There's no denying Edward Zwick is a talented director who attacks meaty subjects with uncommon zeal, but his movies don't always live up to their potential. 'Glory,' however, does. With a keen visual sense and uncanny grasp of the material's weight, Zwick crafts one of cinema's finest Civil War films, one that focuses equally on character and spectacle, while avoiding preachy messages and a condescending tone. The story of the first African-American regiment to see combat in a U.S war could have been presented with a heavy hand, but Zwick instead adopts a low-key approach that allows the story's power to naturally crescendo until it reaches a devastating emotional pitch. As a result, it's impossible not to be moved by the courage, heroism, and sacrifice of Massachusetts' 54th regiment or inspired by the patriotic fervor coursing through each soldier's veins.
I remember how 'Glory' blew me away with its power, passion, and grandeur when I first saw the film during its 1989 theatrical run. Though I knew Zwick from his work on the TV series 'thirtysomething' (one of my favorite shows) and enjoyed his lightweight first feature, 'About Last Night…,' I was unprepared for the artistry and maturity of his sophomore effort. While 'Glory' doesn't shy away from depicting the horror, pain, and senseless waste of war, it beautifully juxtaposes such admirable qualities as duty, honor, and brotherhood against that bleak backdrop, and immerses us in the period's history. Thanks to Zwick's spot-on sensibilities, subtle grace and reverence pervade this film, and the director achieves that rare yet marvelous feat of creating a work that's simultaneously sad and uplifting. And 20 years later, the effect hasn't waned.
After surviving the bloody Battle of Antietam, 23-year-old Captain Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) arrives home in Boston to await his next commission. His staunch abolitionist parents throw him a celebratory party, which is attended by the famed African-American activist, Frederick Douglass (Raymond St. Jacques), who talks to Robert about developing an all-black regiment. "We will offer pride, dignity to those who have only known degradation," Douglass says. When Massachusetts Governor John Andrew (Alan North) suggests promoting Robert to colonel and putting him in charge of the new brigade, Robert accepts, and convinces his best friend, Cabot (Cary Elwes), to be his major.
Together, the two men corral, train, and provide tough love to a large group of inexperienced, ragtag soldiers who lack skills, discipline, and stamina. Robert's childhood friend, Thomas (Andre Braugher), an educated, cultured African-American, has trouble assimilating into the group, which is largely comprised of escaped slaves and free black laborers. The tough, angry Private Trip (Denzel Washington) torments Thomas and tests the boundaries of Shaw's authority, while others, like the stoic John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), are thrilled to contribute and do all that's asked of them to prepare for battle. Yet as it becomes clear that the 54th is a regiment in name only, and the high command has no intention of putting the men in harm's way, Robert begins to fight a bureaucratic war to enable his troops to see combat and prove to the world they are able and, more importantly, willing to give their lives for both "the cause" and their country.
In many ways, 'Glory' is a classic coming-of-age tale. Colonel Shaw is thrust into a position of supreme authority at a tender age, and struggles to assert himself both as a leader and a man. Likewise, the African-American soldiers also face adversity – as well as prejudice – as they seek validation, respect, a higher sense of purpose, and a feeling of belonging. Their contributions help their race come of age, just as the war itself forces our nation to come of age. Though it still would be more than a century before African-Americans could really begin to enjoy the fruits of equality, back in 1863, the 54th regiment took the first steps that made future, bigger strides possible.
'Glory' doesn't look like a big-budget epic, but Zwick still manages to nail the period feel, from the stately interiors of the Shaw family home to the rousing send-off parade on the streets of Boston to the archaic – and suicidal – battle formations that were used at that time. Yet there's nothing stilted and stuffy about the presentation. The Civil War spawned the bloodiest battles our country has ever seen, and Zwick gives us a gut-wrenching look at how some of it went down, while instilling a feeling of unabashed awe at the sheer bravery and selflessness of the men who fought and died.
Broderick files one of his best portrayals, subtly conveying the crisis of confidence and uncertainty that often consumes Shaw, and how his lofty position alters his relations with Cabot and Thomas. As usual, Freeman quietly commands our attention, but it's Washington who walks away with the picture, winning his first Oscar as the bruised yet defiant Trip, who wears the chip on his shoulder like a badge of honor and ultimately learns the true meaning of all for one. It's a powerful yet restrained performance that provides the soul to complement Broderick's heart.
