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In January 1879 British forces invaded KwaZulu in South Africa in an effort to confederate the territory under the rule of Governor-General Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere. The Zulu populace refused to accept this edict and retaliated with an attack on British forces at Isandlwana on January 22nd, killing more than 1300 soldiers. Later that same day more than four thousand Zulu warriors advanced on Rorke's Drift, a British missionary station in Natal protected by a small army of 139 soldiers. Over a two day period, the Zulus attacked the garrison in waves, incurring huge losses as they were constantly driven back by the intractable British defense. Exhausted and fearing the worst, the surviving British troops were stunned when the Zulus decided to retreat at dawn, saluting them for their bravery before they departed. Later nine men from the garrison were awarded the prestigious Victoria Cross, the most ever awarded to one regiment for valor in a single battle. Besides its importance in British military history, the Defense of Rorke's Drift is a prime example of the supreme effectiveness of Western military practices and procedures.
It was inevitable that such a momentous event in British history would be brought to the screen and in the early sixties, actor Stanley Baker, whose popularity was at its height, proposed an epic re-enactment of the Rorke's Drift incident as the first project of his newly created production company, Diamond Films. Thanks to producer Joseph E. Levine, who agreed to back any movie Baker wanted to make, the actor was able to go forward with Zulu (1964), working from a screenplay by historical writer John Prebble with contributions by blacklisted American screenwriter Cy Endfield, who was also tapped to direct. Endfield first worked with Baker on Child in the House in 1956 and after that the two men collaborated on five more films together, culminating in their final venture, Sands of the Kalahari, in 1965.
Baker's interest in Zulu, however, wasn't purely to pay tribute to the bravery of both the British officers and the Zulu warriors who clashed at Rorke's Drift but to accent the fact that most of the defending soldiers at the outpost were Welsh like himself, a fact he took great pride in. And among the many players in this historical drama, three stand out among the rest, Lt. Chard, Private Henry Hook and Lt. Gonville Bromhead, all based on the actual people. At one point, the Rev. Witt, also based on a real person, played a bigger part in the story but his role was reduced during editing (to the great disappointment of actor Jack Hawkins.)
Baker cast himself as Chard and James Booth played the cynical petty thief Private Hook who spends most of the story being treated for boils and other ailments in the makeshift infirmary. Michael Caine, who at this point in his career was still an unknown bit player, was cast as Bromhead, after losing the part of Hook to Booth. The actor recalled in Michael Caine: Acting in Film that "since I was tall and fair, I apparently looked like a posh Englishman, and the director, Cy Endfield, asked if I could do an upper-class accent. I switched quickly to Etonian and said, "Why, Mr. Endfield, I've been doing it for years." He had me do a screen test, during which I showed my absolute terror. He came up to me at a party the following night, after ignoring me most of the evening, and said, "That was the worst damn screen test I ever saw in my life." I thought, okay, so I haven't got it. "But," he continued, "you've got the part because we're leaving on Monday and we can't find anybody else."
After Baker and his England based cast and crew arrived in South Africa they set up camp near the Drakensburg Mountains where most of the movie would be shot with some additional location filming in and around the province of Natal and the Royal Natal National Park. For the Zulu warriors, Baker recruited more than 700 extras, many of them descendants of the actual men who fought in the Anglo-Zulu War. He even cast the current tribal leader of the Zulu nation, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, in the role of his famous predecessor, Cetshwayo. Even with 700 Zulu extras, however, Baker had to figure out how to make them appear to be 4,000 strong and resorted to camera tricks and creating "fake Zulus" which you can spot if you look carefully at the hilltop scenes.
The Zulu extras, who wore their own colorful war costumes for the film, presented a challenge to Baker and Endfield because they had never acted before a camera or even seen a movie. Caine recalled that "Cy set up a screen and a sixteen-millimetre projector and they all gathered to watch and see what they were supposed to be doing. The film was an old Roy Rogers western [some sources claim it was a Gene Autry western], and when it first came on there was a gasp from everybody at the wonder of it. As the film progressed they quickly settled down and almost immediately started jeering at anything that looked ridiculous and shouting lines in Zulu that I am sure were "Look out! He's behind you!" when the villain crept up on Roy...The biggest laugh came when Roy sang as he rode along. They obviously could not understand why a man would want to sing riding a horse alone on a prairie, and were puzzled about where the music was coming from. But after ten minutes they figured it out and their reaction was the same as anyone else's would have been."
