Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page


Films >> Glory (1989) >> Issue Essay >>

Glory's Non-Issue

By Todd Scurci and Denny Boyle, with comments by Hilary Chadwick and Patrick O'Brien

"History, I am convinced, is not just something to be left to the historians." - Warren Susman

[1] From a critic's point of view, what is there not to scrutinize when a white, Jewish filmmaker is responsible for a historical film about African-Americans during the Civil War? One which happens to have a brave young Boston Brahmin as the supposed leader of a colored battalion? Surely he does not have the license to create a film based on a heritage with which he has no affinity. Director Ed Zwick was apprehensive with the task and struggled with his entitlement to create such a film.

I was afraid initially that a young, white, liberal, Jewish director would be presuming a lot to talk to them [African-American actors] about their slave antecedents. In fact, what I discovered in rehearsal and everyday shooting was that they approached the situation with extraordinary humor and generosity. And I realized that if I was to act out my ancestors in the shtetl in Poland, that I would approach it in a similar way.
In retrospect, it is both fortunate and honorable that Zwick overcame his misgivings and came to this realization, because the finished product can serve as an exemplary model for future historical films. While not entirely perfect in form or substance, reputable critics ultimately praise Glory's end result.

[2] James McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize winner Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, analyzed Glory with the crucial understanding of its role as a film and not a documentary. Accordingly, McPherson had this to say about Zwick's work: "Glory is not only the first feature film to treat the role of black soldiers in the American Civil War, [but] also the most powerful and historically accurate movie about that war ever made." He also credited the film for its overall attention to detail, particularly dealing with the precision of the battle scenes. The critic does point out that Glory is by no means flawless, citing historical discrepancies; nevertheless, a sound approval is given.

[3] From a supportive angle, Morgan Freeman, an academy-award-nominee black actor, fully backs every aspect of the project. Freeman was not only ecstatic about the idea for the film, but he also defended Zwick and screenwriter Kevin Jarre from criticisms about the film's alleged "whiteness." In rebuttal to a charge by Roger Ebert that Glory concentrates too much on the white point of view, Freeman claimed:

I don't have a problem with that. You cannot reasonably ask a white writer to do it differently. Now, if we're going to start citing some unfortunates, it might be unfortunate that a black writer didn't write it, but if a black writer had written it, there's a good chance he wouldn't have found a producer. So there you are. This is a movie that did get made, and a story did get told, and that's what is important.
Reportedly, Freeman was so adamant about the film's script that he approached Zwick in the auditioning stages, pleading, "Whatever you want, you've got me." Moreover, he and co-star Denzel Washington (1989, Best Supporting Actor, Glory) took significant pay cuts to make the film a success for the sake of art and history. (see comment by Hilary Chadwick)

[4] James W. Loewen's, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, asserts that our history books can skew our perceptions at a very young age. Compulsory education at times excludes very important events while simultaneously fabricating stories such as the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving and treatment of the Native Americans to instill in us a greater pride for our ancestors, our country, and our history. One chapter of history that has been severely altered is the African-American's role in our nation's Civil War. Glory revisits and sheds truth on this episode of our past. Our history books tell us in elementary school that the Civil War was between the North and South over slavery, which is an inherent myth in itself. It was fought primarily amid economic issues and political disagreements, centering on States' rights. (see comment by Patrick O'Brien) Regardless of the cause, fighting for the Union army were over 188,000 Blacks who often are overlooked or forgotten in our understanding of American history from our primary school textbooks. In addition to those brave soldiers, the struggle and the people behind the struggle to allow colored regiments to fight for their country was as quickly and easily omitted from our "history." In this aspect, the film is glorified as a heroic milestone in historical cinema.

[5] Despite Zwick's minor manipulations for the silver screen, it is the higher message the film uncovers in the form of powerful symbolisms that earned its scholarly plaudits. McPherson and many other historians make note of multiple discrepancies between historical truths and scenes depicted in Glory. One such inaccuracy deals with the apparent background of the black soldiers that make up the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The film implies they were mostly runaway slaves, when, in fact, the vast majority of the 54th were free men. Another on-screen fallacy is the appearance of Frederick Douglass as the aged sixty-five year old man with the frizzy white hair and beard that we are accustomed to associating with his name. In reality, Douglass was only in his mid-forties during the Civil War.