'Glory' is a magnificent achievement – a literate, stirring, and finely crafted film that personalizes history without narrowing its scope. Seeing the Civil War through the eyes of Shaw and the loyal African-American soldiers he so courageously leads crystallizes the conflict's basic elements and brings them down to earth like few movies have, before or since. This was a war that meant something, and 'Glory' honors it with humility and grace.
'Glory' won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, and this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode honors Freddie Francis' exceptional work with a vibrant, often stunning transfer that heightens the impact of Zwick's film. Though 'Glory' is two decades old, it looks remarkably fresh on Blu-ray, thanks to a source print that shows no signs of wear. An errant speck or mark crops up once in a blue moon, but only eagle eyes will catch it, and no evidence of digital enhancement disrupts this excellent specimen.
A good deal of smoke, haze, and fog waft about the characters throughout, and when combined with the movie's fine grain structure, the image might appear a bit bleached and gauzy. Yet the distinctive look perfectly matches the intentions of Zwick and Francis, and is beautifully rendered here. The two took great care to block out blue skies in the hope of achieving a dank, oppressive atmosphere, but occasionally they let one squeak through, and the burst of well-saturated color is a welcome respite from the predominate grayness, despite some faint mosquito noise.
Contrast is punched up just enough to make colors stand out and lend figures a hint of 3-D pop, while night scenes enjoy lovely depth, and fine details like flying sparks possess great clarity. Close-ups are often exceptional; from liquid eyes and facial blemishes to scraggly, untrimmed facial hair and costume accents, the crisp details make the drama more immediate and highlight the meticulous period touches. Black levels are rich and solid, and fleshtones always sport a realistic look.
This is another terrific catalogue release from Sony, one that rivals the studio's top-flight effort on 'Kramer vs. Kramer' a few months ago.
'Glory' also took home the Academy Award for Best Sound, and once again, Sony shows us why with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that's got guts. From bold accents to delicate nuances, this wonderfully active mix delivers right down the line with crisp, well-balanced audio that flexes its muscles when called upon, but also gently caresses the sounds of nature and wildlife. Amazingly, the rear speakers are almost constantly engaged, spouting a stream of ambient effects ranging from crackling campfires and clanking silverware to chirping birds, rustling leaves, rain, and thunder. Seamless imaging across the front channels keeps the action fluid, and the well-prioritized dialogue always comes through cleanly.
Combat scenes, of course, test the track's limits, and gunfire, exploding shells, horse hooves, and bayonet thrusts immerse us in the danger and chaos of battle. Low-end frequencies need to be rock solid to properly convey the destructive force of artillery, and this mix meets the challenge with a heavy load of tight, realistic bass. Though a lot conflicting sonic action sometimes crowds the track, the audio never sounds cluttered or cacophonous, and always remains free of distortion.
And then there's James Horner's unforgettable music. The composer received a 1989 Oscar nomination, but it was for 'Field of Dreams,' not 'Glory,' which is a shame, because the sweeping, stirring score he wrote for this Civil War drama is arguably his best work - and that includes 'Titanic.' First-class fidelity, a pleasing depth of tone, and subtle surround feel enhance the music, which never overpowers the on-screen action.
I never expected as much sonic detail and presence from a 20-year-old film, but 'Glory' surprised me, and this textured track will be a standard against which I will judge other catalogue mixes in the future.
'Glory' imports almost all the supplements from its previous two-disc special edition DVD, with a few notable exceptions. There's no picture-in-picture video commentary with Zwick, Broderick, and Freeman, no talent files, and no 'Glory' trailers; not a huge loss, but a bit surprising considering the increased content capacity of Blu-ray discs. The extras that are included are good enough, but aren't produced with the same amount of care as the main feature. All previously released material is presented in standard definition.
One of the best Civil War films ever produced, 'Glory' tells an important, inspirational, and very moving story with strength and tenderness. Zwick beautifully balances spectacle, emotion, and a strong message while remaining true to the history and the men who made it. Excellent video and superb audio transfers intensify the experience, and though supplements are a mixed bag, they can't keep this disc from earning a high and hearty recommendation.