Love and the Terrible Swift Sword

antietam

Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland
NPS photo

 

Fine art, like great leaders, appeals to the better angels of our nature, to borrow Lincoln’s words.  The 1989 film, Glory, touches its audience  in that way, while exploring the story of the 54th Massachusetts, the first Union Army regiment  made up of black soldiers.  This is history told from the ground up, beckoning  the audience  to come closer, inviting them to feel as the characters do.

A simple quality makes Glory unique as a war film: love.  As the story unfolds, the focus never strays from the bonds between the men, and between a leader and his troops.  In the course of campaigns, soldiers often  develop affection for their commander, but in Glory the formula is altered: the  young, idealistic colonel  grows up as he learns to first appreciate and then love his men.

Captain Robert Gould Shaw, 23 year-old son of upper crust Boston parents with Abolitionist sympathies, sees the landscape turn red at the battle of Antietam.  Returning home on leave, he is feted at a sumptuous banquet.  The guest list includes the Governor and the great black leader, Frederick Douglass.  Governor Andrews promotes Shaw (Matthew Broderick) to Colonel of a regiment to be recruited solely from free black men and former slaves.

After seeing slaves fleeing the South, Shaw had written to his mother: “We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written.”  Yet, as their commanding officer, he finds that these men are strangers to him.  He cannot breach the distance between them, and the former slaves appear to his eyes as if enshrouded in a fog.

A turning point for Shaw occurs early in the film.  The Confederate government in Virginia declares it will consider black men captured in Union blue and their white officers as being engaged in servile insurrection, subject to summary execution.  Shaw informs the assembled men of the grim news and offers to accept any soldier’s resignation.  The next morning, to Shaw’s astonishment, the men stand as one in defiance of the slave master government’s no quarter threat.  The young colonel recognizes he is in the presence of extraordinary courage.  He no longer sees his troops dimly, but begins to see them face to face.

Shaw is helped in his growing appreciation by the regiment’s sage, Sergeant Rawlins, played by Morgan Freeman.  The older man mentors his colonel in the subtleties of human nature, while he acts as a father figure to the soldiers.  Learning from  Rawlins’ tutelage,  Shaw comes to realize that he also must fight the condescending, racist Army upper echelon to gain recognition for his men as worthy soldiers.

While their colonel is maturing, the soldiers are growing in self-confidence and pride.  The culmination of the men’s transformation takes place as they gather around a campfire on the eve of battle.  They invoke their religious tradition to steel their hearts,  as they testify to their faith in God and their faith in each other.  Choking with emotion, a fiery soldier played by Denzel Washington says, “I love the 54th.”  After pausing, he says,  “It don’t much matter what happens tomorrow,  Because we’re men now, ain’t we!”  The chorus responds, “Yessir!” and “Amen.”

The next morning, with cannon shot arcing toward the fort they are to storm, the men of the 54th stand in their ranks, ready to give the last full measure of their devotion.  Colonel Shaw faces them expectantly in a communication of shared courage and love.  The emotion is there for the viewer to touch.

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