'Glory' At 30: Denzel Washington's 1989 Breakout Film Is Still The Best Civil War Movie Ever Made

Within the war movie genre, the American Civil War hasn't beget as many classics as World War II or Vietnam. One indisputable classic, however, is Glory, the powerful 1989 film based on a true story about one of the first all-black volunteer regiments in the Union Army. Denzel Washington won his first Oscar for this movie. You may recall the scene where his character, Trip — the defiant slave turned soldier turned AWOL shoe-hunter — tries to keep a stiff upper lip but starts leaking tears as he's whipped across his back, which already bears the scars of a runaway slave.

This year, at an AFI tribute to Washington, Michael B. Jordan cited those scars as the inspiration for Killmonger's in Black Panther. Glory is a film where a similar transference of legacy can be felt in the actors' performances. Bolstered by one of the all-time great film scores (composed by the late James Horner and featuring the Harlem Boys Choir), it's a movie that seeks to pass the generational torch, putting viewers in touch with the past so that its forgotten sacrifices can help light the way forward to a better tomorrow for all.

Seeing "Old Glory," the flag, wave in Glory, the film, as Americans fight other Americans on the battlefield at Antietam Creek certainly hits close to home in 2019, when the country feels less united than ever, up a different kind of creek. With HBO's Watchmen having recently drawn attention to the Tulsa Race Massacre, Glory offers another indelible screen depiction of an important episode in American history. Rewatching it on its thirtieth anniversary, here at the tail end of the 2010s, is an emotional experience: at once humbling and cathartic and inspiring all over again.

Hollywood has a long history of pitting John Wayne types against foreign villains. From a commercial perspective, it's easier to appeal to the lowest common denominator of moviegoers that way. Yet the same jingoistic spirit that thrived in '80s and '90s action cinema may have kept Tinseltown from truthfully confronting America's own divided past and present—in war movies, or even in modern superhero films, some of which have been made under Pentagon supervision, with scripts approved by the U.S. military.

Whatever the reason, Hollywood has shied away from the Civil War enough in favor of wars abroad — "us" versus "them" — that it feels like Glory simultaneously invented and broke the sub-genre wheel. We've seen the brother-against-brother, blue-versus-gray plot play out in other Civil War movies, made before and after 1989, of course. Likewise, we've seen the sweeping, sanitized, Southern romantic vision of Gone with the Wind, which predates Glory by half a century and is regularly ranked among the greatest American movies.

But how often have we seen African-American characters take such an active part in the narrative of their own emancipation? If battlefield action can be regarded as a defining aspect of the war movie, then irrespective of its stereotypes, Gone with the Wind registers as more of a sideline historical epic. It uses the Civil War as a backdrop for the story of a fiercely determined woman named Scarlet O'Hara, whose concluding cry of, "As God as my witness, I'll never be hungry again!" captures the resiliency of the human spirit.

Director Edward Zwick spoke with EW this year about how he tried to re-shape the narrative of Glory to reduce its studio-preferred white-savior components. Granted, some of those components are still there, such as when the good white Union officer storms into an office and demands shoes for the black soldiers in his regiment. Moments like these position Glory somewhere between the extremes of Do the Right Thing and Driving Miss Daisy, two films that hit theaters the same year and offered very different treatments of race.

Like any movie, Glory is a product of its time: in this case, the late 1980s, when Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes were coming off of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and The Princess Bride, respectively. Zwick would later go on to helm the The Last Samurai (Tom Cruise in Japan) and help conceive the story for The Great Wall (Matt Damon in China), so it's worth noting that there's a pattern in his work of anchoring a narrative around white protagonists, even when the setting is Asian countries.

Broderick plays Robert Gould Shaw, identified as "the son of wealthy Boston abolitionists." He begins the movie with the naïveté of a 23-year-old, writing his mother a letter, saying things like, "How grand it is to meet the men from all the states, east and west. Down here, ready to fight for their country, as the old fellows did in the revolution."

The real Shaw's letters serve as the source material for this movie, along with the historical novels One Gallant Rush and Lay This Laurel. At times, there's a lyrical quality to his words. "The roads are choked with the dispossessed," he writes. "We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written."

Antietam, site of the single bloodiest one-day battle in American history, quickly disabuses the young Shaw of whatever wide-eyed notions he had. He strides into battle with his sword held high and is met with the sight of exploding heads. This helps Broderick shake off any last whiffs of Bueller, easing into a more stoic adult performance that is perfectly attuned to the material. It's easily his best movie.

At home in Boston, where Shaw meets the Governor and Fredrick Douglass, we see firsthand how he has come up in the cradle of white privilege. Yet his point-of-view is a necessary one in that it allows the movie to show the casual racism of other white officers as he takes charge of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and attempts to navigate the Union bureaucracy.

As Zwick himself realized, however, the movie's beating heart comes not from Shaw but from the African-American soldiers encamped in his regiment. Rawlins, played by Morgan Freeman, is the first we meet, doing battlefield clean-up. Blinded by the sun, the injured Shaw looks up and hears a voice asking him, "You alright there, captain?"

