Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Muskets at the Movies #1: Glory

Some scenes from Glory

Given that movies and wargaming were a topic of discussion recently, here is the first of what I hope to be a series of posts about "great wargaming movies".

Glory is a 1989 film set during the American Civil War. The film follows the exploits of the 54th Massachussets, a regiment raised from mostly from free blacks in the North. The film follows the regiment from its founding to the assault on Fort Wagner. It is a strong ensemble piece, the cast are superb, Denzel Washington crackles and Mathew Broderick gives a wonderfully understated performance as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a white abolitionist, who is offered command of the regiment. I think one of the tricks that were missed in this otherwise magnificent film was that Gould-Shaw turned the job down, only to sleep on it and reconsider.

Glory is full of good things, not least James Horners haunting score sung by the Harlem Boys Choir. I challenge anyone to hear that beautiful, soaring music and remain unmoved.

From the point of view of battles there are a couple, but they are not what shines about the film. The fight in the forest is well shot, but as any student of horse and musket warfare will tell you that bayonet charges rarely crossed blades. At the same time, if the mechanics are wrong - the emotional pitch is right. The mixture of terror and savagery is breathtaking.

The assault on Fort Wagner is a fine piece of cinematic story telling. It vividly illustrates the dangers of escalade and the tendency of troops to bunch under pressure until driven on by a "Big Man". The ditch at Fort Wagner could be the ditch at any siege, full of confused, struggling men waiting for direction.

So, looking back at my three criteria for a good movie, how does Glory measure up?

1. Does it work as a story, does it entertain?

Glory offers a gripping narrative. There are fine performances throughout. The struggles of the 54th with army bureaucracy are dramatised well. Mrs Kinch, not a fan of war movies, watched the whole thing and pronounced it excellent if terribly upsetting.

2. Sense of time and place.

This is more of a mixed bag - Ed Zwick tries very hard, but there are a couple of clangers in there. The whipping of Private Tripp is one that I found very hard to understand as I have never come across any other description of flogging in the American armies of the time. There's the usual issue with well fed reenactors, but on the whole it's OK.

3. Wargaming

There's a good portrayal of an escalade and a short nasty action in the woods. The battle of Antietam is evoked in an attack that fails, but as I said earlier the real meat of the movie is in the pre and post battle scenes. There is a chilling scene set in a field hospital where Mathew Broderick is being treated, the only scene of its type I have ever seen on film.

Glory is a film that is worth watching and will certainly fill you with enthusiasm for the period. It remains one of top five favourite films. I heartily recommend it.


  1. An almost perfect film! A tad formulaic like the "squad member," WWII films in which there's always one G.I. from Texas and one from Brooklyn; the imagined flogging, etc.
    I particularly enjoy the attention to detail of the actors using New England accents-seldom done.

  2. Very atmospheric film , I enjoyed it greatly.

  3. I can't believe it was 1989! I remember going to see it with my brother when it first came out. You're right that it is one of the few war films you could watch with your other half, probably because it actually has a story.


  4. An excellent movie. I have a lot of respect for Morgan Freeman, on screen and off. Not to mention one of those well fed re-enactors who is a good friend.