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Wednesday 9 September 2009

Book of the film: Zulu

Well, sort of. The book is ZULU – WITH SOME GUTS BEHIND IT! By Sheldon Hall

The subtitle of this book is ‘The making of the epic movie”, which says what it means. Sheldon Hall has comprehensively accomplished just that, describing in fascinating detail the research for the original article by author John Prebble, the development of the screenplay, the creation of the film’s characters, the casting, finding the locations in South Africa, the actual filming and editing, the music, plus the final release and the reviews and criticism. Released in 1964, the film has remained popular for over forty years and this book goes a long way to explaining why.

The events in the film took place in January 1879 during the Anglo-Zulu War on the day following the British defeat at Isandhlwana, later filmed as Zulu Dawn. The small mission at Rorke’s Drift consisted of six hundred square yards of poorly defensible land and was manned by eight officers and ninety-seven other ranks with thirty-six sick and wounded men in the mission hospital. Moving against Rorke’s Drift was a force of four thousand Zulu warriors. Eleven Victoria Crosses were won in a single day in the battle of Rorke’s Drift. Reprinted for the first time is the entire article, Slaughter in the Sun, written by historical author John Prebble and published in the Lilliput magazine for 1958.

Inevitably, film producers and writers are criticised when they tamper with real-life historical characters. These critics tend to forget that the film isn’t a documentary but a dramatic representation and, in Hall’s words, ‘I believe it is not only defensible but necessary to reinvent real-life figures for their new role in a drama.’ If viewers of these films confuse the drama with actual history, then that’s not the fault of the producers. Several descendants of the soldiers at Rorke’s Drift were upset over the portrayal of their relatives in the film.

Hall quotes at length from contributors to the website and one in particular (Diana Blackwell) comments, ‘Despite its historical basis, Zulu is a work of art, not a documentary. It takes a few liberties with the facts, but always in the interest of strengthening the story.’ Diana points out that the film has drawn more attention to the battle than all the other sources combined and serious historical studies have resulted directly from the exposure given by the film. Much more is known about that conflict now than at the time when Prebble did his initial research.

Stanley Baker was co-producer and main star of the film. During the filming he and his wife made friends with Prince Buthelezi. Baker was awarded a knighthood in Wilson’s resignation honours and before receiving it from the Queen he contracted pneumonia in Malaga and died, aged forty-eight. His Zulu friend sent a wreath to ‘the finest white man he had ever met.’ Baker kept a secret cheque-book, discovered after his death, from which he gave money to out-of-work actors and broken-down boxers.

The book would have been interesting simply covering the making of the film, but it is immeasurably better because of snippets like the above scattered throughout.

Although Zulu is considered to be Michael Caine’s first film role, it wasn’t. But this was the movie that gave him prominent billing, even if his fee was only a mere £4,000 – a lot to a struggling actor in those days. What is quite striking is the generous encouragement and fostering of Caine – Jack Hawkins said he’s ‘the best thing in this film’ while Baker deprecates, saying the film didn’t make Caine a star, it only helped – Caine ‘made himself into a star.’ James Booth received mixed reviews about his part as the ne’er-do-well Private Hook. He enjoyed it immensely. Ironically, he appeared in the Newcastle upon Tyne Theatre playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan. At least he’d been promoted!

(The drawing is a sketch I made from a photo in 1964, when I was 16 - ye Gods, that's a long time ago...!)

One of the most memorable characters was Colour-Sergeant Bourne played by Nigel Green who was coincidentally born in South Africa. Some actors received mixed notices but Green was praised from every quarter. This part gained him recognition and more film roles. Subsequently, he appeared in two Michael Caine movies, The Ipcress File and Play Dirty. The voice-over narration was done by an old friend of Baker’s, Richard Burton, who refused to take a fee.

The location filming couldn’t take place at the original site of Rorke’s Drift since a modern school and monuments to the battle had been erected over the mission and the battlefield. Besides, from an aesthetic point of view, the scenery wasn’t that great. They eventually settled on Drakensberg mountain range about 160km from Rorke’s Drift.

Many real Zulus were employed as extras and stunt men. Chief (Then Prince) Buthelezi played the Zulu chief King Cetewayo. He went on to become Minister of Home Affairs in the new South Africa and was even appointed Acting President of the Republic by Nelson Mandela, who had previously been his political rival. He is particularly sad that so many people involved in the film ‘are no more.’

The biggest problem for the director was not arranging the fight scenes but actually getting the Zulus out of the shade – they didn’t care much for the sun. The working relationship between the white crew and the Zulus was good and memorable, despite the dark shadow of inhuman apartheid regime. My ship called in at Durban in the late 1960s and we were appalled at the way the blacks were treated. Indeed, Caine vowed never to return to South Africa while apartheid was still in force. Although hundreds of Zulus had worked on the film and appeared in it, because of apartheid they weren’t allowed to see it at all: Stanley Baker kept his promise, however, and arranged a secret special viewing for all those involved in the film.

The haunting film score by John Barry is covered in depth, too: he has written over 120 film scores and believes that music should be doing a very specific thing. He doesn’t want background music, he wants foreground music.

There were many special premieres throughout the country. At Glasgow five Scottish holders of the VC were accompanied by a guard of honour from HMS Zulu, a tribal class frigate due to be commissioned on the Clyde. In April 1967 I joined the ship’s company of HMS Zulu and we eventually sailed to Durban and visited Zululand and attended a tribal dance ceremony as guests of honour. (I left the ship in October 1969).

The film Zulu surpassed the previous highest grossing British release From Russia with Love. However, Bond came back to overtake that record with Goldfinger...

Zulu wasn’t glorying in warfare or jingoism or racism. It was simply a ‘straightforward celebration of valour, tenacity and honour among men’ from both sides. Many self-serving critics have tried to pillory the film-makers for not explaining the historical context or showing more from the Zulu viewpoint. They forget that the film was a drama about eleven men winning the Victoria Cross in one day.

There is a chapter about myths, gaffes and spoofs, even the Beyond Our Ken’s parody. There are appendices on the production schedule, the budget, the complete cast and crew listing, as well as a useful bibliography for further reading on the period and the Anglo-War of 1879 in particular. Some armies actually use the film as part of their training in leadership.

The book’s title is taken from a comment by Colour Sergeant Bourne near the end of the film, explaining their miraculous victory was not only due to the rifle but also the bayonet. ‘With some guts behind it, sir.’

The Zulu warcry is Bayete! - Thy will be done!


Jack said...

Great movie. Brilliant script. And I never tire of it.
"Why us?"
"Cos we're here, lad. Nobody else."
Sums it up.

Nik Morton said...

As you say, Jack, says it all. I've just inserted a drawing of mine circa 1964 of Stanley Baker.

Evan Lewis said...

Loved that movie. Fascinating stuff, Nik.

Nik Morton said...

Thanks, Dave. The book is definitely worth getting hold of, a treasure to possess and to read.