It's the same voice that would narrate The Shawshank Redemption. Freeman had already broken through in 1987 with his Oscar-nominated turn in Street Smart, but like Washington, 1989 was the year he really broke out in a big way. In addition to the aforementioned Driving Miss Daisy, he also starred that year as "Crazy" Joe Clark, the school principal in Lean on Me.

Washington was on a parallel track to movie stardom. Together with Sir Richard Attenborough's 1987 apartheid drama, Cry Freedom, Glory heralded his arrival as a major acting force who could no longer be confined to the small screen. Like George Clooney on E.R., he had first gained fame as part of an ensemble cast on an NBC television series set in a city hospital. The medical drama St. Elsewhere (namesake of the Platinum-selling Gnarls Barkley album) ended in 1988, but by then, Washington had already begun crossing over into film work.

With Glory, you can definitely see a glimpse of the future Denzel in the scene where Trip leads the regiment in tearing up their pay vouchers. The prodigious talent that would rage across Malcolm X, Training Day, and other roles is on full display there, and in the tent and fireside scenes where Trip needles the more effete Thomas, played by Andre Braugher in his feature film debut. Braugher would go on to do a reverse Washington: transitioning from the big screen to NBC to play the skilled interrogator Frank Pembleton in Homicide: Life on the Street.

Kevin Jarre, the screenwriter of Tombstone, penned the script for Glory, and if it occasionally verges on melodrama or threatens to dissolve into stock-character cliches, its actors elevate it beyond that. Trip, at least, is wise to the characterization game: he rapidly takes measure of his tentmates, verbally reducing Rawlins to an "old man" and Jihmi Kennedy's stuttering Sharts to a "field hand." He and the regiment's Irish drill sergeant reserve more colorful labels for Thomas, calling him "snowflake" and "Bonnie Prince Charlie."

The drill sergeant, himself a caricature, is an equal-opportunity offender who functions as a source of comic relief in a ridiculous, ignorant, Archie Bunker-like way. When not spouting Irishisms like "boyo," he calls the colored soldiers Mexicans and Hindus, making no distinction between minorities. Meanwhile, Trip jokes about how he ran for president and his tentmates laugh like it's the funniest thing in the world. (In the real world, future President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama had shared their first date earlier in '89 at a showing of Do the Right Thing).

A friend of Shaw's from back in Boston, the well-spoken, bespectacled Thomas spends his downtime in the tent reading essays by transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson. He doesn't seem cut out for the military, and for that matter, neither does Sharts, who shoots well in target practice until he's got a gun firing near his head to simulate the noise and confusion of battle.

By devoting screen time to these characters and giving them real arcs (Thomas toughens up, Trip softens), Glory did what Django Unchained aspired to do and it did it over two decades earlier: namely, handing off the perspective to its black characters and letting them be the heroes of their own story. As we follow their training, the movie sets about strengthening them and preparing them for their eternal glory. The first hint of impending mortality and the full grave implications of what they've signed up for comes when the Confederate Congress announces that any black soldiers caught in uniform will be summarily put to death.

Three decades later, Glory has lost none of its power. In some ways, it's taken on a deeper dimension, because it was made during the re-illusioned Reagan era and now we're disillusioned again, finishing out a decade where we sought succor from Iron Man instead of Rambo. Yet here it is, cutting through the landscape of the political present with a reminder of all that came before us.

As platitudinous as it sounds, it makes you really think about the people who fought and died for this country—not in foreign wars, but in America's ongoing war with itself. What would they think if they could see the nation now? Would they be ashamed or would they share Trip's understanding that the war was destined to go on and on without anyone ever winning it? "It stinks bad," he says, "and we all covered up in it, too. I mean, ain't nobody clean."

The scene where he voices these thoughts in a rare candid aside with Shaw comes right before the movie's stirring last act, when the regiment joins a direct frontal assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate beach stronghold. When Shaw appears before his men on the beach, just prior to the assault, he doesn't give the kind of rousing, stentorian speech that you'd normally expect to hear before a big battle scene. There's no need. Instead, he just looks the men over, points to the flag-bearer, and asks, "If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry on?"

Thomas has sustained a previous injury and can barely stand at this point, but he's the one who steps forward and says, "I will." The men of the 54th start marching forward with their bayonets and the soundtrack bells start clanging, but very quickly, it cuts inside the fort, where we see the Confederate soldiers loading their cannons.

Shaw soon sees his regiment torn to pieces. Before long, he himself is shot down, followed by Trip, who picks up the flag and tries to lead the night charge after him. Lit by the red glare of rockets straight out of the national anthem, Elwes' second-in-command, Forbes, and Freeman's ranking sergeant major, Rawlins, now take the lead, entering the fort and weaving purposely through it while backed by Horner's "Charging Fort Wagner," one of the great pieces of movie music of the last thirty years.

By morning, bodies litter the beach and we see that even the horse Shaw let go earlier is dead. The 54th has made its one gallant rush, its volunteer soldiers trading their lives for basic human dignity. Now, the onus is on the audience — we, the living — to carry the flag, with the memory of past generations alive in our hearts and a prayer and a promise to future generations righting our wayward steps as we leave our own trail of footprints in the sand. Glory, hallelujah.