Glory and the Legacy of the Most Graceful Civil War Movie

Edward Zwick reflects on the legacy of Glory 30 years later, and how the film's meaning evolved even while making it.

Glory 30th Anniversary Edward Zwick Interview Denzel Washington

A single tear fleeing from the cheek of Denzel Washington proved to be among the most powerful weapons on a set filled with them during Glory’s production. It was a spontaneous improvisation that Washington has long admitted was unplanned—a natural reaction to living the moment where his character, Pvt. Trip, is being whipped for an unfair charge of desertion—yet it’s perfectly apiece with the natural agony and virtue inherent in that Civil War movie. And 30 years later, it is still an unforgettable experience for director Edward Zwick as well.

“I think it’s a very interesting thing that you’re seeing there: you’re seeing his rage, but you’re also seeing his humiliation,” Zwick says during a phone interview while looking back on what was then only his second theatrical film. “He let that happen, and I saw it happening as I was behind the camera and I just kept shooting. I waited to give the dolly grip that little moment to then push in as I saw it happening, and the result is that moment.”

When we catch up with the filmmaker, it’s fortuitously the day before the Fourth of July. While we are also chatting in anticipation of Glory returning to theaters for a pair of Fathom Events screenings presented by Turner Classic Movies at the end of the month, the legacy of Zwick’s depiction of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment extends well beyond a 30th anniversary showcase. As a film both about the shared sacrifice of the men of the 54th and the work they left undone after rushing into a South Carolinian fort one July evening 156 years ago, Glory is a distinctly American story—one so compelling that it has become part of the common curriculum in U.S. history classes across the nation. Yet its iconic shape was not always so clear during the making.

A project birthed by screenwriter Kevin Jarre happening upon a memorial to the 54th in the Boston Common (one that Zwick notes he passed by countlessly while attending Harvard), the initial version of Glory that was shot is not wholly the one celebrated today. Always the story of how the first black regiment in the Union Army had to fight for every inch of respect they were due, Glory is also the story of Robert Gould Shaw, the wealthy son of abolitionists who was only 25 when he agreed to be colonel of the first black regiment—and 26 when he and more than half of the 54th fell in the sands around Fort Wagner. Shaw’s letters and papers remain one of the best resources for historians about the regiment who brought the morality of the Union cause to the fore—but they are far from the only entry point into this sacrifice.

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Hence a filmmaking experience that Zwick describes as humbling, as he again and again saw the film’s narrative transform and ultimately transcend, with it becoming as much a parallel between the officers and their men as it was the tale of one young colonel’s last full measure. While Matthew Broderick was at the height of his stardom when he signed on to play Shaw, Zwick was adamant about preventing Glory from being a film that extolled the heroics of white characters at the expense of those of color (in modern parlance, a “white savior movie”), and this led to moments of unexpected grace like Washington’s tear as more scenes among four black soldiers in a tent were added… and an entire introduction to Shaw’s youth and his domestic life was removed.

“It was the juxtaposition of his story and the story of those men in the tent,” Zwick says about the core of Glory. “Initially, they allowed me to make it because Matthew Broderick, who had been Ferris Bueller, was willing to play Robert Gould Shaw. And there was pressure put on me in the beginning to write and shoot a lot of things about him and his backstory at Brook Farm, the utopian community, growing up with Harriet Beecher Stowe and [Ralph Waldo] Emerson. And I did, I shot that stuff.”

He continues, “[But] the minute I shot the first scene with those four guys in the tent, it was very clear to me that the movie’s beating heart was there as well, if not more there. And that then led me to begin to chase that part of the movie. Matthew understood that too, by the way. It became about the juxtaposition of these two stories and how they resonated together.”

Zwick recalls several studio executives were initially appalled when he revealed he’d cut “the first two reels,” but by then a preview audience had already been awestruck by the grandeur the movie. Indeed, throughout our discussion with Zwick, the director describes a creative kismet so strong that it could lead to prophetic fallacy. From the way Washington’s Trip and Broderick’s Shaw ultimately roll into each other in their shared ending of a mass grave—a shot that Zwick says was the first take—to being able to bring the Harlem Boys Choir to Hollywood to record James Horner’s ethereal music (which also attracted an audience that included Steven Spielberg and Sidney Pollack), Glory remains the rare Civil War film that crystallizes what that war was about and why its history should be studied through a broader lens.