For the massive battle sequences that comprise the second half of Zulu, Endfield consulted with the tribal historian, a princess from Chief Buthelezi's clan. Because Zulus have no written history, everything is passed down in the oral tradition. As a result, the Zulu consultant demonstrated to Endfield, drawing in the sand with sticks, the movement and battle formations of the Zulus at Rorke's Drift. He worked these details into the film, giving it an authenticity and excitement rarely equaled in other war movies. In particular, the scene when the Zulu forces numbering 4,000 suddenly appear on the ridge, their arrival preceded by their ominous war chant which sounds like an approaching train, is particularly unforgettable.
Despite an arduous three-month shoot in South Africa, the filming of Zulu went rather smoothly except for one incident involving a white foreman on the set who became too intimate with some of the African women. The apartheid laws in South Africa at this time were extremely harsh and the penalty for interracial sex was seven years hard labor. Caine remembered the incident in his autobiography, What's It All About?: "The helicopters landed and several policemen got out. The leader demanded to know who was in charge. Stanley stepped forward. Apparently our Cockney had gone a little more native than we all thought. He had moved out of the hotel into a mud hut, and had taken with him three Zulu wives. The policeman told Stanley that the man was under arrest. Later on we realised that one of our white Afrikaans foremen was in fact a police spy, placed with us for this purpose. Worst of all, the policeman told Stanley that the production was closed down and we would have to leave the country. Stanley went to work on him immediately and after much argument they made a deal: the unit could stay, provided that Stanley guaranteed to get the criminal out of the country by midnight. Now I realised that apartheid was not a personal prejudice but a government-sponsored form of civil terrorism. I vowed there and then never to return to that country until they changed the system, and to this day, I haven't." The added kicker to all of this was that the Zulu actors in the film were not allowed to attend Zulu's South African premiere because of the strict segregation laws.
As in most historical films, certain liberties are taken with the facts and Zulu was no exception although it was in the characterizations, and not the battle scenes, that these changes were made. For example, Reverend Witt is portrayed as a drunk in the film and Hook is depicted as a surly malcontent - both distortions of the actual people. Lieutenant Bromhead, who was in reality extremely deaf and a rigid authority figure, was originally conceived as a pompous, upper-class twit. Caine, however, convinced Baker and Endfield to let him play Bromhead differently, starting with an arrogant attitude and slowly humanizing him by degrees, thus avoiding the stereotypical view of the elite Victorian officer. As a result, Caine's performance was singled out for praise by many reviewers when Zulu opened theatrically and was instrumental in advancing the actor from supporting to starring roles. His next feature would be the lead, playing counter espionage agent Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965).
The release of Zulu in June of 1964 in the U.S. coincided with a tense period between Whites and African-Americans just prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which was passed in July. Because of this, many American reviewers' opinion of the film was colored by racial issues and responded to it quite differently than British audiences. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, "With so much racial tension and anticolonial discord in the world, a film on the order of "Zulu" seems strangely archaic and indiscreet...if you're not too squeamish at the sight of slaughter and blood and can keep your mind fixed on the notion that there was something heroic and strong about British colonial expansion in the 19th century, you may find a great deal of excitement in this robustly Kiplingesque film." And Crowther certainly had a valid point when he asked "Is it a contribution to the cause of harmony to show so much vicious acrimony between black men and white...to make an exciting thing of firing rifles into the faces of charging warriors and sticking bayonets into them?" It's true Zulu would be a stronger film if it offered a Zulu point of view as well along with a few strongly developed characters to match their British counterparts. In addition, the opening and closing narration by Richard Burton never addresses the real reason for the Zulus' attack which was Britain's aggressive colonialist agenda, leading them to invade and conquer countries they felt was their divine right to govern. Yet, even divorced from the topical controversy of the year it was released, Zulu remains an impressive historical epic, brimming with superbly choreographed action sequences and stunning South African locales.
Despite Cy Endfield's skillfully paced direction, impressive performances by the leading players, and John Barry's evocative score, Zulu was largely ignored when it came to film honors. It received no Oscar® nominations but it did receive one nomination from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) for Best Colour Art Direction (by Ernest Archer). Cy Endfield would later return to this same chapter in British history for Zulu Dawn (1979), for which he wrote the screenplay which was based on the Zulus' victory over the British at Isandlwana just prior to the Rorke's Drift incident.
Producers: Stanley Baker, Cy Endfield
Director: Cy Endfield
Screenplay: Cy Endfield, John Prebble (and article too)
Cinematography: Stephen Dade
Art Direction: Ernest Archer
Music: John Barry
Film Editing: John Jympson
Cast: Stanley Baker (Lt. John Chard), Jack Hawkins (Rev. Otto Witt), Ulla Jacobsson (Margareta Witt), James Booth (Pte. Henry Hook), Michael Caine (Lt. Gonville Bromhead), Nigel Green (Colour Sgt. Frank Bourne).
C-135m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford
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Michael Caine Acting in Film: An Actor's Take on Movie Making