There was a moment late in Edward Zwick’s Glory when I realized that something was missing, and it was probably the best scene in the movie. It was that moment that told me that this was supposed to be a much larger film, and doing some light research afterwards proved that to be the case. Glory was written and shot to be an American epic in the vein of Lean, but it got cut down to two hours in post-production. Whether that was for financial reasons or because the stuff left out wasn’t very good, I don’t know, but there does seem to be noticeable missing elements here and there throughout. That’s hard to unsee once it’s noticed, but at the same time what is left in is really, really good.
It’s the Civil War and Major Shaw leads his men to the slaughter at Antietam. When it’s all over, he’s a scarred man, but he returns home to Boston where he’s given a promotion to Colonel and command of the first regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army, the 54th Massachusetts. Presented with a fresh command and a new opportunity to prove himself, he jumps at the opportunity.
The most interesting thing about Shaw as a character is that his motives could be one of two things, and I don’t think the movie ever really tries to firmly answer whether it’s one or the other. Shaw is either obsessed with leading a real command and a real regiment, and he’s going to turn whomever the US Army hands over to him into real soldiers, or he’s dedicated to racial equality and wants to make the men under him as equal to white soldiers for that reason. They’re not mutually exclusive reasons and there seem to be indications of both motives, but that’s what makes him an interesting character, possibly moving from one motive to the next.
And either motive is a wonderful undercurrent for what Shaw does to ensure that his new recruits are ready for battle, but the conflict ends up being between Shaw’s vision for his men and the Army bureaucracy’s vision for them. He wants them to be soldiers, but the bureaucracy sees them as an inconvenience and a stunt. Shaw can’t even get his men shoes, but he follows the normal procedure of requesting in order to get it done until a singular event.
One of the recruits, Trip, sneaks out of camp is caught and held as a deserter. Typical punishment for a deserter is flogging (one change I would have made to the film would be to add a flogging scene at the very beginning in Antietam against a white soldier to sell the idea that flogging was normal against white soldiers), so when Trip is captured and brought back, it’s time for the punishment like anyone else as Shaw would expect. But Trip’s back is covered in scars from whippings as a slave. There’s something wrong about this picture, and it’s the fact that Shaw is treating them like soldiers while the rest of the Army is denying them the ability to soldier at all. Treating them like soldiers when they can’t get the right equipment including basic footwear is cruel, so Shaw goes out and gets them shoes by upsetting the apple cart.
The men drill and drill until they move no differently than any other regiment, eventually being sent south to South Carolina where they have their first skirmish and come out bravely. Then, in an effort to show their mettle, Shaw volunteers the 54th for the frontal charge on Fort Wagner, an impossible task that must happen in order for the larger attack on a different front to succeed.
Now, all of this is done very well, but there seem to be holes here and there. That best scene in the movie I mentioned in the first paragraph? It’s the night before the attack on Fort Wagner and Trip has to speak before the regiment during a revival type meeting. This is Denzel Washington’s moment to shine, and shine he does giving a soulful moment of real vulnerability as he talks about how the 54th is the family he never had. The problem for me is that I never got the sense from him before that scene that he felt integrated into the rest of the regiment at all. He had been antagonistic towards most of the other characters, and then he had bravely fought in the skirmish. There seemed to be a scene missing where Trip and someone like Morgan Freeman’s John or Andre Braugher’s Thomas would have had a moment together, forging the friendship that Trip had been denying up to that point. I imagine there are at least a couple of scenes on the cutting room floor that directly address this.
There’s another moment that feels the same way. The 54th is marching towards the beach and the assault on Fort Wagner when a white officer off to the side that had had an altercation with Trip some time earlier announces with great emotion to give the Rebs hell. It’s accompanied by swelling music, but it, again, kind of feels like it comes out of nowhere. There must be missing footage to fill in that hole.
What I’m saying is that I kind of love what’s here. It’s really good. But, at the same time, I want the three and a half hour cut that fills in the holes, punches up Cary Elwes’ part, expands Shaw’s love interest to more than a cameo, and feels like the kind of epic this movie was trying to be. Because, while this is very good, I imagine that longer cut is actually great.