[6] Other imperfections were the conclusion of the film and the lasting impression it leaves viewers of the 54th. The final battle scene -- the assault on Ft. Wagner -- is depicted as the 54th last Civil War campaign. In reality, the surviving soldiers continued to serve decisively, participating in later scuffles and battles. And the concluding caption of the film erroneously states that the regiment's actions at Ft. Wagner stimulated Congress to approve more black regiments in the Union Army. The approval was actually made months before the July assault in South Carolina. While these concessions seem significant and collectively damaging, McPherson is quick to acknowledge that, in many instances, these errors are made in order to expose a "larger truth," one that includes the important role African Americans had in fighting with the Union Army.

[7] Most of the critics, unlike their evaluations of other Civil War movies such as Gone with the Wind and Gettysburg, maintain a more tolerant and progressive view of Glory. The reason is that Zwick and producer Freddie Fields carefully spawned the story in a way that provided inspirational and moving entertainment value without harming the essence of the 54th with respect to its history. The areas of deviation were selected wisely enough, not to leave a brash or ignorant storyline. It was this process and precision that makes for worthy historical films. Zwick said to Matthew Broderick during filming that "Sometimes facts are the enemy of drama." This view is certainly anathema to the critiques of McPherson and other historians. However it is evident with Glory, unlike so many heavily criticized historical dramas, that Zwick also realized "drama can be the enemy of facts."

[8] How is it that Zwick was able to mold a historically attentive film that satisfied historians, while, at the same time, bringing pleasure to audiences of all demographics? The answer is simple: screenwriter Jarre, director Zwick, and producer Fields took no short cuts, and there was a firm understanding of what the proper balance should be between historical truths and creative license. Robert Toplin's analysis in Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood agrees that Glory's misrepresentations can all be defended and that many symbolic truths outweigh certain blemishes.

[9] The first of Glory's ingredients to success was Jarre's screenplay as inspired by the St. Gaudens Memorial on Boston Common in honor of Shaw and the 54th. Jarre went to the exact sources for which this memorial was erected: two writings on Robert Gould Shaw and his regiment, One Gallant Rush and the album Lay This Laurel. The filmmakers delved further into actual documented letters from the soldiers that helped manufacture these aforementioned works. An inventive combination of letters between Shaw and his family as well as letters from African-American soldiers such as Corporal James Henry Gooding, Colonel Thomas Higginson, and Colonel James Montgomery were examined and used to create the fictional relationships and dialogues among the soldiers in the film true to their era.

[10] To finalize and certify the film's historic credence, many reliable sources and educational outlets were made available. Instead of using actors to film the large-scale combat scenes (which are regarded as some of the most brutally accurate portrayals of Civil War battle sequences ever created), Zwick used many willing and able civilian re-enactors. These extras took their roles very seriously and were consistently adamant in offering advice for the bettering of the film's details. At the same time they worked without pay to make the film affordable, considering its modest budget. Equally important, Ray Herbeck Jr., a weathered Civil War film contributor was sought to help produce the movie. As a final insignia that Glory would leave no details unaccounted for, Zwick and Fields brought to the filming Shelby Foote, who is one of the most accomplished historians on the Civil War, having three extraordinarily detailed volumes to his credit. With such historical experts present, there was always a balancing act and an understanding of how much the other side would give. This compromising process is what allows Glory to be a success at both the box office and in scholarly review.

[11] Similar cooperation is lacking in many of the historical films that make the big screen. For instance, Gettysburg is heavily criticized for its length and lack of appeal to the everyday moviegoer, while Gone with the Wind is condemned for its engrossment with a love story and its infidelity to the truth, particularly with its treatment of African-Americans. Both confused in their idea of where the films should fall in the vast range between documentaries and fictional dramas, these films gave us massive misconceptions. Either directors run away with their creative licenses or such an acute consideration for historic detail is taken that audiences are bored and potential success in the box office becomes nonexistent. Both scenarios leave unhappy viewers. While it is utterly impossible to satisfy everyone's needs, Glory's approach provides an outcome that finds a balance that few films capture. Its creators never admit to perfection and noted many concessions, but they achieved an end result that can be appreciated by kids, adults, and even historians and history teachers. James McPherson put his stamp on Glory's effectiveness with a simple Q&A; "Can Glory be used in the classroom as a teacher? YES!"


