Anyone interested in how the film making process works should take note of this book. It may only concern itself with Zulu (the best film ever in my humble opinion) but it envelops far more: how screenplays come into being, casting actors, location and prop management, editing, and the trials of submitting a film for certification.
Until I read this, I knew nothing of the background to the film, merely what it was about. I knew 11 VCs were won at Rorke's Drift, but not that 17 of the 112 men died. Filmed between 25th March and 26th July 1963, the inception went back as far as April 1958 with an article called 'Slaughter in the Sun' published in 'Lilliput' magazine. The author of that, John Prebble, turned it into a screenplay called Zulu (after many rewrites and revisions).
Sheldon Hall's exhaustive research details scenes left on the cutting room floor, and not in a passing manner, with explanations of why they were excised. With this information, you'll know why certain scenes would never have worked, too. Dozens of both on and off set photos compliment the commentary and every page is turned in anticipation of what secrets will be revealed.
You'll also realise how much reviewers seem out of touch with the man-in-the-street. Reviewers shouldn't concern themselves with speculation as to the likely social effects of the subject but to tell the reader whether it's any good. This is more than good: it's a work of art itself.
on 10 March 2008
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 January1879 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 Cain'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 Cain - Jack Hawkins said he's `the best thing in this film' while Baker deprecates, saying the film didn't make Cain a star, it only helped - Cain `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!
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 Cain 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 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.' This book does justice to a great iconic film.
on 3 July 2010
Loved it from start to finnish,well documented with some great facts,stories about how it all came together.Some real surprising details on costs...how they made a few hundred look like thousands,what made Stanely pick that one song, the problems they had to over come filming in Africa and how half the cast (like Hook) didn't even get to Africa.All in all a facinating book,one I shall read many times.