Looking Back Fondly on Glory: 20 Years Later

By Jay Wertz
3/26/2009 • African Americans In The Civil War, Black History, Civil War Swords, Civil War Times, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Outlaws, Tuskegee Airmen


Far away from the bustle of Hollywood, Andre Braugher has been keeping a low profile lately living in New Jersey. He remains a busy man, however, currently working alongside Ray Romano and Scott Bakula in a new TNT series titled Men of a Certain Age. The classically trained actor vaulted to fame as Thomas Searles, a second-generation free black living in Boston, in Glory, the 1989 film about the renowned 54th Massachusetts Regiment. He later starred as Detective Frank Pembleton in the NBC drama Homicide: Life on the Street.
In private life, Braugher absorbs himself in history and current events. About once a year, in fact, he and a friend embark on a long bicycle journey, sometimes traveling along historic trails such as the C&O Canal. As the 20th anniversary of Glory approaches, Braugher looks back at how the film influenced his own view of history and on how it changed the public’s perception of African-American participants in the Civil War.

How did you become involved with Glory?
The casting call went out in the fall of 1988. I was just out of school—I had graduated [from Julliard] that May—and was doing Corialanus down at the public theater. There were several auditions, and finally on my fifth audition they brought back groups of us to play together and had us do the tent scene; they wanted to see how we would all interact together. By that fifth audition, I knew what I wanted to do with my character. We got word right around Christmas to report to Savannah to begin work on the film.

The camp scenes do a good job of re-creating the bond between the unit’s members. How did the actors bring that to life?
I came from a theater background and hadn’t had much experience in film. By the time we got to training camp [in Savannah], I had learned some of the rudiments of the process, and Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman really put their arms around my shoulders and taught me everything I needed to do—all the basics: eyeline matching, how to hit your mark and so on.

I felt I was prepared to do the tent scenes, which had a kind of intimacy and were of a sufficient length that made them feel like they were part of a play. I also had rehearsed and auditioned them five times already, so I was very familiar with the material, what I thought worked. And Morgan [Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins], Jihmi Kennedy [Private Jupiter Sharts], Denzel Washington [Private Trip]— they are really fine actors, which made my job so much easier.

Did the screen version of the script deviate much from the written script?
There was some deviation, mostly revolving around making it more specific. After training in Savannah, we had boot camp for 2½ weeks with an Irish master sergeant who taught us everything we needed to know about fighting in the Civil War. We had all the garb, the boots, the wool, and we just went out there and tried our best to really get involved with the training necessary to be these soldiers. Consequently, most of the changes in the script were really about specific military stuff.

The script also deviated from history in that we’re playing stock characters, and stock characters are what make war films go. There’s the sharp-shootin’ country boy; the guy with a chip on his shoulder, who rightfully wants to seek revenge; the old wise head; the smarty-pants from the city. The real 54th Regiment was drawn from all over the Northeast, and its men were quite well educated, healthy and successful in what they did in civilian life—meaning you had a very well-fed, well-educated and well-trained regiment, vastly superior to the one we put on the screen.

Many consider this the best Civil War movie ever made. How do you feel when you hear that?
I think we drew on a long history of successful war films. I guess the best war films are antiwar films. No matter how powerfully you put it up there, I think audiences begin to understand the real cost of war when they see a film that’s made like this, films in which flesh wounds and supernatural accuracy with the rifles are not the norm. Films that really portray the indecision and the fear that goes into fighting a war, I think those are typically the most successful films.

How did Ed Zwick, the director, help you develop the character of Thomas Searles?
Edward, I think, had done one film before, and a war film presented quite a challenge for him. A director is really the head of the army, and consequently Ed was challenged in making this film. The subject matter was challenging; people are very passionate about this subject. These were the days were you actually needed 1,500 guys with bayonets in order to make a charge, as opposed to just somebody digitizing it, so I think for months there Ed was really overwhelmed at the helm of a 2,000-man technical army. But it turned out quite well because the people on the film were all very passionate about making sure that this was a good film. This isn’t to slight Ed in any way, but even he would admit that filming Glory was a big shock—a big jump from what he had done before.

Talk about the maturation of Thomas as a soldier, the changes he and Robert Gould Shaw faced as they evolved from friends to their roles at different levels of the regiment.

It’s a disappointment for him in a certain way. Thomas is quite naïve. He’s motivated by ideals, and the fighting of a war is not so much about ideals but about perseverance and tactics and discipline; a lot of things that are more distasteful than what he thought would be. But it really turns from a moment where Robert and Thomas are comrades-in-arms to a war in which Thomas is fighting for his own history, his own story. It moves from being a question of two men who love each other going to war to really a question of how do we best fulfill our duty to our country; how do we best tell our own story; how do we best make a name for ourselves;

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