Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Three): ‘Glory’ Days

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Pvt. Trip (Denzel Washington) in Glory (1989)
Pvt. Trip (Denzel Washington) in Glory (1989)

There was a time in Denzel Washington’s young life when he had entertained notions of becoming a preacher. After all, his father, the Reverend Denzel Hayes Washington Sr. (Denzel was named after his dad), was an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Church. And wouldn’t it have been nice if the son had followed in the father’s footsteps?

But by age 14, Denzel’s parents had split up and the more junior Washington was sent off to a private prep school, i.e., Oakland Military Academy in New Windsor, New York. Although by the time Denzel had studied there the military curriculum had long since been discontinued, it was still a forlorn environment for the impressionable inner-city youth from Mount Vernon.

Years later, the actor would recall that the decision to send him to Oakland Military Academy had profound ramifications for his personal life. “I wouldn’t have survived in the direction that I was going,” Denzel stated. “The guys I was hanging out with at the time, my running buddies, have now done 40 years combined in the penitentiary. They were nice guys, but the streets got them.”

And Tinsel Town got nice guy Denzel, a fair trade at best. A little over 20 years passed when Washington, now a major force on the Hollywood scene after glowing reviews in several big-screen features, was signed to appear in the Civil War epic Glory (1989). He played the part of the taciturn Private Silas Trip, a former slave fighting for the North who also fought for the freedom of his people.

“I wanted to do something different,” Denzel indicated at the time, “and to feel removed from the present time. It’s difficult to do a period piece and to give yourself as an actor a different feeling, as though you’re in a different time.”

“He really defined that character,” commented film critic Julian Roman, “to the point of someone who became a part of the war … but beyond that became a comrade to his friends, became a loyal soldier to his regiment commander, and that’s a transcendent performance.”

“I didn’t even know that blacks fought in the Civil War,” the actor told the Associated Press. “The American history classes that I took didn’t seem to dwell on that at all. It was inspiring for me; it gave me a lot of energy to continue research and get further and further into it. Although the character I play isn’t based on a real person, I kind of put ideas together that I found from reading slave narratives and things like that.”

Battle Cry of Freedom

Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Library of Congress)
Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Library of Congress)

Directed by former Harvard-graduate Edward Zwick, the letters of another Harvard alumnus, those of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick, who also provides the voiceover), a young, white Union commander in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, written to his northern abolitionist mother (Jane Alexander, unbilled), formed the basis for this inspiring portrait of gallantry and racism during the American Civil War.

Other relevant sources included the novel One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment by Peter Burchard and Lincoln Kirstein’s photographic compilation, Lay This Laurel.

Unlike the real-life 54th, which was made up mostly of free black men from the North, the screen regiment is comprised almost entirely of ex-slaves. Except for the presence of Col. Shaw, his parents, and the imposing figure of author, abolitionist, editor and speaker Frederick Douglass (Raymond St. Jacques) — two of whose sons actually signed up with and fought for the 54th — the principal participants depicted in the drama are purely fictitious.

One of these fictitious creations, Pvt. Trip, is flogged for having deserted his troops in the midst of their training. As it turns out, Trip was only looking for a decent pair of shoes, which the troops had been denied due to the racist tendencies of the quartermaster in charge of their supplies. Denzel’s tearful acquiescence in full view of his fellow troopers, and before his commanding officer, is one of the most powerful sequences in the movie.

Trip would rather take the punishment than show weakness by backing down from a beating. In his own words, Denzel put the case before us: “Basically what I did was, got on my knees and sort of communicated with the spirits of those who had been enslaved, who had been whipped. And when I came out I was in charge. I said ‘Trip was in charge. If this is what you men, which is what you call yourselves, want to do to Trip, then come with it.’ ”

He and the other volunteers eventually get to display their fighting spirit and worth as Union soldiers in a futile and vividly realistic suicidal attack on an impregnable beach fortress off the coast of South Carolina.

Trip is flogged for desertion in Glory
Trip is flogged for desertion in Glory

“These men were looking for an opportunity to prove themselves,” Denzel continued. “The battle was no more dangerous than their day-to-day lives with the constant threat of slavery and slave masters with their mentality over their heads. They were looking for the opportunity to have a fair fight and to have a rifle as well, regardless of the odds.”

Subsequently channeling Rev. Denzel Washington Sr., Denzel Jr. sounds distinctly like a man preaching to the choir. And in a rousing scene that takes place the night before the final battle, Denzel (in his guise as Trip) gets to clap and sing along with his fellow soldiers in a spontaneous revival meeting. Do I hear an “Amen” out there?

The hardships these men experience along the way frame the main part of the story behind the unsuccessful charge at Fort Wagner where, historically, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry lost half their men. Pride, courage, bravery, dignity and sacrifice are all touched upon in this potent war drama, a fitting tribute to the soldiers who fought and died in that vicious battle, which occurred almost simultaneously with a similar confrontation on the wide-open fields of Gettysburg, PA.

After several nominations wherein he came up empty-handed, in 1990 Denzel finally won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his personification of an angry black man railing against social injustice. For me, the most poignant portion of the entire film comes when the lifeless body of Col. Shaw is unceremoniously thrown into a huge ditch alongside the corpse of Pvt. Trip and others of their regiment, with gulls and sea birds squealing and squawking noisily overhead. Their bodies come together in an involuntary “embrace,” which symbolizes the union of each man’s spirit in brotherly love and understanding — if not in life, then in the after-life.

Matthew Broderick as Col. Robert Gould Shaw
Matthew Broderick as Col. Robert Gould Shaw

However, the real-life tragedy of what actually took place after the battle had been lost was mercifully omitted. In the book, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, published by the Society of American Historians, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson, in the chapter on the movie Glory, describes the outcome in distressing terms:

“The Confederate defenders of Fort Wagner stripped Shaw’s corpse and dumped it into an unmarked mass grave with the bodies of his black soldiers. When the Union commander sent a flag of truce across the lines a day later to request the return of Shaw’s body (a customary practice for high-ranking officers killed in the Civil War), a Confederate officer [General Johnson Hagood] replied contemptuously, ‘We have buried him with his niggers.’”

Interestingly, Col. Shaw’s father had quite a different reaction to his son’s “dishonorable” burial: “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers … We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company — what a body-guard he has!”

With a screenplay by Kevin Jarre and striking photography by the veteran British cinematographer Freddie Francis, Glory also featured excellent performances from Morgan Freeman as Sgt. Major Rawlins, Cary Elwes as Major Cabot Forbes, Andre Braugher as Thomas Searles, and Jihmi Kennedy as Jupiter Sharts, with Alan North, Bob Gunton, John Finn, Jay O. Sanders and Cliff De Young in other roles.

The exceptionally fine and moving musical score by James Horner, with the welcome participation of the Boys Choir of Harlem, is one of this composer’s best remembered pieces. It’s a favorite of record collectors and sound buffs (Shawn Murphy is the sound engineer), with more than a hint of Carl Orff’s secular cantata Carmina burana in its sweeping choral passages and ethereal, otherworldly tonalities.

(End of Part Three – To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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