Talking Pictures

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Posted by keith1942 on February 21, 2013

The advance

Stephen Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln [released in the UK February 2013] opens with brutal hand-to-hand fighting between Union and Confederate troops in a Civil War battle.  What makes the sequence distinctive that these are black Union Soldiers fighting white Confederate soldiers. In the age of Afro-American President Obama this is not a common image in Hollywood films. So the 1989 Civil War drama Glory was a real trailblazer, dramatising the story of one of the earliest Negro {Afro-American] regiments recruited to fight in the war to end the Southern secession and slavery. 

Glory is a 1989 US film which retells the story of a regiment of black soldiers in the Civil War between the Northern and Southern United States in the last century.  Apart from the film itself and the usual reviews there was also a free schools booklet on the film produced by Film Education, a body sponsored by the Film Industry to promote the use of film in schools.  Even better, there were three A3 pages of comment and analysis in a newspaper called The Revolutionary Worker, a US revolutionary communist publication.  I want to use the film and the two different commentaries to argue some ideas about how popular cinema uses the history of society and class struggle to generate a consensus of values, and the traps for the unwary who take such propaganda at face value.

Glory starts by telling the audience in a title that its story is based on the real life letters of Robert Gould Shaw, the Colonel and commander of this real life black regiment the Massachusetts 54th, [Shaw is played in the film by Matthew Broderick).  Shaw is white, as are all the officers, and the film’s early scenes are full of the irony of this “all-black” regiment run by whites. This is the historical record, as the Northern ruling class were less agitated about black slavery than retaining the union, and there was a groundswell of real racism amongst the northern whites.  The film, by highlighting this aspect, is immediately critical of white racism, most strongly punched home in a scene where Shaw orders a black soldier whipped for desertion.  The whip falls on a brutally scarred back, scarred from slave plantation whippings, while the eyes of the black soldier look squarely into those of the guilt ridden Shaw.

The first part of the film shows the training of the newly enrolled regiment, with the black soldiers inexperienced and naive about war.  However, once trained, they are shunted round at military labouring, their racist military hierarchy unable to bring themselves to let black people fight for them.  Once again the film combines historically recorded facts with criticism, as Shaw and his white officer and friend, Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes)), pressurise their superiors into letting the black regiment see battle.  The point of pressure is the plundering, looting and criminal activities being carried out on the side by high-ranking northern white officers.

Southern black boys and Rawlins

Southern black boys and Sergeant-Major Rawlings

In the final part of the film the regiment enters the field of battle and the ‘pantheon of Glory’.  Shaw volunteers the regiment to lead the assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner heavily defended and over a beach exposed to murderous and concentrated fire.  Here both officers and black soldiers prove their fighting ability, their courage and their heroism.  Half the regiment, including all the figures  who have already become identified by the audience, die or are injured in this battle.  At the end black and white are buried by the Confederates in a common grave.

I hope this brief outline will make clear that Glory was different from the ordinary Hollywood movie of the period, and even now seems more radical than many.  The story it tells is both a celebration of the black contribution to US history and a criticism of the response of white society to that contribution.  It is ably produced, with powerful widescreen colour visuals, emotive and dramatic music.  In one scene the newly trained regiment of black soldiers march, finally dressed in Union uniforms and carrying real rifles, march through the streets of their home city, to the acclaim and joy of their families and communities.  The close-ups of proud wives, children and friends are both moving and touching. We also see the noted Afro-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass on the podium with other dignataries, though he is only allowed one line of dialogue in the film. Moreover, the historical record is that one of Douglass’ sons was an NCO in the regiment, which hewas key in effecting. In the film version the key NCO is an Irish-American, i.e. white!

The film also contains strong performances from black stars and actors.  Denzel Washington, carving out a career in the liberal anti-racist cinema, plays Trip, a rebel and spokesperson for oppressed blacks.  He figures in key scenes in the structure of the film, it is he who is whipped at Shaw’s orders, and who faces him defiantly through the ordeal.

