Threads That Led to the Making of ‘Glory’ : Movies: Screenwriter Kevin Jarre recalls the ‘unbelievable odyssey’ in getting the tale of a black Civil War regiment made.
The chain of circumstance by which a movie ultimately gets made can be a lively tale in itself.
If the ballet entrepreneur Lincoln Kirstein had not grown up on Beacon Hill in Boston, if a young actor-screenwriter named Kevin Jarre had not been given some Civil War lead soldiers one childhood Christmas and had not learned to ride well during his growing-up days in Wyoming, and if the two men had not met at Mother Goldsmith’s restaurant in Saratoga, N.Y., five summers ago, the much-honored film “Glory,” about the historic black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, might still be waiting to be made.
As it was, Jarre explained in an interview this week, Kirstein, a dyed-in-the-wool Bostonian, lived near the home of Robert Gould Shaw, the 23-year-old Harvard graduate who formed the regiment and led it to glory. He knew Shaw’s family and he loved the Augustus Saint-Gaudens statue honoring the regiment that was erected opposite the Statehouse in 1897 and paid for by public donations. Kirstein later wrote a monograph, “Lay This Laurel” (the title from an Emily Dickinson poem) about the regiment, and it became one of the sources for “Glory.”
Jarre, born in Michigan, had a well-traveled childhood, living for a time in Wyoming with a father he calls Hemingwayesque and who combined ranching and fashion photography. Later, living in Los Angeles, Jarre did extra work and bit parts in the TV series “Flipper,” which starred Brian Kelly, to whom his actress mother was then married. She subsequently married composer Maurice Jarre, who adopted Kevin and whose name Kevin took.
In England, where Jarre was scoring “Ryan’s Daughter,” Kevin became a friend of David Lean’s. “What do you propose to do with your life?” Lean asked one afternoon. “Act,” Jarre said tentatively. “ No! " Lean roared, and explained why not.
“He was not flattering on the subject of actors,” Jarre says.
Lean counseled writing and directing as the only way to fly. Jarre is now a screenwriter (a first script of “Rambo II,” two other scripts sold and shot and due out). In 1986, Jarre and another writer and the writer’s dancer wife were in Saratoga for the summer season of the New York City Ballet. There Kirstein saw a snapshot of Jarre on horseback and was struck by the resemblance to an equestrian statue of Col. Shaw. The two men met at Mother Goldsmith’s place and talked about the 54th.
“I knew about the 54th,” Jarre says. “I’d been a Civil War freak myself ever since I got some toy soldiers when I was a kid. Lincoln’s interest was deeper. It related to his whole philosophy about surrendering yourself to something bigger, some larger cause. He’d always wanted to make a movie about the 54th.”
Jarre read everything he could find about Shaw and the 54th, including Shaw’s letters, which have been published, and “The Journal of Charlotte Forten,” who was the colonel’s love interest but who is not represented in the film. “Then,” Jarre says, “I moved into Room 421 at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, opposite the Players Club, and wrote the script in four weeks, on spec. I never thought I could interest anybody in it. A Civil War epic, about black people? But I’d got really attached to the story. I had to kill everybody off and I’d end up in tears when I got through writing.”
Kirstein showed the script to Merchant Ivory Productions, but it was well beyond their scale. “They couldn’t make head or tail of it.” An agent sent it to director Bruce Beresford, who committed to do it and brought in producer Freddie Fields, who set up a deal at Columbia.
But then began what Jarre called “an unbelievable odyssey.” The project was attacked within the studio and by at least one outside consultant, a University of Virginia black historian. It was called racist, partly, evidently, because Jarre is white and partly because the language is outspoken and the characterizations not invariably idealized.
“The professor even denied some of the irrefutable facts about the regiment,” Jarre says. “I was able to punch holes in his attack.” But when David Puttnam jumped, fell or was pushed from Columbia, Beresford left the project and it was clearly dead at the studio.
“But Freddie Fields took it to Tri-Star,” which agreed to do it. Edward Zwick became the director. Jarre gives Fields high and grateful marks for assembling the production team, including cinematographer Freddie Francis, that did the film. (Jarre visited the production only briefly. “Once production starts, the last person anybody wants around is the writer,” he says, although this is not as invariably true as it used to be.)
The historical events, including the valiant, doomed attack on Ft. Wagner, S.C., which cost the lives of half the regiment, are all factual. (Faulty intelligence said the regiment outnumbered the fort’s defenders by perhaps 2-to-1. In fact, the defenders outnumbered the regiment by more like 3-to-1.)
The principal black characters, played by Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Andre Brougher, are fictional, although there are, Jarre says, trace elements of regimental blacks about whom something is known. The Brougher character was suggested by one of the two sons of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist orator, both of whom fought with the 54th.
“I met the great-grandnephew of the regiment’s original flag bearer,” says Jarre, “and that was a thrill.”
Despite the early alarms that “Glory” might be seen as racist, the charges have not materialized and the film has been widely praised in the black community, and by most critics.
Kirstein, Jarre says, admits to being pleased that “Glory” was made, but, Jarre adds, “He’s not the type to say, ‘Look what I wrought.’ ”
Jarre has a small unbilled role in the film, as a white soldier who picks a fight with Denzel Washington and later, as the regiment heads for battle, yells, “Give ‘em hell, 54th.”
Among Jarre’s other credits are “The Tracker,” a period Western he also wrote on speculation and which stars Kris Kristofferson and was directed by John Guillermin, and “Navy SEAL,” starring Charlie Sheen and due out this summer. Producer Larry Gordon has acquired two other Jarre scripts: “Judgment Night” and “The Devil’s Own,” about an IRA man on the run in New York. He is working on another spec script, which he intends to direct, thus fulfilling David Lean’s counsel.
“When we were talking during ‘Ryan’s Daughter,’ I asked if he thought I ought to go to film school. He said no, I could learn all that in six months. I asked what I ought to do and he said, ‘ Read! ' Then he gave me Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’ and Alan Moorehead’s ‘The Blue Nile’ and ‘The White Nile.’ Amazing.”