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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Glory (1989)


Starring (voice): Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes and Morgan Freeman
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
RRP: £19.99
Certificate: 15
Available 17 August 2009

In March 1863 the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment was authorised by the Governor, under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. This all coloured regiment fought against the prejudice of its own Union army before it was allowed to fight against the Confederate forces. The regiment saw action in a number of engagements including being ordered to loot and burn a strategically insignificant town of Darien, Georgia, much to Shaw’s disgust. More glorious was their skirmish action on James Island, South Carolina, before they were asked to make the ultimate sacrifice in the storming of Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina...

Glory (1989 - 2 hr, 02 min, 14 sec) is a dramatised version of historical fact. Directed by Edward Zwick (Legends of the Fall (1994), Blood Diamond (2006)), the basis for the film was over two hundred letters which Shaw wrote during his time as a soldier. The film became a mutli-award winner garnering three Oscars, one for Denzil Washington (American Gangster (2007), The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)), as best supporting actor and it went on to win twelve awards in total with a further ten nominations.

What could have been a fairly dry film about one of the first all coloured regiments has been cleverly subverted to create a film about comradeship under fire. That is not to say that the story does not address the subject of slavery, but much of the drama comes from Shaw’s attempt to get his men to a level where they can fight, rather than be slaughtered.

Following a brief introduction, where it is established that Shaw has already seen action, the first act of the film deals with the formation of the regiment. Most of the men who came to join were already free and brought with them the wide-eyed political naiveté of the abolitionist movement. Heading an all coloured regiment is not only the Caucasian Shaw, but his equality white friend, Maj. Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), which may seem an anachronism now, but it should be remembered that this situation continued right up to World War Two with segregated coloured units fighting under white commanders. Also joining the good fight is Shaw’s childhood friend Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher (The Andromeda Strain (2008)) who nearly breaks during his initial training under the critical eye of Sgt. Maj. Mulcahy (John Finn). The apparent brutality of the training causes a rift between Shaw and his two friends, yet as an audience we are left in no doubt that unless he can get them ready the 54th was likely to be wiped out in their first engagement.

Slowly, Shaw gains the respect of his troops by fighting the inherent prejudice of the Union military, who refuse to cloth, arm or properly pay the troops. Finally they are deployed, though not to the front lines and the 54th are ordered to loot and raise an insignificant town, much to Shaw’s dismay. Using the power of his family’s connections he eventually gets his troops posted to the war proper, halting a Confederate advance at James Island, South Carolina. The Regiment eventually took on the engagements which would earn not only its reputation, but also the respect of their fellow Union troops. The frontal attack on Fort Wagner, on the 18th July 1863, was nothing short of suicide and forms the climax to the film.

I found Matthew Broderick’s (Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), The Producers (2005)) portrayal of Shaw to be satisfyingly complex. When we first meet him, he is in the middle of a battle and I remained unsure whether he had fallen over or was hiding from the brutal slaughter, it makes his decision to command a coloured regiment all the more intriguing, as his character's swings between a passionate desire to see his troops fights and an almost neurotic fear of what he will be asking them to do. Ultimately, like all great heroes, it is not that he is fearless, but that he is able to overcome his fear for a greater cause.

The 54th boasts an impressive range of actors. Morgan Freeman (Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins) plays his character with the quite dignity which we have come to expect from his performances. Denzel Washington (Pvt. Trip) plays the passionate ex-slave, brutalised by his former masters who cannot wait to fight. Of all the characters Trip has the greatest journey. At the commencement of the film he has no faith in either the Union army or its cause, his innate anger makes him agitate even against his own officers. It is only the partial acceptance of the 54th as a man which transforms him from slave to soldier.

The film does contain some spectacularly choreographed battle scenes which captures the fear and stupidity of the tactics. In their first skirmish the two sides stand about ten yards from each other before they start to shoot. It may seem that the film would be a less than uplifting experience, but this could not be further from the truth. The movie is about respect, friendship, comradeship and the dignity to hold your head up high.

The picture on the Blu-ray has retained the filmic quality of the original print, whilst at the same time enhancing foreground and background detail. On the audio side you get a choice of an English, French or German Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, all three of which provide sufficient separation and a satisfyingly bass response during the battle scenes. There is a plethora or subtitle options to choose from including English, French, German, Dutch, plus several Hindi eastern European and European languages

For extras you have a full length director’s commentary, which looks at the initial reason for the film as well as delving into the arcane art of making a couple of hundred men look like thousands. The disc did come with BD Live, but at the time of the review there was no extra content.

The disc contains a number of featurettes, which in and of themselves were okay, but I would suggest that if the film sparks your desire to know more about this period of history, you would be better off watching Ken Burns’s excellent nine episode documentary The Civil War, which also has Morgan Freeman as one of the narrators.

So, on the disc we have the Virtual Civil War Battlefield, interactive map which marks the important battles of the civil war. It allows you to zoom in and out of a map of the United States, providing snippets of information about the major engagements. The Civil War generated hundreds of thousands of letters from the men and The Voices of Glory (11 min, 18 sec) uses some of the actual letters from the men of the 54th to provide a better understanding as to how they viewed the war and their part in it. The longest extra is The True Story Continues (45 min 18 sec) wherein Morgan Freeman narrates; offering up a selection of clips from the show as well as real photos to provide a more in-depth look at the 54th’s history.

The disc is rounded off with a couple of smaller pieces including the Original Theatrical Making Of featurette (7 min, 36 sec) some has some behind the scenes shots, but is really one of those long adverts which they sometimes make for films. There are two deleted scenes, interesting by themselves even though their final exclusion did not detract from the final film. The Apple Picker (3 min, 03 sec) and Crisis of Conscience (2 min, 35 sec) both have the option for a director’s commentary.

Ultimately, this is a good war film, but a much better film about how men come together in the face of adversity, where colour becomes irrelevant.


Charles Packer

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