Movie Monday: Glory (1989)


A recent stock-up of historical films on reminded me that I had meant to write about Glory back when I was reading another officer’s memoirs in late 2013, but couldn’t find it online. So while doing some other work today, I rewatched it.

Now obviously, this isn’t the kind of historical howler that I usually watch; it’s both a good film and reeeeeeeeasonably good history. So I’m going to assume that you know that it sticks mostly pretty close to the story of the life of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and tells the story of the 54th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Mostly. Rather than dissecting the film’s narrative, I want to talk about some points that occurred to me while watching it.

1. Frederick Douglass. When I saw the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Science’s Darwin display, I was struck by the image of a young Darwin — which is something we hardly see, apart from the occasional Paul Bettany. And I recently had reason to be talking to one of my students about Douglass and his writing, and so I was alert to the appearance of Iconic Frederick Douglass in this movie. Let me show you what I mean. Here’s Douglass as he appears in the film:


And here is the famous image of Douglass that he makes you think of:


The problem is that that photograph of Douglass is from 1874, over a decade after the film is set. At the time of the scene in the film, Douglass had (probably) just turned 45. Does that dude look 45 to you? But if he didn’t look like that, he wouldn’t look like Frederick Douglass. Here’s a photo of Douglass from the 1860s:


It’s a small point, but it’s just a revealing example of how a single image of a person usually looks “right” to us, despite the fact that obviously people’s appearances change throughout their lives.

2. Everybody is made up. 

Shaw was a real person, of course, but almost all the other characters in the film who aren’t generals or reporters — that is, almost all of the black characters — are fictitious. Which is weird, because there were some quite famous people in the regiment, including two of Douglass’s sons, Lewis and Charles.

3. The ol’ Narrative Problem. 

Glory ends with a tear-jerking version of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, at which (spoilers for something that happened 150 years ago) Shaw is killed. Weirdly for a film that’s all about the heroic role of the black volunteers, this is the final note of the film. It’s kind of a downer; it isn’t even really a story of heroic sacrifice, because the assault in which everybody gets killed is unsuccessful.


But the death of Shaw, although always identified as a tragedy, is not particularly the end of the 54th’s story. They continued to serve throughout the war (although I don’t think they were in such a large battle again). But that’s what you get when you try to impose a narrative structure on historical stuff. You have to (or do you?) try to make it fit into a narrative structure it doesn’t always easily fit into. And, yeah, the narrative ends with the death of the white saviour. I think that’s a valid criticism, but this film isn’t a particularly egregious example of that. It is a little odd that the tale of African-Americans finally getting the chance to show their valour is — and some people would say must be — told mainly from the perspective of a white guy.

Oh, and the timeline is all compressed and mixed up. Like they show Shaw announcing that the Confederates have said they’ll execute black troops — but that happened months before the 54th were even formed. But that’s the usual thing where everything has to happen in the story.

4. Stereotypes aren’t permanent. 

So one thing that is interesting about the narratives of white officers in black regiments during the Civil War is that they respond to a stereotype about African-Americans that is no longer current. Today, racist images of African-Americans, especially young men, tend to portray them as thugs, given to violence and possessed of reckless, indomitable courage. The positive but patronising stereotype is of brave, tough black soldiers who are great infantry but lack leadership qualities. You always see a tough old black sergeant in movies, but seldom (although it’s changing) black fighter pilots or what have you. In the 1860s, however, this wasn’t the case at all. The stereotypical view of African-Americans was that, although they could be strong and sometimes dangerous, they lacked courage or discipline or whatever quality the speaker needed to give them to justify slavery. It was thought that they weren’t brave; that they wouldn’t fight. “They’re little children,” one of the characters in the film says.

So having African-American troops was a huge symbolic statement; if black people could fight, could be soldiers, they could be citizens; they weren’t by nature servile. I can’t say it any better than Ta-Nehisi Coates has done, but it’s interesting to see that portrayed in the film. I don’t think I registered that when I saw it as a kid (I watched it in junior high history class c. 1991, I believe). You could do worse than read pretty much everything Coates has ever written about the Civil War, by the way. He’s unflinching about things.

Now the reality is that racism changes things up on you in ways people don’t expect — because most of its details are rationalisations, not reasons. So the image of black people who could fight suddenly became, not the equals of brave, disciplined white soldiers, but scary brutes at worst and stoic peasants at best, and most of the people who were supposed to learn from their previous model of race being totally wrong just came up with ways to think around it and ignored the obvious dissonance. Because history is unbearably depressing sometimes. I guess I’m glad that was not in the film, because it would have been even more of a downer.

