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Denzel Washington Gets History Lesson with ‘Glory’ Role

January 16, 1990

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The fact that black soldiers fought in the American Civil War might come as a revelation to many who see ″Glory.″ One of the film’s stars, Denzel Washington, admits that he was unaware.

″I knew absolutely nothing,″ said the actor, who portrays a bitter, runaway slave. ″I didn’t even know that blacks fought in the Civil War. 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.″

″Glory″ is partly based on two books about the 54th Massachusetts Colored Volunteer Infantry - ″Lay This Laurel″ and ″One Gallant Rush″ - as well as the letters of Robert Gould Shaw, the Boston Brahmin who commanded the all- black unit. The script by Kevin Jarre describes how Shaw had to fight his Army superiors in order to outfit his soldiers and win battle duty.

Matthew Broderick portrays Gould, and the soldiers include Washington, Morgan Freeman, Jihmi Kennedy and Andre Braugher. With shaved head and scarred face, Washington, the dedicated doctor of TV’s ″St. Elsewhere,″ the martyred Steven Biko of ″Cry Freedom″ and the earnest police chief of ″The Mighty Quinn,″ is scarcely recognizable.

″Someone told me they didn’t know I was in the movie,″ the 33-year-old actor said with a smile. ″I wanted to do something different 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.″

One of the ironies of ″Glory″ comes at the climax, when the 54th is sent on the first wave against the impregnable Fort Wagner, which guarded Charleston harbor. It appears to be a suicide mission.

″These men were looking for an opportunity to prove themselves,″ said Washington. ″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.″

On July 18, 1863, despite extensive fatigue and poor rations, the 54th Massachusetts marched across half a mile of sand to lead the ill-planned attack on Fort Wagner. The regiment lost more than 40 percent of its men, as did the white regiments that followed. Fort Wagner was never taken by Union soldiers.

Filmgoers will be shocked by the movie’s battle scenes, in which Confederate and Union soldiers march toward each other and fire point-blank. The tactic is historically accurate, Washington noted.

″This was the first war with new weaponry,″ he said. ″But they were still using Revolutionary War tactics. The rifles they used then were less accurate and less powerful. They still fought the War Between the States, as they call it, with a lot of honor and regimentation, 100 feet apart, blowing their brains out.″

Denzel Washington grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y. He began studying medicine at Fordham University but soon switched to drama. After a session at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, he began getting New York jobs. Among them was Joseph Papp’s production of ″Coriolanus,′ ′ with Morgan Freeman in the title role. ″I had about six lines, like ’My, lord, they are coming. .. .‴ he recalled.

He began in films as George Segal’s son in ″Carbon Copy.″ He then played an angry GI in ″A Soldier’s Story,″ and signed on as Dr. Philip Chandler in ″St. Elsewhere.″

″Cry Freedom″ brought him an Academy nomination, but surprisingly little work. His only offer was for ″The Mighty Quinn,″ which had a brief release last year despite raves from critics.

Now his career is running smoothly. Beside ″Glory,″ for which he is a likely Oscar candidate, he has completed ″Heart Condition,″ a wild comedy with Bob Hoskins, and ″Love Supreme,″ a musical from Spike Lee.

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