Cary Elwes has always been an eager student of history. He credits that lifelong passion for why he was drawn toward making many a historical epic over the years. But perhaps none of those efforts have shined brighter than Glory, the still haunting cinematic monument built in tribute of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the American Civil War. As the first unit of African American soldiers allowed to fight in the conflict that determined the future of slavery, the 54th had become an obscured detail in the war for America’s soul. Thirty years after Glory’s release, however, the movie is taught in high schools across the U.S. and is getting a special Fathom Events and TCM anniversary screening on July 24. All of which is doubly rewarding for Elwes.
“In England, and certainly in the schools I attended, we studied both British history and American history,” Elwes says. “And I was surprised to learn that even though we studied the Civil War, there was no mention of any black regiments, certainly not the 54th. And the more I discovered from spending time in the U.S., after I moved here, was that it was not something that was ever taught in the schools here either.”
It is one of several reasons Elwes jumped at the chance to work on Glory. At the time of his casting, he was fresh off the success of 1987’s The Princess Bride—which would grow into a major classic on its own—and he had a slew of offers. But along with Ferris Bueller’s Matthew Broderick signing on to play the role of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, Elwes choosing to portray Maj. Cabot Forbes as his next role is what allowed screenwriter Kevin Jarre and producer Freddie Fields’ passion project about the 54th to get made.
“I turned down a lot of scripts that seemed to me very similar in tone in terms of people wanting me to do a lot of swashbuckling things,” Elwes recalls of that period in his life. “So I didn’t work for almost a year. And then this script landed on my desk, and I read it in one sitting, and the producer called me, Freddie Fields. He told me he had been trying to get this film made for eight years. For his passion alone, and the fact that this material was so exciting, I told him you can count me in, I’m there.”
The result is what many would consider to be the best Civil War movie ever made. In the film, Elwes plays Forbes, a young Union officer who, despite coming from affluence in Boston’s Beacon Hill community, only finds true purpose when he commits to the mission of the 54th Massachusetts. A composite of several real-life figures, Forbes is depicted as a childhood friend to Broderick’s Shaw, as well as Andre Braugher’s Thomas Searles. It is also a role that transformed as director Edward Zwick found a need to elevate “the men in the tent” as much as the Beacon Hill history of Shaw and company. Nevertheless, it was an amazing opportunity for Elwes to embody a figure who sacrificed his last full measure, as well as the chance to begin a significant friendship with screenwriter Jarre.
“The first thing I think of is what an incredible script it was to read and how close I became with the writer, Kevin,” Elwes says. “Immediately after I read it, I made a point of making him a friend.”
Elwes later adds, “He and I pretty much knew from the minute he opened his front door and smiled that this was going to be beautiful friendship. We spent the day talking about all things historical and Civil War, and he pointed me to take a trip to Boston.” There Elwes went on Jarre’s recommendation to the Houghton Library at Harvard. “[Jarre] said, ‘You should go read those and then you should go lay your hand on the statue that inspired me to write this.’” Standing before the Augustus Saint-Gaudens memorial, cast in bronze in 1884 and resting at the edge of the Boston Common, Elwes studied again the then relatively hidden history that Glory would soon shine a spotlight on.
Elwes would ultimately take a cut in pay in order to get the movie made—“I thought it were only right since we wanted to make sure that every penny that was available would end up on the screen”—and 30 years on he could not be prouder about the result.
Says Elwes, “I feel lucky as an actor to have worked on something that’s had longevity, but even more blessed when it actually becomes an educational tool.”
For his own personal memories though, and for being ever the history buff, Elwes’ most treasured recollection is how Glory brought him one afternoon in the company of Shelby Foote. At the time, Foote didn’t have the notoriety he would several years after he appeared as the star historian with a Southern spun cadence on Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary on PBS. But even during the production of Glory, Foote was a respected historian and Mississippian novelist who’d written The Civil War: A Narrative, which was published in three volumes between 1958 and 1974. Fittingly enough too, Foote’s one day on set was during one of Jarre’s brief scenes. (Jarre cameoed as a Union soldier who gets in a racial skirmish with Denzel Washington’s Pvt. Trip and later says “Give ‘em hell 54th.”)
“We were in the middle of shooting a scene where Kevin Jarre picks a fight with Trip,” Elwes says. “Suddenly there was a hush on the set between setups, and people stopped what they were doing, all the crew and the cast. And Kevin literally grabbed me and said, ‘Come with me right now.’ And there, sitting on a log, watching the team, was Shelby Foote. And Shelby began to tell us the history of the 54th and Gettysburg, and Fort Wagner, and the entire crew sat down, and Ed stopped shooting. And then the crew and cast sat his feet and listened to him.
“It was like a moment out of a movie itself, you could hear a pin drop while this man was talking, and it was magnificent. We all looked at each other afterwards and shook his hand… we couldn’t believe that we had the opportunity; he graced us with his presence. All of the reenactors were in awe of him, it was just wonderful.”
That grace of keeping the lessons of 1863 alive have marched on from Elwes’ film set to the classrooms that study it today.
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