Gone with the Wind (1939) aside, the list is short. I had high hopes for Cold Mountain (2003), but that film was doomed once the cast was inked. Ron Maxwell’s ambitious Gettysburg (1993) and his follow up Gods and Generals (2003) are both solid and extremely accurate, but not spectacular.
While I would not put it on par with great war films like Saving Private Ryan (1998), Platoon (1986), or The Great Escape (1963), Glory stands out as possibly the best Civil War film to date (warning though: Spielberg’s Lincoln due out next year).
Glory (1989) works on several levels. The pride, the sacrifice, the bravery and nobility, the historical significance of the all-black 54th Massachusetts unit of the Union Army, all guided by acclaimed filmmaker Ed Zwick, and set to a majestic musical score by James Horner. It is not only an engaging film about an exceptional period in the narrative arc of this country, it marks the career launch of one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars.
Denzel Washington has been a leading man with few parallels over the past 20 years. A classic silver screen icon that meets the litmus test: men want to be Denzel, and women want to be with Denzel.
His star genesis can be isolated back to a single moment in a single scene in a single film.
The film has several notable performances. Morgan Freeman is outstanding, as always. As is Andre Braugher in his film debut. Matthew Broderick, while miscast in my opinion, has a handful of poignant and well-realized moments (“If you men will take no pay, then none of us will!”).
But Denzel steals the show and won the Oscar. I submit to you that the award was won the moment that single tear rolled down his cheek during his lashing scene.
‘Pvt. Trip’ (Washington) is brought back to the unit camp, captured after deserting during the night. When his shirt is stripped off we see that he has been whipped several times before. As he assumes the position, resolute in his righteousness, defiant in his stance, the camera moves in on the former slave turned soldier and we witness an actor of considerable talent transition beautifully from defiance to pain, from shame to resolve.
A powerful scene to say the least. Made all the more memorable and profound by that magical tear that swelled and then dropped like an exclamation point.
A star was born.
Oscar soon followed – and the rest is history.
Denzel Washington won a second Oscar playing corrupt ‘Detective Alonzo Harris’ in Training Day (2001). It was the same year Russell Crowe dazzled us as the schizophrenic MIT Professor John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Crowe’s was a virtuoso performance from an actor at the very top of his game. Denzel’s, by comparison, and especially considering the standard of work he had set, came off almost like play acting. “Gangsta tough” – see also American Gangster (2007) coincidentally opposite Crowe – is too one-dimensional for our leading men. His ‘Pvt. Trip’ is every bit as tough as his ‘Det. Harris,’ but missing from Training Day is the vulnerability that makes Denzel Washington so watchable – and such a star.
Fortunately, I was reminded of his depth in last year’s The Book of Eli. A film that flew under the radar for some reason, but is a must-see for Denzel fans. No pun intended.
Crimson Tide (1995)
The Book of Eli (2010)
Malcolm X (1992)
Antwone Fisher (2002)
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
The Pelican Brief (1993)
Courage Under Fire (1996)