Just as the 50th anniversary celebrations marking the film Gone With The Wind were in high gear in 1989, Glory hit the box office with a radically different portrayal of the Civil War in the US. Where the Clark Gable feature romanticises the slaveowning Southern ruling class and depicts blacks as children, Glory focuses on the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first regular, all black unit raised in the North.
According to the leading Civil War historian, James McPherson, Glory is by far the most accurate film portrayal of the conflict. It is also a great film not just because of excellent acting, but because of its depiction of the struggles of the oppressed to liberate themselves. You don't have to be familiar with the Civil War to appreciate and identify with these characters as they risk their lives to fight for a society based on equality and social justice.
Director Edward Zwick's approach is anything but romantic. The opening scene finds Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), a young Northern officer and scion of a wealthy Boston family, wounded in a horrific battle. Although jaded by the half hearted Northern war effort, Shaw renews his commitment to the war when asked by the Massachusetts governor and the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass to organise an all black regiment.
But the limits of Shaw's bourgeois revolutionary ideals are quickly exposed by racism, class divisions and the military hierarchy. The racism of the US army and the government prevents the 54th from fighting for months. Shaw's battle hardened attitude puts him at odds with his childhood black friend, Thomas. And Shaw's by the book approach to military discipline comes down harshly on the soldier who is most eager to fight, the ex-slave Trip (brilliantly played by Denzel Washington).
As Shaw becomes isolated from the troops, the axis of the film moves to the black soldiers themselves. Unable to bridge the gulf of class, race and rank, Shaw must rely on Sgt Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) to learn the needs of his men and how to lead them.
Shaw slowly realises that he can only live up to his political beliefs by tying his fate completely to the black soldiers. When they refuse to accept pay below that of white soldiers, he refuses as well. When the racist quartermaster denies them supplies Shaw defies orders to obtain them. When the black soldiers finally see action he is on the front lines too.
Yet the focus is not about Shaw's ability to connect with blacks, the clichÇ of Hollywood's interracial `buddy' films. Instead Shaw and Trip grasp that the possibility of black and white unity is bound up in the class questions thrown up by the Civil War.
Shaw asks Trip to bear the regiment's US flag nicknamed `Old Glory' at that time but Trip refuses. He explains that he isn't fighting the war for Shaw or the North, but for blacks, free and slave. He points out that no matter what happens Shaw can return to his big house in Boston, while slaves are guaranteed nothing, even in victory. Shaw can only answer, `you won't get anything if we lose.'
That honesty makes the climactic battle scene absolutely gut wrenching. Shaw accepts the assignment for the assault on an ocean front Confederate fort in South Carolina, knowing that the exposed beach terrain guarantees a casualty rate of 50 percent or more. But the soldiers understand that by leading the assault they will make a revolutionary political statement about the willingness of blacks to fight to smash slavery and to free themselves. They accept the task with no hesitation and win the solidarity of white soldiers who had earlier taunted them with racist insults. It is a glimpse of the possibility of real black and white unity among ordinary people.
For director Zwick, that possibility of black and white unity is symbolised by the US flag. This was wrongly dismissed as Reagan era patriotism by would be left critics. The Civil War flag was no longer the symbol of the slave owners.
With the Emancipation Proclamation, the North's war aims shifted from keeping the Union together to a war of emancipation that included 250,000 black troops. The flag had become the banner that rallied the struggle to `purge this land in blood,' to use John Brown's phrase.
The betrayal of the postwar Reconstruction and the rise of US imperialism once again made `Old Glory' a symbol of racism and reaction. Far from obscuring that history, Glory compels us to question the broken promises of black freedom and inspires us to renew the struggle for genuine liberation.