Picks and Pans Review: Glory

updated 01/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington

Among history's gifts to Hollywood is the story of black soldiers who fought in the Civil War. The immense drama that inevitably surrounded them is the inspiration for this stark, at times stirring, film.

The first black Union Army regiment engaged in combat was the 79th US Colored Infantry, a Kansas outfit that fought in Missouri in October 1862. But it wasn't until after the Emancipation Proclamation that a concerted effort was made to raise black troops. By the end of the war, there were 300,000 black Union soldiers; nearly 3,000 blacks died in combat. (The Confederacy drafted a few companies of slaves into military service, but the war ended before they were sent into action.)

This film, written by Kevin (Rambo: First Blood Part II) Jarre and directed by thirtysomething veteran Edward Zwick, focuses on the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which was commanded by a 25-year-old white colonel, Antietam veteran Robert Gould Shaw—the character Broderick plays.

What keeps the film from generating more momentum is that Broderick never becomes the charismatic leader the movie needs him to be. A boyish look is one thing; Broderick here lacks both physical and emotional stature. Cary (The Princess Bride) Elwes, who plays Broderick's friend and adjutant, in fact overshadows him when they're onscreen together.

The movie is best when it closes in on the black soldiers. Washington, as a runaway slave, Morgan Freeman, as a more philosophical freeman, and newcomer Andre Braugher, as an educated Northern black, make palpable the strains on men torn by anger, frustration and a desire for revenge. There are worlds of experience, fear and bitterness in the words when Freeman calls Washington "a smart-mouth, stupid-ass, swamp-running nigger" and adds, "That's all you'll ever be."

The film slows down as the 54th waits to go into combat, but the climax—based on the real 54th's assault on the rebels' well-fortified Fort Wagner, S.C.—is staged with energy and graphic intensity (although Broderick moons around gazing at ocean birds before things get started).

Glory becomes a war movie finally, but it is a rare sort of war movie, one that provokes curiosity and argument. It is likely to send people over to the Civil War section at the library to learn a little more about what really happened. And if that means one less to the Mega-Plex Cinema, so be it. (R)

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