Sony // 1989 // 122 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // June 26th, 2009
Their innocence. Their heritage. Their lives. Nothing would be spared in the fight for their freedom.
Glory is among the most highly regarded war films of the past twenty-five years, and with its rich cinematography and aggressive sound design, Blu-ray should provide the best presentation it has ever had.
Matthew Broderick (You Can Count on Me) stars as Col Robert Gould Shaw, assigned to lead the first African-American regiment to fight for the North in the U.S. Civil War, shortly after slavery has been abolished. Together with his childhood friend, Maj. Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes, Saw), Shaw takes on the formidable task of readying his men for battle, while also fighting racism and ignorance that are standing in the way of this 54th Regiment of Massachusetts reaching its potential. Glory is a true story based on actual events.
Director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai) makes beautifully -- if conventionally -- photographed, sincere, story driven films that often take on an epic feel despite less-than-epic running times, and Glory is among his best work. The movie takes its time introducing us to its cast of characters, establishing those setting where they feel comfortable and those where they are out of their element, with the promise that the two shall meet by the end of the credits. Shaw is at home when he is in command, or sharing a moment with his friend Forbes, while his awkwardness is apparent when he strolls through his men's camp during down time. In contrast, the camp is exactly where those under Shaw's charge can allow personalities to shine, and it is where we learn the most about Sgt. Maj. Rawlins (Morgan Freeman, Feast of Love), Cpl. Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher, The Mist, in his first film role), and Pvt. Trip (Denzel Washington, American Gangster, who took home an Oscar for his efforts).
Glory contains a message about tolerance and equality, and about the unexpected ways in which racism can affect a person's actions: Shaw has trouble at first accepting the harsh training to which his men are subjected, a reservation he might not have had with a white regiment. However, the film doesn't hammer us with valuable life lessons. Instead, Glory aims to educate us about and honor an important -- and, at the time, little-known -- element of American history. Despite some appalling treatment from superiors, including reluctance to "waste" proper footwear on the regiment, lower pay, and a commonly held belief that they would have no participation in the war effort save for manual labor, the 54th fought bravely and hard for both their country and freedom. Had soldiers in the regiment been caught by the South, all, including Col. Shaw, would have been put to death, yet they volunteered anyway.
It's that natural heroism that fits so nicely with Zwick's all-American style. With many big character moments, and carpeted nearly wall-to-wall with James Horner's rousing score, Glory has no time for grim subplots, grand statements on cowardice, or attempts to leave us shell-shocked by the horrors of war. Nor should it -- this is a movie with a type of heroism at its core that doesn't need to be subtle. There's surprisingly little gore in Glory: on the audio commentary, Zwick remarks that his reasoning behind an early shot of a man's head exploding was that it would get the point across about the bloodiness of battle, and he wouldn't have to rub the audience's face in it. Not to say it is a film without conflict; on the contrary, many scenes are electric with antagonism, reaching a high point when Pvt. Trip is flogged, a whip making new scars on his back over healed ones from his days as a slave, Trip taking his punishment silently while staring at Shaw, a single tear running down his face. Glory is not trying to be The Thin Red Line, though, and metaphoric discussions of the duality of man are saved for another day.
Glory was awarded Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Cinematography, and so it is exciting to experience the film in high definition on Blu-ray; this release doesn't disappoint. Much of the movie takes place within an obscuring layer of smoke or fog, and overcast conditions mute much of the picture's color palette, so there isn't an exceptional level of fine detail or pop to the image. The moderate to heavy grain, though, testifies to the accuracy with which this transfer is reproducing the theatrical experience, and indeed, it is remarkably film-like. There's an appealing density to the image that is far beyond what standard definition can replicate, and I noticed little edge enhancement or other digital no-nos. Ironically, a battle near the end of the film, taking place at night, features its most vibrant colors, with reds, oranges, and blues lighting up the screen, making the conclusion all the more satisfying. The audio is aggressive and dynamic, with a bit of distortion noticeable in some of the wilder battle scenes; the surround channels and subwoofer frequently engaged. While it doesn't have the airiness or natural timbre of many Blu-rays I've heard, it's an engrossing mix that sounds appropriate for the vintage of the film, and makes the most of Horner's standard-bearing score.
All of the extras from the special-edition DVD are here (still in standard definition), including a lengthy documentary on the true story behind Glory, narrated by Morgan Freeman, a few deleted scenes, and a promotional featurette from 1989. Exclusive to this Blu-ray edition is a Virtual Civil War Battlefield Interactive Map, allowing the viewer to zoom in on areas of a historical map of the United States, choose an individual battle, and see a two-minute clip of a historian giving some detail. It's a very cool use of Blu-ray's extra capacity, and those who enjoy American history are likely to be impressed. BD-Live access is also equipped, giving access to trailers and featurettes on other films. The standout feature remains Zwick's audio commentary. Though quite humorless, Zwick is an amiable guide to Glory, and this engaging track is essential listening for fans of the film.
Glory is a well-crafted and wholly satisfying war picture, and Blu-ray makes it even better. This release is well worth your entertainment dollars.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Interactive Map