Cinema: Of Time and the River

Coming to terms with bravery and tomfoolery

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But not entirely. For the specific historical events the film narrates -- the formation, training and terrible blooding in battle of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first black fighting unit enlisted in the Union cause -- are little known yet resonant with high symbolic significance. The 54th, led by an idealistic 25-year-old white man, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick skillfully blending shyness and tenacity), had to fight to fight. Their white comrades-in-arms were full of contemptuous prejudice against them, and the high command was afraid to arm black men who had their own bitter racial grievances (many were runaway slaves).

Yet precisely because of their lowly status, these men had a more than usually powerful need to assert their manhood through deadly exertion. Glory is at its best when it shows their proud embrace of 19th century warfare at its most brutal. Director Edward Zwick graphically demonstrates the absurdity of lines of soldiers slowly advancing across open ground, shoulder to shoulder, in the face of withering rifle volleys and horrendous cannonade. The fact that the 54th finally achieves respect (and opens the way for other black soldiers) only by losing half its number in a foredoomed assault on an impregnable fortress underscores this terrible and brutal irony.

Kevin Jarre's script makes no direct comment on these matters, and a squad of fine actors ground the film in felt reality: Denzel Washington is a proud and badly misused troublemaker; Driving Miss Daisy's Morgan Freeman a steadying influence; Andre Braugher a Harvard student who finds Emersonian idealism of small help in mastering the bayonet. It is the movie's often awesome imagery and a bravely soaring choral score by James Horner that transfigure the reality, granting it the status of necessary myth. Broad, bold, blunt, Glory is everything that a film like Miss Daisy, all nuance and implication, is not. But arriving together, they somehow hearten: they widen the range of our responses to what remains the central issue of our past, our present, our future. R.S.

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