A New American Perspective in Glory
March 3, 2014 at 6:20 pm #273Erica GeorgeParticipant
Offering a rich and emotional representation of the history of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, Edward Zwick’s Glory (1998) acts as a response to the informative yet narrowly-focused history presented in Peter Burchard’s One Gallant Rush. Moving away from Burchard’s singular exploration of Shaw’s heroism, Glory gives a narrative voice to several men within the regiment as well as Shaw, displaying an evolving American perspective. In doing so, the film illuminates the racist ideologies that plague American society at large, calling for the members of the 54th, the citizens of Glory’s America, and the audience to enlist in the war against ignorance.
In One Gallant Rush, Burchard focuses on the hero’s journey of Robert Gould Shaw. Through historical documents and personal letters, the book follows the life of Shaw from his birth in Massachusetts to his death during the attack on Fort Sumter. Framed around his opinions on slavery and his decisions pertaining to the Civil War, One Gallant Rush’s singular purpose seems to be to provide a biography of Shaw rather than convey the importance of the 54th regiment in American history.
Responding to the very specific focus of One Gallant Rush, Glory juxtaposes the narrative of Shaw and the perspectives of several of his soldiers to draw attention to Shaw’s evolving perspective. At the beginning of the film, Shaw is a strong supporter of the war as a means to end slavery. Taking on the daunting and dangerous task of leading a black regiment, Shaw seems to believe naively that the war and his work within the war will create a nation of equality. As he takes charge of the 54th, however, he becomes aware of the racist ideologies that stand in the way of progress.
Beginning his career as the Colonel of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, Shaw believes that he must differentiate himself from his men, which Zwick conveys through his use of intimidating low-angle shots and condescending high-angle shots. Using aggressive and often cruel tactics, Shaw attempts to prepare his men for a war that he thinks he understands more than most. At the height of his cruelty, Shaw calls for an escaped soldier named Trip to be flogged, hoping to send a message to the other men about his authority. As Trip takes of his shirt, revealing scars from years of abuse, Shaw is forced to see that both his understanding of his men, the world, and himself are guided by ignorance that seems to be at the core of the country, North and South. Zwick’s introduction of equalizing shots confirms a change in perspective, which is guided by the understanding that there is an even greater battle to overcome than the war between the states.
Having observed his own contribution to racism in the form of new lashes on Trip’s back, Shaw attempts to see the war as his men do. Walking through their camp, he finally comes to understand the aggressive and hateful behavior to which he had resorted with them when he sees Thomas and nearly apologizes for his previous instances of violence. Finally aware of his actions and their reflections on the soldiers, Shaw begins to fight for their right to fair treatment in every sense; however, he realizes that his treatment of the men is only the first step on a road to national change.
Illuminated by his own changing point of view, Shaw realizes that the war is really just the first test on the initial road of trials and that the 54th can help prepare America for the greater struggle to come. Having led his men into a battle that marked them as equals among the Union soldiers, Shaw is pleased by the possibility of true equality being present in the 54th. During a conversation with Trip, however, Shaw comes to see that the country faces a much more daunting battle. As Shaw attempts to give him a commendation, Trip expresses his belief that the award and the war mean nothing, asserting, “Ain’t nobody gonna win. It’s just gonna go on and on.” Faced with the notion of a never-ending war, Shaw comes to see that the war between North and South is just a portion of the war against inequality and intolerance in the country.
After his discussion with Trip, Shaw realizes that unity in America can only come with a drastic change in perspective and ideologies for the entire country for which the 54th can act as a catalyst. Reflecting on the positive ideals that the 54th represents, Shaw accepts the nearly impossible mission of leading the attack on Forth Wagner, hoping that the accepted mission will add to the regiment’s notoriety as the valiant black regiment. Equally aware of the attack’s probable outcome and the positive effect that it may have if implemented correctly, the regiment sends a message of a new America as they walk into battle, black soldiers and white officers fighting together. Cheering “Give ‘em Hell, 54,” their fellow soldiers act as evidence of a new American perspective on race and equality that is meant to spread to the rest of the country and the audience.
In its departure from Burchard’s One Gallant Rush, Glory calls for its audience members to evaluate their own perspectives and the ideologies that guide them. As the audience members observe Shaw’s time with the 54th, they are called to broaden their perspectives with him as they feel his guilt and pride. As the 54th marches to Fort Wagner, the audience forges the same unquestionable kinship created between the various Union troops. With a new perspective on issues of equality and an understanding of an America based on connection rather than separation, Glory calls the audience to join the ranks of the 54th, enlisting in the on-going battle against ignorance and intolerance.
Glory. Dir. Edward Zwick. Tristar Pictures, 1989. DVD.March 4, 2014 at 2:29 am #275Kristen DruseParticipant
I think it should really be emphasized that Shaw would not be the protagonist he was without the impact of the men in his regiment. While we don’t get any real taste of the black soldiers in the book form of this story, I think that Edward Zwick does a fantastic job of balancing the focus on Shaw’s leadership with the significant and influential qualities of the men he leads. Shaw was a good man with good goals from the outset of the film, but he never would have been able to achieve half of what he did with half the amount of poise without the learning from the men who, a few years earlier or in a different part of the country, he wouldn’t even be expected to communicate with. I thought this film was unique from the other films we’ve seen so far in that it capitalized on the importance of unexpected influences and the great value in keeping an open mind.March 4, 2014 at 4:48 pm #276Hannah KingsleyParticipant
I think Glory really bordered on the “white hero” narrative, where he was responsible for being the savior for his regiment. Although it’s true that African-American soldiers in this period needed a white spokesperson to help bring them to a place in the military where they could achieve what they wished to, I was really uncomfortable with seeing a man who has an African-American man throgged in front of his regiment (half-way through the movie) ultimately hailed as the hero of the narrative. I thought it was unbelievable that he could bounce back from that public racial deprecation so quickly in the eyes of his regiment by his future (and admittedly noble) actions. Maybe it was because of poor acting on Broderick’s part (I may be biased as I’ve never liked him), but I honestly had trouble discerning whether his later actions were ever really for the sake of the men fort heir own sake, or out of a combination of patriotism, pressure, and white guilt. He adheres to a very “othering” perspective throughout the film, even when praising them
I may be judging unfairly, but, even though he follows the correct character arc, I personally had a hard time haling Shaw as a hero in this film on principle, even though I don’t necessarily see him as an inherently bad man in his time.
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