Glory (1989)

2009 #28
Edward Zwick | 117 mins | DVD | 15 / R

GloryEd Zwick seems to like war. More accurately, Zwick likes making films about war, but clearly isn’t a fan of the act itself. Since gaining attention with multi Oscar-winner Glory, about the first black regiment during the American Civil War, he’s directed a number of films concerned with wars and those that fight them: Courage Under Fire (“Army officer investigates female chopper commander’s worthiness for the Medal of Honor”), The Siege (“a wave of terrorist attacks in New York lead to the declaration of martial law”), The Last Samurai (“American military advisor embraces the Samurai culture he was hired to destroy”), Blood Diamond (a group of people battle for a diamond during the war in Sierra Leone), and most recently Defiance (“Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the forests”). Whatever the reasons for Zwick’s preoccupation, he certainly has a talent for it.

In Glory, Zwick is helped by a story that’s definitely worth telling, one which I imagine seemed even more pertinent on its original release, when Nelson Mandela was still in prison and the state of race relations in the US would contribute to riots in Los Angeles inside of 18 months. Still, it would be easy to slide into Issue of the Week melodrama in handling such a tale, but Zwick manages it without undue sentiment — there’s an appropriate realisation of the importance of events, perhaps even occasional reverence, but time is taken to show doubts and prejudices. It may get too sentimental for some tastes toward the end, but considering the importance of the story I don’t think it’s unwarranted or overplayed.

Similarly, most of the hero characters are less than perfect, with Matthew Broderick’s Colonel of particular note as a conflicted and initially cowardly commanding officer, more concerned with propriety than what is right — until he’s led to a change of heart, of course. His is just one of several excellent performances: Morgan Freeman does what Morgan Freeman does best as the Authoritative Elder, while Denzel Washington’s angry young man justifiably earnt him his first Oscar. The wider supporting cast hold their own against these leads, particularly Andre Braugher as the idealistic but ultimately unsuited volunteer Thomas Searles.

The handful of battle sequences are effectively staged, suitably tense and brutal, though these are really ancillary — the regiment only engaged in conflict a couple of times and so, appropriately, actual fighting makes up a relatively slender portion of the film. The unfamiliarity of the story helps keep things tense both in and out of battle — for obvious reasons, the majority of battles depicted on film are famous ones, often because of their outcome, so it makes for an agreeable change to not know where events will lead.

These elements all blend to create a film that is, at the very least, the sum of its parts: a significant historical story with strong performances and a convincing depiction of war, which negotiates the thin lines that surround sentiment and reverence. Zwick may not be a fan of war, but he certainly knows how to put its stories on film.

5 out of 5

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