Sunday, November 21, 2010

Day 126: Glory

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #248
Year: 1989
Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington

Contemporary filmmaking hasn't been particularly kind to the American Civil War. It's mostly been reduced to four-hour blocks of fan service for the kinds of guys who subscribe to Blue and Gray and reenact the battle of Antietam in their local parks, and when truly great movies taking place during the Civil War are made, they're generally not really about the Civil War at all (see Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The). Glory is one glorious (heh) exception. It's got some of the hallmarks of ho-hum Civil War movies – namely extremely long battle scenes and resulting shots surveying fields covered in bodies that directly reference Matthew Brady's photography – but the story it tells is a fairly unique, or, at the very least, interesting one. Most of the credit goes to the casting, which gave Denzel Washington his first Oscar, gave Morgan Freeman a chance to shine as the wise, simple older man two years before he'd perfect it in Unforgiven, and gave Matthew Broderick the chance to reinvent himself as someone besides Ferris Bueller (it didn't stick, but hey, he pulls it off well here).

Criticisms have been leveled at Glory for being a black movie with a white hero. Okay, fair enough; Spike Lee probably wouldn't have jumped at the chance to direct this script, but this was a movie based on a series of letters from a white colonel in charge of a black regiment. I'm not saying history isn't sometimes racist, but that being said, it is history. The degree to which the black characters are integrated into the United States Army in Glory is pretty much the most equality they could hope for in 1863, and I think Edward Zwick does a fine job of reconciling that. Morgan Freeman has spoken out in defense of the film against black critics who argued that it was an "Uncle Tom" movie, and I'd say that the film's reputation has mostly been restored in the 21 years since its release.

Glory is not a perfect film (far from it, in fact), but considering the odds that are stacked against it – accusations of veiled racism, the handicap of making a Civil War film, the apparent obligation to show at least twenty minutes of boring war film footage complete with clich├ęs like the formal rivals saving each other on the field of battle – it's a damned fine effort. The plot is immaterial because it's pretty much like that of any other war film about an embattled regiment, just this time it's about race, but the excellent cast makes it worth at least one viewing.

The Good: Washington, Freeman, and Broderick give an excellent trifecta of performances.

The Bad: Why the hell did Zwick decide to put Frederick Douglass in this film? So, so, so gimmicky and unnecessary. Also, ending your film with an utterly cliched battle scene and, of course, a shot of a battlefield strewn with bodies followed by, you guessed it, title cards? Pretty lame, Zwick. It's easy to tune out the last twenty minutes.

The Skinny: Yeah, sorry, it definitely isn't Top 250 material. I liked it more in 8th grade, and even then I'm not sure I would have totally understood it being on the list.

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