Glory (1989)

Composed by James Horner

Edward Zwick’s 1989 historical drama Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first black regiments of the Civil War. It might be the best Civil War film out there, with the emotional hook of seeing blacks overcome prejudice by proving themselves men through military service. The battle scenes are among the most accurate in Civil War films (thanks to the director’s careful attempts to select extras and reenactors that look like actual soldiers). This film is also held up by some top-notch acting from the likes of Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick, and a wide range of talent. It definitely put a lot of eyes on Denzel Washington and got him an Academy Award. It’s not entirely accurate, as most of the characters are fictional. In fact the 54th Massachusetts was mostly made up of free Northern blacks, but the movie put in a lot of ex-slaves both for dramatic effect and to represent the wide spectrum of the 200,000 black Americans who fought in the war. Another strong aspect of the film is James Horner’s score.

James Horner’s music for Glory is both highly reverential and deeply emotional. The music is dominated by sweeping strings, military drumbeats, and bugles and trumpets for more dramatic military scenery. Of great importance to the score is the Boys Choir of Harlem. It was traditional for composers to seek out highly respected English boy choirs, but Horner believed this film should have an American one. The kids got a paid air ride to California to work on the music and reportedly their scoring sessions with Horner left many of the crew members (including director Zwick) in tears. Horner implements the choir frequently, usually to underscore the noble purpose of the 54th, but also to give “Charging Fort Wagner” a climatic, epic feel. Horner incorporates pieces of period music, usually in the form of fife-and-drum marches. Reviewers have pointed out, sometimes in an accusatory manner, that Horner borrowed classical pieces of music for this score. However, Horner infuses his recreations of classic music with so much of his voice and passion that they still stand out on their own merit. I’ll get to these as I run through the themes and album. The commercial album is a tight 42 minutes. There is some missing material, but most of it is source music and the original compositions are already well represented on album. There also isn’t much in the way of action music which is actually standard for many modern war films but is different for Horner, who would later give the likes of Windtalkers and Enemy at the Gates lengthy and melodramatic action pieces.

“A Call to Arms” introduces two of the three major themes. The first, sung right at the start by the Boys Choir of Harlem, is what I call the Glory theme, though not the main theme. I label it the Glory theme because the word is actually in the lyrics: “Blow the horn, play the fife, beat the drum so slowly. Blow the horn, play the fife, make the drum beat glory.” The Glory theme sounds heavenly in its first iteration and represents the bravery and nobility of the soldiers. Horner adds military percussion to underscore the intent of the theme. The music takes a more reflective emotional tone with the Main theme on choir (1:00). This theme shows the most blatant reference to previous music. The first chunk of it is lifted straight from Sergei Profokiev’s ambient choral music for Ivan the Terrible (a historical epic from Stalinist Russia). This powerful theme appears in nearly every track. The Main theme continues on strings, then starts to build and build with chimes and bugle calls (one of them the Glory theme) joining in. This leads to a final crash of chimes as the Union and Confederate meet at the Battle of Antietam.

“After Antietam” deals with the aftermath of the opening battle. The Main theme plays on choir, with bugles sounding like they’re coming from the distance. The track takes a more noble tone halfway, ending with the Glory theme on trumpet. “Lonely Christmas” immediately introduces another major theme. I’m not entirely sure what this theme represents. One reviewer suggested that it represents what the soldiers are fighting for, the ideals of home and equality. It does accompany several important home front scenes, but I’ve noticed that it also appears prior to pivotal military moments as well. I’ll just refer to it as the Soldiers theme, though all three themes are so encompassing of the soldiers that they are nearly interchangeable. Several reviewers have noted that this theme borrows from Ralph Vaughan William’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” The B-section of the theme does have some of that piece’s strings, but the A section is original as far as I can tell. Actually the clearest reference to Williams comes in the “Burning the Town of Darien.”

“Forming the Regiment” sees the Glory theme on bugle lead to some non-thematic emotional string swelling. The Main theme then takes over for a while. At 3:30 a traditional fife-and-drum march breaks out as the recruits assemble. A minute later the drum beat remains alongside the Main theme and a brief iteration of the Soldiers theme. The emotional low point comes with “The Whipping” and “Burning the Town of Darien.” In “The Whipping” the Soldiers theme builds up in lamenting fashion on soft strings for the most heartbreaking scene. “Burning the Town of Darien” is the most undeniably Horner cue, with emotional swelling strings and a soft choral undercurrent leading to an alteration of the Main theme at 0:49 (this sounds more directly like Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia” than the Soldiers theme). The Main and Soldiers themes intertwine for the remainder of the track.

“Brave Words, Braver Deeds” is a straightforward presentation of the Main and Soldiers themes. The most important development in this cue is an optimistic variation of the Main Theme that only utilizes the first few notes and a counterpoint melody (1:32). “The Year of Jubilee” opens with another traditional fife-and-drum number and more of the Main theme as the 54th effectively frees plantation slaves by marching past them in uniform.

The best cue (at least my favorite) is “Preparations for Battle,” a 7 minute plus extravaganza that, like the scene it accompanies, takes its time and really lets the emotions sink in before the final battle. The Main theme builds up expectantly. At 1:27 the Soldiers theme breaks out as the white soldiers finally cheer on their black comrades. Horner delivers one of his incredibly emotional string sections as Shaw goes aside to talk to a reporter (2:14). The Glory theme returns on trumpet (2:47). A part of the Soldiers theme starts a string melody that culminates with a foreshadowing of the next track with the Fort Wagner motif (3:19). The Soldiers theme builds into a grander version of itself. At 4:35 the Main theme appears on angelic choir with the Soldiers theme providing counterpoint. The music goes soft again with chimes and the Soldiers theme has yet another heartwarming rendition. The same theme has one final blast of glory as the regiment begins its advance (6:24). In a callback to “Call to Arms,” Horner ends this piece with escalating chimes and percussion.

“Charging Fort Wagner” famously lifts from Carl Orff’s apocalyptic “Carmina Burana.” Once again Horner makes it his own, retaining the basic structure, but filling it with his own motifs. Chimes and epic choral work, as well as the Glory motif, start the track off as the soldiers are motivated to make one last grand effort to get into a Confederate fort. Latin chanting takes over, punctuated by appearances of the Fort Wagner motif on yet more choir. Nearly 2:30 in Horner hits a home run with a thrilling brassy climax. “An Epitaph to War” is much more subdued, the Boys Choir of Harlem performing the Main theme without any instrumental accompaniment. They conclude with a triumphal reprise of the film-opening Glory theme. “Closing Credits” is a good seven-minute suite of the themes with a distinctive opening, the only part with deeper male choir, but plenty of the Boys Choir of Harlem as well. Horner goes through his three main themes with most of their key variations.

Glory remains one of James Horner’s most highly respected works and it’s not hard to see why. The depth of feeling throughout this score is incredible and played a large role in engrossing general audiences, particularly those who usually tune out when viewing historical dramas. Sure, there are some obvious lifts from classical music, but Horner has always had a knack for refreshing old ideas and making them feel original and engaging.

Rating: 10/10


  1. A Call To Arms (3:07)
  2. After Antietam (2:39)
  3. Lonely Christmas (1:54)
  4. Forming the Regiment (5:26)
  5. The Whipping (2:09)
  6. Burning the Town of Darien (2:30)
  7. Brave Words, Braver Deeds (3:09)
  8. The Year of Jubilee (2:25)
  9. Preparations For Battle (7:32)
  10. Charging Fort Wagner (2:51)
  11. An Epitaph To War (2:32)
  12. Closing Credits (6:51)

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