Our full interview is below.

Thirty years later, what first comes back to you now when you think of Glory?

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Edward Zwick: When you’ve made a certain number of movies, the movies tend to mark your life in different ways. You remember the relationships, the process, the ages of your children, the state of your marriage, the sense of place, where you worked. I can’t help but have very vivid memories of all of that.

Obviously it certainly changed the landscape for me about the kind of movies I was then allowed to make. It was particularly humbling in a certain way, because I found myself in the service of something that I increasingly became aware was much larger than I was, because this story had a gravitas and a weight that just revealed itself again and again in different scenes, in the performances—I mean as I worked with some of those historians or some of those reenactors, and as people came from all over as men, doctors, and professors, and lawyers, and military guys came to want to be part of it. They became this very amazing core of specially trained extras living in tents and doing what they did because they believed in the story, and what it meant to them. It began to dawn on me just what I had somehow found my way into.

Which was, that a lot of these guys, and I’m not even yet talking about Morgan [Freeman] and Jihmi [Kennedy], and Andre [Braugher] and Denzel, that they were in a certain kind of rapture. They heard music and voices and things that I could only imagine. So it was a lot about, in certain ways, getting the fuck out of the way.

What was the view of Civil War films at that point in Hollywood when you were reading about this movie?

That’s a really interesting point. I mean there had been a really crummy miniseries, North and South, that I remember seeing on TV. I’m not sure what other Civil War stories—obviously we all knew John Huston and The Red Badge of Courage, but [they had not been made] in a very long time.

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To me, it was just one of those curiosities. I had gone to school in Boston and I had passed by the Augustus Saint-Gaudens memorial all the time, and I had actually gone to Harvard and seen some of his letters there. There was some familiarity to me about its reality, its authenticity, as opposed to just being a kind of myth, if you will.

So as I began to do the work, which is to say read source material and read Shaw’s letters, and go to the places—we started even a year before where I got the studio to give me a little bit of money and we went to the reenactment. I guess it was 1989. I guess that was the 125th anniversary of the battle where they had about 20,000 men on that field. And a couple of those images are in the beginning of the movie. But to get a feel for what that was, was just totally irreplaceable.

It’s interesting because generally when we think about the Civil War on screen, I feel like there tends to be a certain romanticization, specifically of the South. Could you talk about how you wanted to differentiate it even while using reenactors. I believe you shot the opening scene on the Gettysburg battlefield?

Yeah, we did. The funny thing is that I chose as the production designer Norman Garwood, who’s an Englishman who had done Brazil, and there was Freddie Francis, who was British, who had won an Oscar and worked with all these great directors before. I wanted to do a movie based on what we learned as we did the research, as opposed to making a movie based on other movies.

I felt that there was something to be found in the authenticity of the tactics and in the uniforms and in the weaponry, and in the black powder, and that we could do something that would have that feel of authenticity rather than the cliché. So we began the way you would begin with any movie. We began with research.

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The film is informed by a variety of sources in your research, and I know among them were Shaw’s letters. So how important was it to keep him as a lead character for you, but not necessarily allow this to become a common white savior narrative?

In this case, it was certainly the true story. And to me, it was the juxtaposition of his story and the story of those men in the tent. I will say though that what it taught me is the movie tells you what it wants to be. And the movie was made—initially they allowed me to make it because Matthew Broderick, who had been Ferris Bueller, was willing to play Robert Gould Shaw. And there was pressure put on me in the beginning to write and shoot a lot of things about him and his backstory at Brook Farm, the utopian community, growing up with Harriet Beecher Stowe and Emerson. And I did, I shot that stuff.

And the minute I shot the first scene with those four guys in the tent, it was very clear to me that the movie’s beating heart was there as well, if not more there. And that then led me to begin to chase that part of the movie. Matthew understood that too, by the way. It became about the juxtaposition of these two stories and how they resonated together. But it was just very clear that those guys, that that story, was going to rise up, and if I was really smart, I would let it. And that’s what happened.

