By Emily Landgraf
People from Arkansas can hold their own with the best of Hollywood.
That’s what Dr. Gregory Urwin, a military historian and professor, and his 13 recruits set out to prove when they traveled to Jekyll Island, Georgia to help film the Civil War epic Glory, which Urwin was an extra in.
“Thank you for letting me tell you about a brief flirtation with Hollywood,” Urwin said after being introduced on Feb. 24.
Urwin spoke for an hour about the recruiting and filming process, at a program entitled “An Evening of Glory.” The event was presented by the Rider University Veterans Association in conjunction with the Leadership Development Program and the Black Student Union.
Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African American regiment in the Civil War, led by the young Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick).
Urwin gave a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. He first heard about the project as an associate professor at the University of Central Arkansas.
“The producer, Freddy Fields, had a hard time selling the idea of a black Civil War film,” Urwin said. “They were given a budget of $18 million, which is low for this sort of film. So, Fields decided to rely on re-enactors for the fights to stay within the budget and still keep the accuracy.”
Associate producer Ray Herbeck was key in this sense, Urwin explained, because of his connections to re-enactors. Urwin decided he wanted to get in on the action.
“I called up Ray Herbeck and offered my services,” he said. “I would be in the picture if I could recruit a company of black soldiers.”
Urwin set to it, recruiting students and friends alike and teaching them the proper marching techniques.
“I really liked the idea of making a movie where black and white come together,” Urwin said. “Recruiting students to help make the movie would also give the university good publicity.”
He admitted he also had less noble motives for wanting to be in the film.
“Like most Americans, I have a fascination with the film industry,” Urwin said. “I also wanted to go on an ego trip.”
Urwin faced challenges with equipping his company, and eventually only 13 of his 16 recruits made it to Jekyll Island for the filming.
“My biggest regret is that I couldn’t raise enough money to outfit all of them,” he said.
One of Urwin’s favorite memories occurred just before he and his company left for filming. Outfitted in Union uniforms, the company drilled for the university.
“It was not the typical way that the Civil War had been commemorated at most southern universities, and I was proud of that,” Urwin said.
When Urwin and the recruits got to the set, he noticed that his group had a few advantages.
“Most of the recruits were older re-enactors,” he said. “I had a bunch of fit, young college students, so it was more believable.”
It also turned out that the UCA contingent was one of the larger groups on set.
“Only two other well-trained groups were bigger than mine,” Urwin said.
Urwin ended up with extras in his company as he was put in charge of a group of minor offenders from Arizona who were working on the movie as a form of community service.
“I wasn’t thrilled about it at first, but I managed to whip my enlarged company into shape,” he said.
The producers had wanted 200 recruits but only managed to obtain 100. The producers managed to hire 100 more from urban areas in Georgia.
“Lots of these recruits were street people,” said Urwin. “It gave my students, who were from rural areas mostly, their first experience with the urban underclass.”
At one point during filming, some of these “street people” caused an incident at one of the trucks designated to bring water to the actors. Soon, the trucks stopped coming.
Eventually, the white men leading the re-enactors had to talk to the producers, as they felt the black re-enactors were receiving unfair treatment.
“This gave me my first taste of being black in America,” Urwin said.
Urwin said that other racial tensions flared up on set at times. The black men who were new at re-enacting often grew frustrated with the “happy, hyper white guys” leading the companies.
Urwin had many interesting experiences on set. He met Allan R. Millett from Ohio State University when he offered to help teach him to march.
Urwin became friends with “America’s top military historian.” Millett, a former military man, proved to be a great help in easing any tensions within the company.
“For me, this reinforced the difference between real military officers and pretend officers like me,” Urwin said.
He related stories about the cast, which included such esteemed names as Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Broderick.
“While Broderick got the star billing, it was clear that the actors with the most talent on the set were Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington,” Urwin said.
Freeman did a good job of keeping the recruits in line, said Urwin, and Washington was always a “consummate professional,” though he rarely strayed from his trailer when not on camera.
Perhaps the most interesting story Urwin told involved one of his company, “one of the Arizona guys,” and a volatile young actor named Jihmi Kennedy.
Urwin spoke about a scene where the regiment is marching toward Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Since Broderick’s horse kept startling because of the cheers the men received in the scene, they had to do numerous takes.
“The extras were irritated,” Urwin said. “It was a hot day. One of the guys from Arizona just freaked out.”
The man started shouting curses and stripped down to his underwear. He then took off in the direction of the ocean.
“I figured I’d just let him do his thing. He would take a dip, cool off and come back,” Urwin said.
Instead of running into the ocean, the man turned a corner and disappeared down the beach.
Later, the man came back, got dressed and started walking to the meal tent after the others had been bussed over. Along the way he spotted a beautiful woman who was often on the set, and Kennedy. He decided to ask the woman for a date.
When she refused, he persisted. Jihmi got involved, and soon there was an altercation.
“I think Jihmi learned that when an actor picks a fight with a real street punk, and there’s no director or script, the street punk wins,” Urwin said.
Everything worked out in the end, and Morgan Freeman even shook the Arizona man’s hand.
Urwin enjoyed the film immensely and believes it helped him grow in his profession.
“Working on Glory was exciting and inspiring,” he said. “It was more than just a movie to me.”