The film’s producer, Freddie Fields, stated, “It is the story of how a black regiment and its white officers challenged history, racism and the fortunes of war.”  So the film offers not only entertainment, but history and politics to the audience.

It is to the credit of Film Education’s Study Guide that it attempted to grapple seriously with these aspects.  The book provides questions, discussion material and extracts from historical sources.  It is clear that the film has taken liberties with the record, both in some of its characters and in the telling of certain events. The Study Guide questions the myth of a Civil War fought to abolish slavery, and points out the central cause, preserving the Union of States.  [Lincoln tells the story of how, late in the war, President Lincoln managed to pressurise and manipulate a bitterly divided House of representatives in Congress to pas the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the abolition of slavery]. The Film Education Study Guide sources provide some of the historical record of racism in that period.  It also provides some of the historical background and detail to the real life regiment missing in the film version.  On two illustrated pages it asks the reader to consider the use of key individuals to carry the story forward.  Then it raises the questions of what benefits war may have bought to black people.  The emphasis throughout the booklet is on the question of this film and the history it purports to tell.

But there are important issues that it misses out, the very ones discussed at length in The Revolutionary Worker article.  This article is concerned to address the film in terms of current racist oppression in the USA.  It starts with:

“Just telling this story is a blow to the oppressors’ version of history………GLORY brings home that oppression is still very much alive and needs to be cut down by “that terrible swift sword”.

It concentrates its attention on a few key scenes, the whipping already mentioned, the opening and closing of the movie; and two scenes that involve the character Trip and the flag of the USA. In the first of these scenes Shaw offers Trip the ‘honour’ of carrying the Stars and Stripes into battle for the regiment.  Trip refuses saying that the war will not liberate the black people.  Later in the assault of Fort Wagner, Shaw dies leading an assault, the flag falls to the ground and Trip picks it up, dying as the assault continues.  The article argues this is a limitation in the film, as black people have no interest in a flag, which represents modern US imperialism both at home and abroad.  The Revolutionary Worker was extensively involved in agitation round the burning of the Yankee flag, and attempts in the US to criminalise this act. Thus their article attempts to site the film in this continuing class struggle over racism and chauvinism.  They raise a dimension that {not surprisingly] is totally absent from the Study Guide.

However, they still see the film as generally positive [as they did Cry Freedom, 1987]. The article makes the point that “The most that could be done in 1863 was to destroy slavery and create the conditions for a future revolution…” However they do not discuss the cinematic representation of these acts. I believe this fails to grapple with what the entertainment format does to historical and political issues, a facet which the Study Guide at least asks the students to discuss.  Entertainment stories generate emotional responses in audiences, partly by the continuing thrust of the story, and partly by emotional responses to individual characters, scenes, music, colour and so on.  Any specific scene or incident is to be responded to in the context of the whole.  One character may say ‘I won’t die for imperialism’, but s/he is then either discredited or reformed by the ongoing narrative.

Trip and flag

The flag and the dying Trip

So what I think is key about the flag incidents is that at the height of the battle Trip picks up the flag at the cost of his own life, even if earlier he had refused.  His one line “I ain’t fighting the war for you”, is easily outweighed by the emotional impact of the rebel who at first refuses but then is swayed into allegiance – an extremely common motif in entertainment films.  And as the events of 2011 demonstrated, the emotional power vested by many US citizens in their flag would make this act extremely powerful. Such a message is reinforced by the final shot of the battle, this is a freeze frame shot [shades of Butch Cassidy] of a hopeless charge by the remaining soldiers led by Cabot and Sergeant Rawlings (Morgan Freeman). In The Revolutionary Worker article, Rawlings is a reformist black, “okay a hundred years ago, but whose time has passed’.  Yet for the film he is the leader finally imprinted on the audiences’ retina. And the casting of both white and black characters is important here. Broderick’s youthful looks fit the liberal notions imparted to him by his father. Elwes seems older and more cynical. And their authority is implemented by John Finn as Sergeant Mulcahy, an Irish-American veteran invented for the film. Meanwhile Denzel Washington at this stage of his career is a heroic rebel: another feature in which he starred in this year was Crimson Tide. Morgan Freeman, of course, has the gravitas of age and his voice: which later in his career enabled him to be cast in the role of US President.