When I showed the movie to the studio the first time, I had cut the first two reels which had all that stuff about young Robert Gould Shaw, and they were shocked and maybe even appalled, except we did it at a preview and it played so well that they kind of went, “Oh, I guess that’s the movie that we’re making.”

Is that normal in the process for you? Do you usually find movies in the editing suite?

This isn’t only editing; this was even as we we’re doing it. This was writing more scenes and understanding how to shoot them. I think a movie is an organic thing if you let it be. If the collaboration, not just of you, but your [director of photography] and your designers, the contributions of the actors, everybody’s writing that story with you. I could never make an all CG movie or where you’re over-determining and pre-vizing every shot. I would not only be bored but I would also be inhibiting it from having the breath of life that I look for.

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Even in certain action scenes, if you can get to real time and real scale, the camera’s going to see things that you could never imagine. Things happen with the trick of real people and the X-factor of real life that totally then gives you that feeling that you want to have. So I’d like to think my process, even as writing but also as rehearsing, and then in shooting, and then again in the editing, is to try to be soulful to a certain degree and willing to allow something to emerge that wants to emerge.

To take it back to that tent, how did you develop those four soldiers? They are obviously fictional characters, but what were you drawing on to make them have an authenticity?

I was drawing off of the fact that the 54th Massachusetts was not a monolith. It was made up, like many of the men that came to be in this movie, who came to take part in it, some of them were free black men, many of them, some were runaway slaves; one was a doctor; one was a shoemaker; three were barbers; they were salesmen and sailors; there was those who were deeply religious; there were those who were there for vengeance. I wanted to give a sense that it was not in any way a predictable or a monolithic presentation of who those men were.

… Even just the iconography of a black man in a Union uniform, it carried this power and this surprise that was all its own. And then to put them on a beach, the place where it took place, which was the least predictable place, the most placid, beautiful, bucolic place you could imagine, also that carries a power. So things were multiplied in that way.

From what I’ve read, the 54th was primarily closer to Andre’s Thomas, men who were born free in the north. Was it a conscious choice of trying to explore as much of the black American experience as possible by making three of the members in the tent former slaves?

I think it’s really two. I think the Morgan Freeman character, he’s more of a professional. He’s a gravedigger, but he was actually a free man. So it was more half and half. But still, yes, I think really that was as one does, an opportunity to have it be a prism where you see a lot of different facets of an experience, and inevitably that is a way to talk about some of the other issues through the supporting characters.

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read more: Was John Wayne High Noon’s Biggest Villain?

On Denzel, how did you view Trip’s part in this film and how he contrasted next to Broderick’s Shaw?

I think each of those men had a certain reluctance. Each of those men had a complexity, and I think as the movie goes on, you tend to sort of juxtapose them one with the other. They never speak except that one moment when they have that very disjointed and unsuccessful conversation when they sort of meet out there by that pond. And yet, because of the strength and the focus of the movie, you feel the parallel of their lives that are leading to that same place, which is to that common grave. And of course that becomes metaphorical about the joining of those agendas as they were in that moment.

It’s hard to underestimate what emancipation meant, but Frederick Douglass, who became the real architect of the 54th Massachusetts, literally gave his sons to the regiment, believing that this was going to be the thing that would forever smash slavery and would forever create this watershed from which there will be no turning back. So it was important, I think, to talk about slavery as well.

Is it true during the scene where Denzel’s character is whipped that the single tear in his eye was unplanned and his natural reaction?

It’s funny, Denzel just got the Life Achievement Award at AFI the other night. It was like a week or so ago, and he was asked in an interview to talk about it and he said something very beautiful. He said, “Look, we were shooting that scene just a block away from where slaves had been held in the docks of Savannah, and I did not know what I was going to do or feel on that scene and I just gave it up to God. I just let myself be there and see what would happen.”

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I think it’s a very interesting thing that you’re seeing there: you’re seeing his rage, but you’re also seeing his humiliation. Another actor, as he felt that happening, he might not allow that. And yet, [Denzel] knew knew that both of those things were real and were organic, and were happening. He let that happen, and I saw it happening as I was behind the camera and I just kept shooting. I waited to give the dolly grip that little moment to then push in as I saw it happening, and the result is that moment.

