54th as a quick decision with only slight hesitance. In fact, he originally turned down the offer, but changed his mind after weeks of reflection.
  • Completely missing is that just before going off to war with the 54th, Shaw quickly married his fiancée despite his mother’s objections. He did so largely because he felt that given the risk of what would happen to him if captured, he would not survive the war.
  • Frederick Douglass is depicted in a very brief moment near the start of the film in a scene that does little justice to the role he played in the recruitment of the 54th and the sacrifice he made in sending his two sons off to war in the regiment.
  • The movie’s characterization of Colonel James Montgomery is a bit unfair, but the scene of his burning of Darien, Georgia, is accurate, including his sadistic promise to eliminate secessionists “like the Jews of old.” The line is as recorded in Shaw’s personal letters.
  • Medal of Honor winner William H. Carney won the award for his gallantry in bringing the American flag back from the doomed attack on Wagner. As noted, he’s not a character in the film, but during the thick of the battle scene, there is a quick shot of a soldier standing defiantly on the fort’s wall waving the flag. I like to think it’s Carney.
  • The film shows a group of reporters gathered on a knoll to get the “best seat in the house” to view the attack on Wagner. This is accurate, and it’s clear the filmmakers used much of the reporters’ eyewitness details in staging the battle scene, making it all the more meaningful when Shaw tells one of them, “if I should fall, remember what you see here.”
  • A fair criticism of the film is that it appears that the entire 54th was destroyed at Wagner. In truth, they continued their service until the end of the war, winning more fame at the Battle of Olustee.
  • Does it mention slavery? Obviously so. As indicated above, the whipping scene says much about the institution’s brutality and slave resistance, and the religious shout meeting is highly accurate and reveals much about slave survival tactics.

Next Entry: The Dukes of Hazzard, “Treasure of Hazzard”



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  5. phadde2 · August 6, 2015

    The scene that always puts tears in my eyes is Shaw’s death scene when Tripp picks up the flag and ultimately dies himself. The scene is masterful, of course, it brings forward a previous scene when Tripp decides not to carry the flag. However, when he picks up the Union flag during the battle its symbolism that he feels he is part of the Union, due to the death of his commanding officer, as he falls on Shaw shows a brotherhood that reaches the realms of literature like that of Henry V.

    “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
    For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
    Shall be my brother.”

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  8. Robert Ortega · July 24, 2015

    I enjoyed reading this overview of “Glory” and consider it one of my favorite Civil War films as well. Also, something that has intrigued me about the camp fire scene towards the end of the film is whether or not the song the soldiers were singing existed during this period of time or if was written for the film.

    • Christian McWhirter · July 24, 2015

      Thanks for the comment. Part of the problem in answering this question is that African American spirituals of the time weren’t really set songs but loose constructions over which the singers would improvise. In this case, I don’t know if the chorus the men repeat is from a spiritual that dates to the nineteenth century, but the overall looseness of the performance (both in terms of lyrics and rhythm) rings true.

      Glenn knows the 54th Massachusetts sources better than I do, but I’ve always suspected the scene is drawn from an account in Battle and Leaders of the Civil War that describes a group of USCTs having a similar “shout” the night before attacking The Crater.

      • cagraham · July 24, 2015

        I think it’s taken from Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s description [in Army Life in a Black Regiment] of walking through the camp of the 55th Massachusetts at night. (Watch that scene from the moment Shaw begins moping around the margins of his camp.) He even describes the alternating singing/speechifying that the filmmakers captured so well. Higginson also has a chapter of “negro spirituals” but none that he records have the words to Glory’s campfire song. Nonetheless, Glory really nailed this scene. I’ve used it in class alongside the ring shout scene in Beloved.


      • Christian McWhirter · July 24, 2015

        Good point. Higginson notes sitting among the shadows in his “Spirituals” chapter to account for how he recorded them. It’s one of the best sources on nineteenth-century African American music.

      • Christian McWhirter · July 24, 2015

        The reason I brought up the Crater story is the song that night reportedly built on the phrase “We look like men of war” which reminds me of Trip’s “we men, ain’t we.”

      • gdbrasher · July 24, 2015

        Speaking of Higginson, you’re probably both aware that some of the words depicted as Shaw’s in the movie (when he comments on how readily the men learned and yet how quickly they could relax and pondering if it’s a product of slavery) are actually taken almost verbatim from Higginson.

      • Christian McWhirter · July 24, 2015

        Sure. I’ve always figured Broderick’s character in the film is 80% Shaw and 20% Higginson.

    • curious student · September 10, 2018

      I too enjoyed this overview, but I still question about the movies extent of usefulness when comparing the movie to slavery in the civil war period. Could someone help answer this question for me?

  9. cagraham · July 23, 2015

    Though not raised in the Lost Cause, I had always identified with the Confederate side when playing at Civil War in those days. My experience with Glory wasn’t as transformational as yours, but that scene of the CS flag waving over the fort after the battle got in my conscience the same way.

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