5. This cast!

Yeah yeah Denzel Washington, yeah yeah Academy Award. Whatever, he’s good; no surprise there. But Andre Braugher! I’m a big Andre Braugher fan.

6. On the nose? Patronising? 

I don’t know if I’m qualified to judge. Well, OK, definitely on the nose in places.

Anyway, with the caveats I mentioned, it’s pretty good — one of the few worthy, pious historical films that mostly holds up both as instructive material and as filmmaking. It has some moments of patriotic glurge, but the muddiness and the ambiguity of the ending serve to keep them in check.

Movie Monday: Glory (1989)

TV Tuesday-ish: “Once We Were Gods”

Debates about the display of human(ish) remains in museums lead to … mur-der!

I know it’s not Tuesday, but it was when I watched Season 3, episode 15 of Grimm, the surprisingly good TV series about a cop hunting fairy-tale monsters in modern-day, er, Portland, and his wacky crew of friends and sidekicks. It’s a pretty shameless hybrid of Buffy and a police procedural, but it’s fun and, on this occasion, has an interesting archaeological twist. Spoilers follow.

Some workers discover an old crate which contains a sarcophagus which in turn contains a funny-looking Egyptian mummy; the mummy case resembles Anubis rather than a human figure, and the mummified body has a similar jackal-like head.


Some mysterious guys get outraged about this:


They break into the university where the mummy is being studied and leave menacing graffiti; when a security guard tries to stop them, there’s a brief exchange of gunfire and one of the guards is killed. This brings in our hero, Nick, who connects the jackal-headed body with the Wesen (magical beings who appear to commit 100% of all murders in Oregon) and asks his Wesen buddies, Monroe and Rosalee, to tell him if they know anything.

But unusually for these two character, Monroe and Rosalee are a bit ambivalent about it all. While they agree to help Nick catch the killer — one of a group of Wesen who try to protect Wesen cultural heritage — they are very unhappy about a Wesen body being in a museum, not just because they’re afraid it will jeopardise their security, but also because they consider it disrespectful.

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In the end, they call in their own people, the Wesen Council, who have historically kind of been bad guys, and the Council cooperates uneasily with Nick. In the end, the killer is caught, hurrah hurrah, but Nick and his partner Hank let the Wesen get away with the mummy, which they cremate. And there’s a touching moment with sentimental music and so on, but Hank sounds a note of caution:

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This is actually a pretty good, nuanced, balanced show about the competing claims of indigenous groups and scientists regarding human remains in museums, couched in the form of a story about fairy-tale jackal people. Some writer (the episode is credited to Alan DiFiore) clearly did at least a bit of background reading on the issue. I’m not saying it’s good Egyptology, but as a metaphor it’s a hell of a lot better than that episode of Numbers where conniving Native Americans are standing in the way of Science because they want that casino money. Maybe the issue’s also been on Law and Order or something and discussed in Sincere Mode, but I haven’t seen it.

I think partly it’s that Grimm (like Sleepy Hollow?) is so damn goofy that every time they do a little deep reading in the folklore or history (which is more often than you might think) it’s really cool, rather than it being a failure every time they don’t.

Anyway, that is a show I watched.

TV Tuesday-ish: “Once We Were Gods”

Movie Monday: J. Edgar (2011)

Leonardo DiCaprio reprises his role as Shouty Office Man from The Aviator (that's unfair; he doesn't really).
Leonardo DiCaprio reprises his role as Shouty Office Man from The Aviator (that’s unfair; he doesn’t really).

Ah, the start of a new year. Back to school, back to work, back to the gym, back to watching high-minded movies of serious historical import for the blog. And actually our first one is a high-minded etc., just because if I watch another sprawling Chinese historical epic I may lose my mind and I couldn’t bear to leave the house watch Exodus.

So anyway, Clint Eastwood is going to tackle the life of J. Edgar Hoover by putting Leonardo DiCaprio in a ton and a half of age makeup and imagining that in the past people sat in darkened rooms a lot. I watched this on Amazon, so it’s totally possible that the rich textures of the setting came out better on the big screen, but on television it was just dark as hell.

I’m not going to go into the details of the film per se — basically it has a framing narrative involving Hoover’s famous “secret files” and his desire to set the record straight about his, er, record. Right at the start the film signals us that we’re getting Hoover’s version of events in some cases, and that it’s not always going to be accurate. We’re left to wonder — intentionally — whether Hoover is just being forgetful, lying, or sincerely believing a warped version of events.