How gratifying is it to see a young actor bring something like that?

Well, it’s the best. It’s what I was saying before about being open to the spontaneity of what happens. The great ones always make you look better. They always find ways to do things that you never could have imagined, or they reveal to you what you intended and you didn’t even know you intended. And I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve had that experience multiple times with Denzel, with [Leonardo] DiCaprio, or Brad Pitt, and gosh, Matt Damon. Those people, there’s a reason that they become who they become, and it’s not just an accident or physiognomy. It’s because they have these kind of stomach-brains, these kind of sense of intuition, and an openness to allow a thing to take place that they may not necessarily be able to articulate or want to articulate. But when it happens, it’s the best day in your life as a director.

You mentioned earlier that the whole movie is building to that amazing final image of the men in the mass grave. Could you talk about what it was like to shoot it on the day?

I’ve shot scenes of some intensity like that since, but—we got there very early, and the day was gray, and there were those amazing gulls that were there in the sky, and the sun was kept sort of filtered. Had it been a bright blue snappy day, it wouldn’t have had the same feeling. It was like a prophetic fallacy, because it was that kind of scene that the weather was that way.

There were a lot of things in the movie that went that way. I guess that even the coincidence of how they threw Denzel into that grave and threw Matthew in, as they fell and the way they fell, was the kind of kismet that somehow allows movies to become bigger than they are. Things happen because they’re intended to happen, even though you could never have planned them. That was that kind of moment. It was very sobering, there were men lying out there who had been working for weeks and weeks and weeks, and it wasn’t pleasant to lie in that sand like that. Some of them were wearing breathing equipment, they were lying there in the water, but it was the right way to end the movie.

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What take was that? The one that ended up in the final film.

Take one.

I can’t talk about Glory without also bringing up the score.

Yeah.

Could you talk about the process of bringing in the Boys Choir of Harlem and how that came about?

From the very beginning, James Horner and I, we wanted the sound of boys voices. And I really only knew of English boy chorale, the wonderful boy sopranos, because I felt it was the sound of innocence, and he and I really wanted from the beginning. It was then Freddie Fields, who was the producer, who I guess knew of the Harlem Boys Choir, I had never heard them, and he said, “I want you to listen to this.” And well, it was one of those, again one of those accidents.

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There was no question that the minute we heard them that we had to go beg the studio for more money because we were in post-production, and we had gone a little bit over budget and we wanted to bring 85 boys to MGM and sit there and record in that studio. But it became a great moment. It’s not just that we were going to take them all to Disneyland, but they sat there in that great old MGM room with a 100-piece orchestra and them.

The word got around town, and all of a sudden at one point we’re recording, I looked back and there was Steven Spielberg in the back of the room because he had heard [they were there] and he wanted to hear it and see it. Then Sidney Pollack, who had been a kind of mentor to me, all of a sudden he was stopping by. People, they got a feel for it.

A lot of times as a director, you’re back there in the booth with the recording engineers and the conductor or composer, but in this case James was conducting, and I just went out and sat next to him in that room, and heard it. That was the moment. Whatever we had done before, I think we temped in some more Morricone and some other music, but that was the moment when I really felt that I had a movie that might actually come together.

So you and James always wanted to bring this ethereal quality? Because, it’s such beautiful music, even in images as horrific as men dying in war.

Yeah, that was always the intention.

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You seem drawn to stories about America’s past, including in movies you produce. Very recently I really enjoyed Woman Walks Ahead. Why do you think it’s important to study the past while looking at our future?

Because, for better or worse, it’s becoming part of the permanent record. The fewer books that people read, the less good the history is taught in schools, the obligation of the filmmaker talking about that becomes even greater, I think. Listen, we’re in a moment in our history right now where a lot of people are actually learning about the Constitution for the first time because it’s being trashed.

I think to actually try to learn those lessons of the past to keep that alive is every bit as important as listening to Rachel Maddow. I think that it’s an essential thing to do. So that I’ve been able to do it a little bit has been one of the great pleasures.

Glory returns to theaters on July 21 and July 24, almost 156 years to the day of the gallant rush on Fort Wagner.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.