The opening and closing sequences of the film confirm the limits of its criticism in its message about racism in the US and at the hands of the US.  The start of the film shows Shaw before the raising of the black regiment in a battle with white soldiers who turn and run from the confederates.  Thus his leading of the heroic charge at the end of the film is an overcoming of the earlier failure. There follows a scene of the Confederates burying the bodies of both black and white soldiers in a mass grave: Trip lies alongside Shaw with a choir heard on the soundtrack. Hollywood films nearly always centre on a heroic individual, usually white, rarely proletarian, female or gay, whose deeds and/or regeneration embody the emotional power of the film. This is exactly the strategy of the reactionary Born on the 4th of July (1989) movie, where the nation’s failure is whisked away in the failure and subsequent success of one representative individual.  While the final shot of a common grave for black and white can be see as positive, this common sacrifice is for the sake of a state built on oppression both at home and all over the world.

Shaw and Trip buried side-by-side

Shaw and Trip buried side-by-side

Glory is positive in its depiction of a little known history and its critical stance on racism in US history.  But all this is set squarely in the context of a chauvinist upholding of reactionary US patriotism, and the message that black people interests can be served by earning (through death) a place in the system of exploitation.  As The Revolutionary Worker points out black troops have been used against the peoples of Mexico, the Philipines, Cuba, Vietnam, Grenada and Panama [and many more, just look at Vietnam movies].  While people who hate racism may get an emotional frisson from the powerful scenes of black achievement and heroism in the film, they will also get a large dose of reformist and reactionary values.

This is an area bypassed the Study Guide which considers the entertainment format, but not the politics of imperialism.  It is also an aspect that is only partially by The Revolutionary Worker, which treat the film as a political text to be read off and agreed or disagreed with.   Critical responses to this (and other movies) must engage with the powerful emotional devices and images created by cinema.  Images that have been developed over the years, to which audiences are finely attuned, and which carry messages without the obviousness of the printed page, but often with greater power and effectively.

Produced by Tri-Star Pictures. Director Edward Zwick. Screenplay Kevin Jarre, based on the book Lay This Laurel by Lincoln Kirsten, and One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard.

Cinematography Freddie Francis. Production designer Norman Garwood. Music James Horner. Sound Design Lon E. Bender. Editor Steven Rosenblum.

In Technicolor, 133 minutes, Certificate 15 in UK. 


The above article was written shortly after the original release of the film. Recently I came across a book that deals with some of these issues in relation to Glory and other films set during the Civil War. It is however a fairly academic tome, including using the specialised language of the discipline.

American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film, Trevor B, McCrisjen and Andrew Pepper, Edinburgh University Press 2005, Chapter 3 Hollywood’s Civil War dilemma: to imagine or unravel the nation? Gettysburg: Glory: Ride With the Devil: Cold Mountain.


3 Responses to “Glory

  1. […] of course, is part of a larger representations found across Hollywood production. The 1989 Glory, which has a much greater attention devoted to Negroes fighting for the Union in the Civil war, […]

  2. I almost never leave comments, however I browsed a
    few remarks here Glory Talking Pictures. I do have a few questions for
    you if it’s okay. Is it just me or does it give the impression like a few of the comments appear as if they are coming from brain dead people? 😛 And, if you are writing on additional online sites, I would like to keep up with everything new you have to post. Would you list of the complete urls of your public sites like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

  3. keith1942 said

    Sorry I only just manage blogs, twitter and facebook are beyond me. The otherb logs are listed in the Blogroll menu.
    It would be interesting to know what Elect Cigs thinks is braindead in the Glory article and why?

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