Savannah Scenes #2: Glory

Glory 6

Ok, let's just gloss over the fact I have neglected this blog way, way too long (Look, I was in a show, then it was the holidays, and we also had to move my unwell grandma up here from Florida- my neglect is completely legitimate!) and pick up right where I left off. Luckily for me, being on a budget as I am, the library system here has many locally shot movies available for free. I watched Glory months ago and I've got another DVD sitting on the shelf that's due soon, so I need to get this post taken care of and move on to the next one.

Glory came out in 1989 and it's about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the Federal army's first all-black regiment. We're talking about the Civil War, of course. This regiment was perhaps obscure to most (white) Americans before 1989, but we live in a post-Glory world now, so you better be ashamed of your ignorance if you don't already know what I'm talking about. Much of the story's first half, training the soldiers and whatnot, is set in Massachusetts, whereas the second half, the attack, is set in South Carolina. Exactly none of the movie was shot in either one of those places. It was all shot here, near here, and down the Georgia coast.

A lot of the scenery is in some random field or woods or marsh that could be anyplace nearby, but several locations were easily recognizable to me. After the opening battle sequence, things slow down for a minute and you see all these Federal bigwigs hobnobbing inside some fancy, fancy house. Then, Matthew Broderick (as Robert Gould Shaw, the 54th's newly appointed commander) steps outside the front door and has a chat with Carey Elwes while leaning against the front gate of the house.

Mercer-Williams House, Savannah, Georgia, Mercer House

Oh, hi, Mercer-Williams House! Yeah, they used it for the interior as well as exterior shots. I knew that, yet I had kinda forgotten and it caught me by surprise for a moment. Now, some of you undoubtedly know this was the infamous residence of Jim Williams, the Savannah socialite forever immortalized in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Speaking of which, I guess I'll have to cover that one too eventually. Anyway, Williams was still alive and living at the house during the shoot. I can't remember if he had finally been acquitted of murdering Danny Hanson yet or if he was still tied up with his fourth trial. I could check THE BOOK I suppose, but I just don't feel like it. Hey, this is a blog, not an essay. Go find yourself a Grad student if you want real work.

I had a family of five for a tour recently and mentioned the movie to them when we walked by the house. One of the guys was a fan of Glory and was so pleased when I told him it had been shot here in Savannah. He had no idea. (I guess he never bothered to watch any of the extras on the DVD?) I snatched that pic up there from Flickr just so you'd know which house I was talking about. I found screen captures online for several of the other locations I'll mention, but simply could not find that one scene with Broderick in front of the Mercer House! I don't know what the deal is with that.

So then the action moves to Jones Street for a minute or two where the new recruits are signing up:

Glory, recruits, Jones Street, Savannah, Georgia

I think that's the block between Whitaker and Barnard. Remember now, this is all supposed to be in Massachusetts. It's great how Savannah can dress up as pretty much any 19th century American city. It's definitely way cheaper than filming in Boston and way warmer when you're shooting in February and March (like these guys). I often tell people on my tours all you have to do to film a period piece here is remove the parking meters, cover the street in dirt and poof! Unclaimed Freight Productions turned that formula on its head, though, when they filmed CBGB here in 2012. Don't worry Punk fans- I'll get to that one later!

So, the next location to catch my eye was the training ground for the new recruits of the 54th Mass. Their barracks was our roundhouse:

54th Mass., Glory, Savannah, Georgia, Roundhouse Railroad Museum

I am ashamed to admit this, but I have never visited the Georgia State Railroad Museum. I know, I know! Shut up. It's on my to-do list. I did attend a friend's wedding there a few years ago. According to the Coastal Heritage Society  the "Georgia State Railroad Museum is believed to be the largest and most complete antebellum railroad repair facility still in existence, in the world!" You can tell they're very excited about that. So, if trains are your thing, you'll be glad to know this place is just a couple blocks west of the Historic District, right down Louisville Rd. Even though I haven't toured the place (yes, I know- shame!), I still knew exactly what I was looking at because of the distinctive, massively recognizable round smoke stack you see in the middle there. I watched the DVD's commentary track and the director said the point of setting the barracks there was to emphasize the built-up and industrial nature of the North so it would contrast with the later scenes that take place the pastoral South.

Most of the good stuff develops in this camp. You know, it occurs to me how gutsy it is to make a Civil War movie that sets most of its action far away from the battlefield. But Glory isn't so much about fighting, it's more about becoming. Robert Gould Shaw starts off as a privileged, though diffident, gentleman and transforms into a real commander. The black men he commands go on different journeys. Thomas (Andre Braugher) learns to be a fighter, Trip (Denzel Washington) learns to stop picking fights all the time, and Morgan Freeman, um... ok, not sure on that one. He's a mentor... which he is in every movie. Well, if I owned a copy of that DVD and could watch it again, I'm sure I'd pick up on something. And the white folks all around them, um, a few of them learn to be ever so slightly less racist. A tiny bit. Keep in mind I'm talking about the movie here. I know that in reality probably nobody involved with the 54th Mass. was anywhere near so lovable. It all made for good cinema, though.

Moving on to the last location shot I want to point out:

Glory, Savannah, Georgia, River Street

Look, it's River Street! But where's the river? Since when does River Street have two sides? What black magic is this?!

I remember another tour guide (Who was it? Was it Don?) telling me about this. To shoot the scene where the army parades down a street in Boston, the production team did up the buildings on one side of River Street, then built a facade of completely fake buildings down the other side. They did a bang-up job. I had to stare at this scene pretty hard before I could spot anything I recognized. In this screencap, you can easily make out the dome of our City Hall right in the back. I don't think that's architecturally appropriate to the mid-19th century, but I bet the filmmakers shrugged and figured nobody would be looking at that anyway. Movie makers do that a lot, actually. It's funny how often they're right. In one shot of this scene, I think I also juuuuuuust made out the edge of the Hyatt behind Matthew Broderick's head during a close-up. Ah, sometimes an inch of framing is all that separates the 1860s from the 1960s.

There was shooting in other nearby locations, but nothing especially recognizable. One salt marsh or woodland looks much like another. The last part, where they attack the fort, was done on Jekyll Island, about 1 1/2 hours down the coast. I really need to get my act together and visit Jekyll Island too. That's another thing on my to-do list.

So, my opinion of Glory? I liked it more than I thought I would. I don't usually care much for war movies and I'm always bored to tears by the Civil War (bad Southerner!). I was afraid at the beginning this was going to be one of those movies that's ostensibly about black people, then the whole story is told from the perspective of some white main character. Hollywood reduces black people (or other minorities) to second-class status within their own narrative all the time because it makes the head honchos feel safer about their investment.  It looks like I was mistaken, though. It did feel like a movie about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and not about Robert Gould Shaw. I know Matthew Broderick got top billing (and that was probably a marketing strategy), but it was much more of an A-list ensemble piece. Glory shows up pretty well if you do a race-centric version of the Bechdel test on it: 1) it has at least two named black characters in it, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something besides the white characters.

All in all, Glory is a classic Savannahians can be proud of the city's involvement in. But I'm not getting too comfortable. I know I've got a whole lot of bad-to-mediocre movies coming at me. Stay tuned....