I was both surprised and saddened to learn that Kevin Jarre, a talented screenwriter and dedicated history buff, has died. His screenplays included two notable historical projects, Glory and Tombstone.
In my opinion, Glory is not only the finest Civil War movie ever made but also one of the ten best movies of any sort ever made. (Jarre himself had a cameo as a Union soldier.) The first time I saw it was in a classroom when I was in the eighth grade. This was long before I’d developed a serious interest in the past, but even then it made quite an impression. A few years later, for a high school history project, we all had to give a presentation on any American historical figure, so I picked Robert Gould Shaw.
Jarre had been a self-described “Civil War freak” since childhood, when he received toy soldiers from the era for Christmas.
His interest in the 54th Massachusetts, a regiment that was one of first black units during the Civil War, was piqued when a friend, Lincoln Kirstein, observed that a photograph of Jarre on horseback resembled a statue of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment’s white leader.
Moved to research the 54th, Jarre read the colonel’s letters and two books, Kirstein’s “Lay This Laurel” and Peter Burchard’s “One Gallant Rush,” which became source material for the 1989 film “Glory.”
“I never thought I could interest anybody in it,” Jarre told The Times in 1990. “A Civil War epic, about black people? But I’d got really attached to the story…. I’d end up in tears when I got through writing.”
My family met a friend of Jarre’s at a western history conference in Arizona back in the nineties. He told us Jarre was writing a screenplay about the Lincoln assassination. I don’t know if he finished it, but a tale like that in the hands of a master storyteller like Jarre would’ve been a movie worth seeing. The man had an intuitive sense of the past’s dramatic possibilities and a gift for bringing it to life in a way that was both authentic and immediate. Hollywood could use more like him.