The central conflict of Glory isn't North versus South. Much of the film is spent delving into the lives of these men as they're trained, with seemingly no end in sight, into becoming soldiers. Though the 54th was a sprawling regiment, Glory focuses most intensely on four of them: a wise, aging gravedigger named Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), the brash and bitter escaped slave Trip (Denzel Washington), the stuttering, wide-eyed innocent Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy), and Searles (Andre Braugher), an educated free man and lifelong friend of Col. Shaw's. Glory follows them as they suffer through both the debasement from the inescapable racism around them as well as the grueling training to become soldiers, only to find that their reward is to meander around and seemingly never be sent into battle. Shaw too isn't certain how to approach the men around him, kept at a distance by his rank and race as well as the haunting memories of the Battle of Antietam. When the 54th is dispatched, it's to carry out menial and at times morally repugnant missions, but they're soon offered a chance to prove themselves in the heat of battle as the Union prepares to mount an assault on the impregnable fortress of Ft. Wagner.
Though Glory is almost universally revered, I'll admit that my feelings are somewhat mixed. Glory's most glaring misstep is its misplaced emphasis on Colonel Shaw. For a film about a black regiment risking everything to prove themselves in battle yet forced to struggle instead with prejudice and dismissal in the North, the film's focus is too frequently lopsided in favor of its white officers. The most intriguing characters and certainly the most startling performances are all from its soldiers, and yet they're forced to give way to accommodate the woeful miscasting of Matthew Broderick. It's explained in the disc's audio commentary that Broderick was cast because Shaw is a man so hopelessly out of his depth, and the actor by design brings to him a youth, shakiness, and inconfidence that fits the part. Broderick cannot, however, convincingly assert himself as much of a leader. When he raids the quartermaster's office seeking shoes for his men, for instance, Shaw is meant to snarl with indignation, but his line readings are instead so stilted and awkward that they immediately took me out of the movie. Broderick is well-suited to representing Shaw's vulnerability and determination to prove himself worthy of his rank, but one never gets the sense that this is a man any reasonable soldier would follow unwaveringly into battle. The acting bleeds through too distractingly -- Broderick can't even maintain an accent, let alone an entire performance -- and Glory suffers for it.
The craftsmanship on every level is impressive. This is a film that was meticulously researched and is much more faithful to the historical record than most, and every frame showcases Edward Zwick's attention to detail. His ambition and the scale of this sort of Civil War epic tower over its $19 million budget, and it's astonishing to witness what Zwick and his immensely talented crew were able to accomplish with such a modest sum. The battles in particular are dazzlingly well-executed. While too many other films of this scope tend to reduce warring factions to indistinct swarms, Zwick maintains both the large scale and the intimacy. These are armies clashing, yes, but they're men -- individuals -- on both sides as well, and Glory never loses sight of that. The battle sequences are unflinching in their brutality, making the unwavering determination of the 54th that much more harrowing that they'd witness such horrors yet march steadfast into the hells of war. Glory also boasts one of James Horner's most revered scores, though I'll admit to finding it somewhat intrusive at times, too heavily underlining some moments that perhaps would've been better suited to resting on the strengths of the performances instead.
Though my reaction to the film is admittedly more mixed than most, its flaws do little to deflate just how rousing and intensely powerful Glory remains twenty years later. Its story of heroism and steadfast determination in the face of such dehumanizing odds -- a film that shines a light on an underrecognized chapter of our past and may spur younger viewers on to further explore the rich tapestry of American history -- demands to be experienced at least once. Recommended.
Glory isn't especially dazzling in high definition -- contrast tends to be rather flat, and the 1.85:1 image is softer than most -- but this almost certainly dates back to the original photography. Modest though they may be, clarity and detail are a marked improvement over earlier DVD releases, and this transfer is free of any wear or speckling. The understated palette of Freddie Francis' Academy Award-winning cinematography is faithfully preserved on Blu-ray, and the film's grainy texture shows no sign of being smeared away through excessive noise reduction. This dual-layer Blu-ray disc offers Glory's AVC encode plenty of room to breathe as well. As I found myself drawn further and further into Glory, the mild softness seemed to fade away. I'd imagine most viewers who enter the film with reasonable expectations ought to be pleased.
Glory is bolstered by a terrific 5.1 remix, presented here in a lossless 16-bit Dolby TrueHD track. From the devastating battle that opens the film, Glory immediately showcases the ferocity of this mix: rifles and cannonfire attack from every direction, the surrounds flesh out the roar of advancing armies and a torrential downpour, and James Horner's soaring score envelops the room. It's a remarkably immersive soundtrack that benefits further from a remarkably healthy low-end. Slews of explosions and the constant crack of musket fire in particular coax a hefty kick from the subwoofer. The bass doesn't resonate in quite the same way a more recent film likely would, but for a movie ringing in its twentieth anniversary, it's far more substantial than I would've expected. No, the mix doesn't entirely belie its age; much of the dialogue and certain scattered sound effects are flat and dated, and I spotted one nasty crackle in the left surround channel leading up to the film's climax. Still, it's quite a strong effort, all things considered, and befitting of a film whose sound mix was nominated for an Academy Award.
TrueHD tracks are also offered in French and Portuguese alongside a Dolby Digital dub in Spanish. Glory features subtitle streams in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
The Final Word
As pronounced as some of its flaws now seem to me, Glory remains a stirring and powerful Civil War epic, celebrating a chapter of American history that for too long went unrecognized. Recommended.