With any Hollywood movie based on historical events there always exists an attempt to balance historical accuracy with artistic license. Remaining accurate enough to appeal to those with backgrounds in the field of history while still being entertaining enough for the masses is a difficult task. One that can often lead to disaster. The film Glory is no exception to this attempt at maintaining an equilibrium of fact and fiction. There are numerous mistakes in the film, and graded on this fact alone the film deserves at best a “C.”
Directed by Edward Zwick and starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, and Morgan Freeman, Glory was released to theaters in 1989. It received wide critical acclaim and garnered various award nominations, including several Academy Award nominations and wins.
The film recounts the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the first officially sanctioned African American units of the Union Army during the Civil War. It tells this story through the eyes of the regiment’s commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, as well as other members of the 54th. It begins with the unit’s inception and follows them up through their participation in the battle at Fort Wagner, all the while exploring themes of discrimination, justice, determination, and brotherhood.
Many consider Glory to be one of the most accurate historical films ever made. In my limited research I find the overall story of the film to be fairly accurate, but there are still many mistakes in the film. This essay is far from a comprehensive list of these inaccuracies, but it will attempt to point out some of the more interesting ones.
Perhaps the most striking difference between history and Glory are the men who make up the 54th. While the film portrays the 54th as being comprised almost entirely of escaped slaves the reality is that the majority of the enlisted men in the regiment were free northern black men. Many of whom were well educated. “An observer claimed that they all could ‘read and write’ and made ‘an excellent appearance’” (Shaw and Duncan 33).
An interesting side note to the make-up of the 54th is the fact that the only member of the 54th portrayed in the film who actually existed is Colonel Shaw. Many minor characters portrayed are actual historical figures, such as Frederick Douglass and Governor John A. Andrew. The names of some characters are combinations of names of real soldiers. In an interview with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology newspaper The Tech director Edward Zwick acknowledges that “the black characters are composites of actual soldiers, but the general framework of the plot is based on fact” (Perry 11).
Another aspect of the film which is quite different is Colonel Shaw’s acceptance of the position as commander of this new regiment. In the film Shaw receives the offer of command and promotion to colonel from Governor Andrew himself. He accepts almost immediately. However, the truth...