Hilary Chadwick (Feb. 2009)

I agree that Ed Zwick's film is worthy of recognition and praise; however, I don't believe he should be elevated to saint status for dedicating himself to a film on racial inequalities. Zwick is described by Scurci and Boyle as "honorable" and his film as "an exemplary model." These adjectives depict Zwick as a saint and illustrate the inflated praise for his efforts as a white man who has voluntarily chosen to fight a racial battle. Despite his white Jewish background that might discredit his ability to accurately portray a black man's experience in the Civil War, Zwick is congratulated for his work, and the historical inaccuracies in Glory are condoned in light of the "the higher message the film uncovers in the form of powerful symbolisms." However, as Morgan Freeman points out, if a black man with more related experience were to do the same thing, the film might have been treated with greater scrutiny: "[I]f a black writer had written it, there's a good chance he wouldn't have found a producer." This emphasizes that a black man's work to create a film would have been subject to a much higher standard and even then could not have been recognized. This illustrates the white privilege today, that allows a white man to produce a product of potentially lower quality and receive great praise for his/her work, while a black man or woman with potentially higher credentials is denied the same opportunity.

Patrick O'Brien 8/18/12

I concur that to argue that the "Civil War was between the North and South over slavery" is not an accurate statement. Discussions about the reasons the South seceded, what the Confederacy was about, and the nature of the ideology and symbolism of the Confederacy are often laden with misconceptions. When the South began seceding in 1861, they were nice enough to write down the reasons for their decision. A look at the secession documents from each of the Confederate States reveals the motivation behind their decision. Upon inspection, these primary sources reveal that the primary motivation was to protect slavery. Indeed, most of the declarations of secession reject states' rights; most northern states were nullifying the Fugitive Slave Act (e.g. Personal Liberty Laws), and South Carolina was so incensed that they listed each northern state to do so. While it is true that the act of secession is an assertion of states' rights, it cannot be the reason for secession itself.

Further corroboration is offered by Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, in his infamous Cornerstone Speech in which he stated, "the new [Confederate] Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions -- African slavery as it exists among us -- the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution."

Even honest Abe said as such in his Second Inaugural Adress in March of 1865 -- "All knew that this interest [i.e. slavery] was somehow the cause of the war."

At the time of secession, no one doubted the rationale of the southern states. The cause of the war began to change after the war was over, reconciliation became a priority (which demanded a softer legacy of the war), and the nadir of race relations (1880s -- 1950s) began. To demonstrate that the South was fighting to protect the institution of slavery is not to argue that the North fought the Civil War to end slavery. Abolitionists were never close to a majority in the North, and most Northerners were racist -- that is, some were anti-slavery, some just didn't care, and most were anti-black. To be sure, the North did have economic motive to keep the South in the Union; the region was, for example, the North's source of raw cotton. Lincoln was quite clear that he was not waging war to end slavery (at least in the beginning years of the war, although he abhorred the institution, and would have ended it if he thought he could) but to save the union. It was not until after the victory at Antietam, the embarrassment of slaves who escaped north being kept as "contraband," the acceptance of black soldiers into the union, the border states warmed to the idea, and the delivery of the Gettysburg Address that the end of slavery became synonymous with saving the union. That was halfway into the war, and many northern soldiers rejected that notion outright -- but many didn't. Indeed, Yale historian David Blight offers an excellent analysis in a lecture entitled, "Slavery and State Rights, Economies and Ways of Life: What Caused the Civil War?"

James Loewen, the sociologist/historian has also published a book entitled The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The "Great Truth" about the "Lost Cause," which provides a mix of interpretation and primary source documents -- many more than mentioned above -- which chronicle the motivation behind secession and its subsequent obfuscation upon the invention of the "Lost Cause" mythology.