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)

Movie Monday: Short films!

I kind of forgot it was Monday until there wasn’t enough time to watch 55 Days at Peking, so instead you’re getting short films and you’re gonna like ’em.

Last time I was in California, I went to a museum in Palo Alto, where I’m from, the Museum of American Heritage. To be honest, I was mainly there to see a Lego display, but my wife and I went through the museum, which turned out to be very nice indeed. One of the displays was this film footage of San Francisco, shot by sticking a camera on the front of a cable car in 1906, only days before an earthquake levelled large areas of the city.

Same location, shortly afterward.
Same location, shortly afterward.

So anyway, an interesting historical snapshot, not just because of the earthquake but because of the period, one where cars are only just beginning to displace horses on the streets of an American city.

Something I love finding in history is the introduction of things that are now totally commonplace. Consider this 1936 promo for parking meters:

I think the thing that’s most interesting about this is that it’s phrased as if it were a commercial — it sounds like an ad, even though it’s not selling anything. I wonder if that’s to do with the fact that it’s introducing something that people tend to think of as a nuisance. Also, “no nickel, no parky!” reminds us that you can’t really ever really guarantee a historical American experience will be missing some casual racism.

Speaking of things that ape other types of media presentation, check out this … whatever it is … telling Christians about how to get ready for the Rapture. It’s really interesting, in this day and age of “oh, people don’t really believe that, and by claiming they do you’re making fun of them, you bully” to see someone straight up endorsing the sudden-disappearance model of the Rapture.

I was going to post up some WW2 propaganda videos, but the Youtube comments sections were really depressing.

Movie Monday: Short films!

Movie Monday: Cartoon Corner!

Today, something a little different: history in animated form. In other words, I woke up this morning with a lot to do and not very much energy, so I’m doing something short and sweet. Today I’m going to talk a little about some historical cartoons.

Now, of course in the larger scheme of things we’ve got longer works like Disney’s Pocahontas, where the early history of America is … um … approximately represented. That might be unfair. I haven’t actually seen it! Maybe there were more talking raccoons around in those days than I know about.

So contemporary cartoons are an interesting way of looking at modern history. Take this wartime effort, in which Donald Duck has an evil personality who is a Nazi pimp.

Is this, in fact, the origin of Scrooge McDuck as a character?

But that’s not the prize of today’s post. No, that honour goes to nineteen fifty-whatever’s Hysterical History, which I’m told was actually made by Paramount’s animation studio, then rebranded under the Harvey logo:



Look at that off-brand rabbit. Jesus.

Anyway, here it is:

Now, this being a 1950s (or whenever) account of American history, it’s deeply fucked up, and like all such representations, nowhere is it more fucked up than its depiction of the Native Americans Injuns.

meetthepress ohjesus


When asked to do something, that fat guy at the bottom (who is meant to be Powhatan) says “ugh-kay.” My hand to God. And Pocahontas talks in caveman baby talk.

And lest you think the makers of the cartoon just hate Native Americans, don’t worry — there’s also women.



That’s — I’m not really sure what that is. Something seems to have happened to her nose. When Pocahontas appears, the joke, by the way, is that she’s so fat that John Smith would rather be burned alive than marry her. Comedy platinum.

In all honesty, my objection to this thing isn’t as a historian or even as an outraged possessor of a shred of common decency, but as a (sort of) humorist. There was this thing in the 50s where repeating stale old vaudeville gags was like … was like the Groucho glasses of comedy. You know how you put on some Groucho glasses and that’s our signifier for “I am wearing a disguise” even though they don’t conceal your appearance at all? It’s the same principle: you throw in some pratfalls, a fat joke, a dig at the IRS (are kids really that familiar with the IRS?) and so on, and what you get is a structure that looks like comedy without being at all funny. I’m not sure why it is that way — maybe adults don’t expect to laugh at things intended for kids, so they can’t tell the difference between things that aren’t funny to adults and things that aren’t funny to kids?

This prompts some thought about history education, which I may address tomorrow.

Movie Monday: Cartoon Corner!

People we like and admire were godawful racists

So, last week, the 20th of August, was the anniversary of the birth of author H.P. Lovecraft, whose work, as you may know, is something of an obsession of mine. In fact (plug plug) I have an upcoming talk about Lovecraft (well, Lovecraft’s successors mainly) and archaeology at Treadwell’s Books next month. You can read about it here.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I have a really weird relationship, mentally, with Lovecraft. Sometimes, when I want to know that I’m explaining something well, I try to imagine that he is explaining it, or even that he has come back from the dead and that I am explaining it to him — that is, to a very intelligent person with no modern cultural context. When I was all depressed and thought of myself as a failure, I thought of him as the patron saint of failures. 

But — but but but — even this is not the thing I want to talk about. And that is the racism. “Oh Lor’,” I hear you cry, “not HPL and racism again.” But there’s no avoiding it. Lovecraft was a gigantic racist, probably not more racist than the rest of his contemporaries (it was America in the 1920s and 1930s), but just really into it. And it’s central to his work, that revolted terror of the other. 

I’m not going to quote any of his relevant works here — let’s just say that if you want to learn more you can Google “H.P. Lovecraft” and than the n-word and go from there. In an incognito window, possibly. 

And yet Lovecraft is important to me, as is his work — and his work isn’t something you can separate from his racism. You see a lot of people who are very skeptical about Steampunk as a concept (not steampunk in the old sense but in the modern sense) because of its seeming celebration of an era of white supremacy and British imperialism. I get that as well.

And of course that type of racism is implicated not only in history but in the writing of history. And not just simplistic prejudice but the the way in which the idea of racial differences was a fundamental aspect of writing history. 

When I was young, I went to a family reunion in Arkansas. A branch of my dad’s side of the family went off to America around the beginning of the 20th century because my great-great-(great?)-uncle Jack went off to compete in the 1904 St Louis Olympics. While there — the only time I have ever been to the south — we explored the Ozark region, including a trip to, God help me, Branson, Missouri. In or near Branson — it was a long time ago — was an amusement park called Silver Dollar City, which at that time was sort of Wild-West-themed, and where my parents bought me a book on the gunslingers of the old west. And I was like — I was very young, I don’t remember, but I was definitely younger than 11 or 12. 

So imagine my surprise to find the subtext — the text, really — of this book was the gunslinger as race warrior. I was informed, for instance, that Billy the Kid made his name by shooting (or in the book’s words, “closing the rubbery lips of”) an African-American (or in the book’s words, “darky”) who insulted him … I mean, it just went on from there. 

Oh, of course! It’s online. You can read that crap for yourself. It even has the original illustrations.

I don’t actually know where I’m going from here — Lovecraft’s racism was odious but an important part of his valuable work. This book’s racism was odious and just casual — it was all understood that both the writer and the reader despised black people. 

But there’s a lot of non-despising racism out there as well. Take this image, for instance, from The British Commonwealth: A Family of Peoples (1961 edition). My scanner is broken, so here’s a photo from my phone. 



Check out that caption. But it’s all in the service of trying to be nice about the Gilbert Islands, just in a really offensive and patronising way. 

And there’s a lot of it around. I can’t help but love this stuff for its goofy squareness, but it’s definitely weird and unpleasant and racist, and it’s important not to let the comforting goofiness distract me from that. 

Now, most of this stuff is of no value — Victorian writers were a bunch of racists, no shit. But when I locate some good stuff I’ll put it up here. Until then, I’m off for the weekend. Regular service will be restored on Monday or possibly even Sunday night. 


People we like and admire were godawful racists