With 1989's Glory, director Edward Zwick, working with a screenplay by Kevin Jarre (which was based on two different books) and the letters of a Civil War colonel, created an incredibly memorable look at the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts. The regiment is notable for being the first African American regiment to fight for the North. The tale that Zwick puts forth is strong on character (even if many of them are composites), story, and heartfelt emotion.
The film opens with Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) fighting at Antietam, and afterward returning home to Massachusetts. It is there where the notion behind the 54th is explained to him, and where he is offered its command. Though initially hesitant, Shaw accepts the command and gets his friend, Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), to accept a position as second in command of the regiment.
Much of the film is spent showing how Shaw, a very by-the-book leader, not only molds his men into soldiers, but how they mold him into a better human being. In leading his men, Shaw is depicted as possibly harsh, but always doing the best that he knows how to do for those he commands. The men under his command, including Forbes, vehemently disagree with some of his actions in training the 54th, but there is never a doubt in the film that Shaw is a good man — he simply needs to learn better how to deal with people from a different background than his.
Shaw begins to understand things as his pays more attention to those under his command, particularly John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), who is eventually elevated to Sgt. Major of the regiment, and Private Trip (Denzel Washington in a role which won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor). Rawlins is the wise, older, sensible man who understands the realities of the war and the world but still believes in good, whereas Trip is the hard-headed, angry young man rebelling at a world that is unfair and unjust. Trip's goal isn't simply to help the North defeat the South, but to gain revenge on anyone and everyone who may ever have been responsible for the problems he's had. It's not that Trip is unsympathetic, he may be the most sympathetic character in the entire piece, he just has a very harsh worldview.
As the film progresses, the men learn what Shaw requires of them and Shaw learns how to be a leader. Both end up seeing the world just a little better from the other's perspective. And, essentially, that is what the film is about — it's not just the semi-fictionalized story of the 54th, it's about learning to understand and respect those of a different background.
However, the film is a war film, and consequently has some terribly bloody and violent battles. There is nothing here that quite equals the gore visited upon the audience in the opening of Saving Private Ryan, but Zwick doesn't soft sell anything either. The film opens with the terribly bloody battle of Antietam, and climaxes with an ill-fated attack on Fort Wagner.
Save Shaw, the majority of the characters the film depicts are composites, they are amalgams of several different individuals and meant as stand-ins for ideals and points of view. Creating such stand-ins often leads to shallow characters, but Jarre and Zwick manage to avoid that pitfall, instead giving the audience fully-rounded three dimensional characters. Perhaps the best of them is Andre Braugher's Thomas Searles. Searles is a free African American who grew up with Shaw and ends up under Shaw's command. He finds himself with a completely new and different perspective of the world, encountering African Americans unlike those he has previously known and seeing a new, and not a positive, side of his lifelong friend.
The biggest disappointment with this film is the quality of the release itself. There are not only bits of dirt and imperfections in the print itself, but in at least one scene the coloring changes – what were gold buttons on a soldier's uniform in one shot turn silver in the next. While it is possible that such a change is due to the length of time it took to film the scene and the changing angle of the sun, fixing that would have been easy. The sound is none too great either — even on the battlefield one does not find themselves surrounded by the sounds of war as one would expect.
The Blu-ray contains behind-the-scenes featurettes, a director's commentary, deleted scenes, as well as historical accounts of the 54th. All of them however have appeared on previous releases. The only new special feature here is a "Virtual Battlefield" that allows one to click on certain map points and learn more about the 54th and the Civil War.
This entire release of Glory doesn't do justice to the film. There certainly seems to be a lack of effort put into the release – one can't even bookmark scenes from the film. The movie is, certainly, a good one, but if one already owns it on DVD there is certainly no reason to "upgrade" to this Blu-ray edition.