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GLORY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher
Director:  Edward Zwick
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  122 Minutes
Release Date:  January 30, 2001

Film ****

Glory is an extraordinary film about extraordinary people who carved their names in the annals of American history…yet it took this film for many Americans to realize it.  In that respect, it stands as a testament to the power of the art of cinema, but it’s much more than that.  It’s an amazingly crafted and powerful war film that puts a human face on the conflict it covers, and gives voice to those who did the fighting.

It’s the story of the 54th of Massachusetts…the first American regiment of black soldiers, all volunteers, who assembled to fight for the Union and the freedom of their own people in the Civil War.  They were considered by some a motley group of men, ranging from runaway slaves to educated Northern men who were born free and had never tasted the shackles of bondage.  Many in power in the Army didn’t believe a black regiment would be any good or could show discipline under fire.  For a while, it seemed the 54th would never get a chance to prove them wrong:  trained to be soldiers, they spent a good part of the war doing nothing more than menial labor.  But when the opportunity came in the form of a near suicide mission, the men fought with a sense of honor and gallantry unseen since the days of the Alamo.  As a military effort, it was a dismal failure.  But as a historical event, it would be remembered as a turning point.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Broderick) became the man picked to assemble and lead the army’s first black regiment.  He seemed a good choice to the powers that be for at least two reasons:  he was the son of a famous abolitionist who shared his fathers views, and he displayed some signs of battle wear from his last action (a potent skirmish that opens the movie).  His attack was a disaster, and, it would seem, leading a troop of volunteer black soldiers was a way to keep him out of any more fighting.

Nobody seemed to believe that such a group could actually be turned into an effective fighting force…possibly not even the Colonel at first.  But these men of vastly varied backgrounds came together under some brutally rigorous training.  Not every man was fighting the same war.  Trip (Washington, in an Oscar winning performance), was a runaway slave filled with rage.  He enlisted to fight his own cause, and doesn’t make many friends when he cynically charges that nothing will change for the black man, even if the north wins the war (ironic in hindsight to consider how right he was).  Rawlins (Freeman) was a quiet man who left his family and kin behind when he escaped slavery some years back.  Searles (Braugher) was an educated free man, who is there to fight for a cause he believes in, but only slowly begins to fully understand.

The battle scenes are amazing…some of the most powerful and memorable before Saving Private Ryan.  But the scope of the fighting never overtakes the humanity of the story, as the men struggle not only against the enemy on the opposite side, but against those sided with them…those who would decide, for example, that shoes weren’t really needed for them since nobody believed they would actually ever fight, or that they should be paid less than their fellow white soldiers, though as Trip points out, “we stop bullets just as well as they do”.

Colonel Shaw himself becomes a bit of a target for ridicule by his fellow officers in other divisions.  But, despite the cultural differences he admits himself he cannot breach, he slowly becomes one with his men.  When the men refuse their money in protest of the unfair pay, he joins them.  And by the time the 54th is ready for their ill fated attack on Fort Wagner, his men are more than ready to follow him, even unto their deaths.

This is a remarkable cast, headed by one of Matthew Broderick’s finest performances.  The film is largely based on Colonel Shaw’s letters from the field, and as such, it is through Shaw’s eyes that we witness these events.  And special mention must go to Denzel Washington, for one of his edgiest and most raw performances.  His is a cynical voice in the film, but, as pointed out, largely a truthful and historically accurate one.

Edward Zwick’s direction is superb, and he brings the film a strong sense of balance and purpose.  The battle scenes are allowed to flourish, but he photographs quiet, intimate moments with equal care and attention…it is those moments that make up the true heart of the story.  I’ve seen very few films that can match his for a combination of intense war scenes, personal human drama, and sense of historical reality.

Glory preserves for all of us an important piece of our history, and reminds us that said history doesn’t always express itself fully in the margins of textbooks.  Sometimes, it takes our own hearts, minds and souls to serve as tablets for words and deeds too great for pen and paper.

Video ***1/2

Wow!  This anamorphic transfer from Columbia Tri Star (full frame presentation also included) far exceeded my expectations.  It is one of the best looking discs of an 80’s film I’ve seen.  Compare the actual movie to the trailer if you want to appreciate the superb job done here.  The print itself is remarkably clean, and the images are sharp and clear throughout, even when scenes are textured with smoke or fog.  The coloring is extremely natural looking, with no apparent fading or bleeding.  There are many darker scenes that render beautifully, with no noticeable distortion, grain, or compression artifacts.  The final battle scene, which takes place at night, is easily some of the best looking low light photography I’ve seen rendered on a DVD.  Save for one scene, when the Colonel makes his direct request to let his men fight that looked a little more shopworn than others, I’d have to say this is a nearly perfect looking disc.

Audio ****

This picture won an Oscar for sound, and this disc makes the most of a remarkable soundtrack.  The 5.1 audio is as impressively dynamic as you would expect from a war film, with lots of discreet multi channel action and plenty of low kick from the subwoofer during the battle scenes.  Dialogue clarity is excellent, as is James Horner’s sweeping, emotional score.  This soundtrack puts you in the middle of the action and holds you there…an excellent listen.

Features ****

Disc one contains the widescreen presentation of the film, as well as an audio commentary by director Zwick and a special picture-in-picture commentary with him, Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman.  Each one is filmed separately as they watch the film and reminisce, and the picture frame moves around so as not to cover up crucial parts of the movie.  It’s a unique concept, and very well done.  Disc two contains the full frame version and most of the supplemental material, starting with two excellent historically based features:  the short “Voices of Glory”, which recalls actual letters written by the men of the 54th, and the Morgan Freeman narrated 45 minute documentary “The True Story of Glory Continues”, which delves more into the actual history of the events.  There are also deleted scenes, three trailers, and talent files, plus the director’s audio commentary also appears here.  An informative and well-packaged group of extras.

Summary:

Glory gets the DVD treatment it deserves with this remarkable double disc set from Columbia Tri Star.  The stellar audio and video transfer, in addition to the generous collection of extras, add to an already superb and unforgettable film, and make this a must own for any collector.