Glory director Ed Zwick explains how he worked to avoid 'a white savior narrative'
It’s hard to picture now, but the acclaimed Civil War drama Glory was almost a very different movie.
Directed by Ed Zwick with a screenplay by Kevin Jarre, the film tells the true story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) as he leads the 54th Massachusetts, the U.S. Civil War’s first all-black volunteer regiment. Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Jihmi Kennedy, and Andre Braugher (in his feature film debut) star as the brave soldiers of the 54th.
And while the finished product — which won 3 Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Washington — focuses heavily on Shaw, Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), and the soldiers as they prepare for battle, it almost served as more of a biopic on the colonel himself. Speaking with EW ahead of the film’s 30th anniversary, and its rerelease in over 600 theaters on July 21 and 24, Zwick says he worked with the studio to avoid creating a “white savior narrative.”
“I ended up cutting a lot of what the studio had tried to insist that we put in the script or even shoot because it was just fine, but it wasn’t essential,” he explains. Scenes of Shaw’s backstory growing up, his parents, and his struggles to get the regiment formed all ended up being cut.
The turning point, Zwick says, came when he saw the first footage of scenes with Washington, Freeman, Kennedy, and Braugher together in the tent during training. “I saw the beating heart of the movie,” Zwick explains. “And something changed in that moment for me — it’s one thing to know a story and to write a story, but I realized that this was the way into the movie and began to increasingly tilt the movie towards them, and their story.”
He says he doesn’t “blame the studio” for pushing the narrative towards Shaw, and credits a different time period in our culture with their desire to hew the film towards him. But, at the end of the day, he says, “What these [actors] were doing was essential and it was so strong that you wanted to get out of its way and just let it happen.”
Happen it did, and the result is a film with a plethora of emotional scenes, that, given the weighty subject matter, were difficult to shoot. Zwick pinpoints two in particular: the flogging scene, in which Washington’s character is whipped in front of the regiment for running away to find shoes, and the ending battle of Fort Wagner on the beach.
“When you’re doing a scene about a man whipping another man just a mile from the docks where the slaves were kept in cages in Savannah, Georgia — that had all sorts of ghosts that it summoned up,” he says of the former. “Every place we were, even when we were in Atlanta in the marshes, these were all the places where these things had taken place and you felt that around you, always. And I think that’s certainly a thing that I remember vividly about it.”
And unlike some movies from that era that haven’t aged well, Glory, which first hit theaters in 1989, has largely stood the test of time. Case in point: Just last month, Michael B. Jordan revealed that his character’s scars in Black Panther were inspired by Washington’s in Glory. Zwick credits the film’s myth-like “power of truth” with Glory‘s endurance.
“[Those types of stories] last the way that myths last. They last because there’s something elemental in them,” he explains. “The story of those men that were willing to do the things that they did for the sake of a country that had no real interest or commitment to them, in the belief that their sacrifice did change something… They committed themselves to the struggle, and to see that kind of commitment to the struggle for ideals, for beliefs, and for good — that’s eternal.”
In addition to its rerelease in theaters, Glory will also debut on 4K Ultra HD on July 30 ahead of its 30th anniversary later this year.