When you’re making a film of the life of someone who came to prominence as a crimefighter, you have to balance the cop-movie and biography elements of it, which Eastwood does pretty well. The most mystery-y part of the story is the section on the Lindbergh case, which is a simplified but pretty solidly accurate telling of the story. There are a lot of good bits where people mock Hoover’s belief in fingerprints as some kind of weird pseudoscientific obsession, and kind of an interesting theme where you get the impression that old-fashioned cops tend to view Hoover’s scientific, bureaucratic methods as kind of sissy. CSI: 1932 would be kind of a fun show, or at least a miniseries.

But that’s not what we came for, which is a shame because it’s pretty good. We came for the sinister machinations and the sex stuff!

I went into the film not knowing very much about Hoover other than the basics — American history isn’t really my strong point, so I mostly know what I did in school and what I’ve read up on since — and I wondered how Eastwood was going to address what I understood to be the relatively well-accepted idea that Hoover cross-dressed. So I Googled it, and it turns out that there is next to no evidence for the idea at all; someone said so once is pretty much the size of it. Eastwood works it in as a manifestation of Hoover’s grief following the death of his (controlling, godawful) mother (Judi Dench).

Likewise, Hoover’s repressed, tortured love affair with his sidekick Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is one of those things where the historical evidence is conflicted. Were Hoover and Tolson lovers, or was it just another era, when two unmarried guys could live together, vacation together and spend pretty much every waking moment together in a totally hetero way? Eastwood splits the difference, painting Hoover as someone who can’t overcome his mother’s homophobia enough to accept that he’s in love with Clyde but also can’t bear to be apart from him. The whole thing is really sad and awkward and lonely; Eastwood and DiCaprio never shy away from portraying Hoover as a profoundly uncomfortable and unhappy person and also a vain, power-hungry, petty, vicious little son of a bitch.

I wondered why, given the scanty evidence on the wearing-women’s-clothes front, it was so much a thing in the mythology of “Gay Edgar Hoover.” Maybe it’s just that it’s funny to imagine the guardian of law and order — especially a fat, humourless little guardian of law and order like Hoover — with a string of pearls, like it’s fun to imagine any authority figure as a hypocrite. Maybe it’s just another manifestation of societal prejudices of that (and this) era.

But maybe it’s also part of a desire to see Hoover as something that has to be explained? Like, there’s a certain amount of “J. Edgar Hoover: How the hell did that happen?” thinking on display in the way that a lot of people talk about Hoover, and of course in the very fact that this film got made. How did this maniac wind up running America’s most prestigious law enforcement agency — hell, creating that agency? How did subsequent administrations let him get away with ignoring organised crime, building up this cult of personality, using the machinery of the state to fuck with people he personally didn’t like?

That’s American exceptionalism in a nutshell, isn’t it, the idea that J. Edgar Hoover was some kind of weird aberration? I mean, consider the following statements:

  • “A smart, motivated civil servant gets permission to reform and expand his department after some initial successes. Subsequently, he runs it like a personal fief.”
  • “Even the President thinks twice before crossing the head of the secret police.”

The second one wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in easily more than half of the countries on earth, and the first one is just kind of a general truism about how organisations work. But Hoover has to be a mythic figure rather than a guy who seen his opportunities and took ’em because …

… because … ?

I can’t think of a reason other than “because this is America, dammit! That kind of thing happens in other countries!” unless it’s “because we find it convenient to hang the blame for decades of state repression on one bad apple” or at least “well, yeah, with hindsight SCLC weren’t terrorists, but it was a different time.”

This is particularly jarring to me since the bulk of Hoover’s critics, who bring up the idea that he was some kind of kinky, are, y’know, leftists or progressives and therefore should probably not be trying to use the man’s private life to shame him. (“Oh but he was a hypocrite!” “Is that really the worst thing you can think of to say about this motherfucker?”)

What? Oh, the movie! Yeah, it’s OK. It’s kind of aimless, which is what any good biography should be like in parts. I mean, there’s some attempt to build up a conflict that can be resolved, partly with the secret files and partly with the Clyde thing, but mostly he is young, he gets old, he dies. That is what happened in his life. The age makeup is juuuuust good enough to be super jarring and creepy and distracting. Naomi Watts is Hoover’s other sidekick, Helen Gandy. The Presidents and Martin Luther King are offscreen a lot. Clint Eastwood’s a good director, but this isn’t Gran Torino. I enjoyed watching it, but I’m never going to watch it again. Mind you, the same is true for Gran Torino but for completely different reasons.

So yeah; it was not bad; it had the usual compression of time and characters but nothing too wacky; age makeup is weird. Modern history movies tend to be so serious and event-y; by contrast, I seem to specialise in one of the corny adventure movie eras. Currently I’m OK with that.

Movie Monday: J. Edgar (2011)