Zulu epic turns 50

2013-09-09 00:00

MANGOSUTHU Buthelezi provided the climax of the inaugural Simon “Mabhunu” Sabela film awards, presented by the KZN Film Commission in July, when he accepted an award as one of the legends of the South African film industry. In his acceptance speech, he recalled appearing in the film Zulu, in which he played his ancestor King Cetshwayo kaMpande. He went on to dedicate his award “to that epic production, which became a milestone event, not only in cinematic history, but within the Zulu nation”.

It is now 50 years since Zulu was filmed against the spectacular backdrop of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre in the Royal Natal National Park. The film re-created the defence of Rorke’s Drift that took place on January 22/23, 1879, following the overwhelming Zulu victory at Isandlwana. A small group of British troops, some of them Welshmen, held out against a superior Zulu force. More Victoria Crosses, the highest award for bravery, were awarded to a single regiment for this action — 11 in all — than for any other in British military history.

Zulu, widely regarded as one of the best British action-epics ever made, starred Stanley Baker as Lieutenant John Chard and Michael Caine as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead. Jack Hawkins appeared as the missionary Otto Witt, whose mission station the British had commandeered, and Swedish actress Ulla Jacobsson was his daughter.

Among the South African actors to appear were Gert van den Berg, Kerry Jordan, Derek Folbigge and Mangosuthu Buthelezi, credited as “Chief Buthelezi”, playing the Zulu king Cetshwayo.

On its release in 1964, Zulu was a huge hit and launched the career of Michael Caine. The KwaZulu-Natal tourism industry also owes the film a great, if unacknowledged, debt. Repeated screenings on British television over the years have seeded ongoing generations of tourists to this province.

The film was based on an article by historian John Prebble, best known today for his Scottish histories. The article attracted the attention of American film director Cy Endfield who, following his blacklisting in the U.S. during the McCarthy era, went to live and work in England.

Endfield contacted Welsh actor Stanley Baker, with whom he had made three earlier films. The Welsh sub-text immediately appealed to Baker, who was proud of his Welsh background. “I am a miner’s son born and bred in the Rhonda Valley,” he would later tell a Witness journalist on location.

While Endfield and Prebble worked on a script, Baker went in search of financing, eventually teaming up with producer Joseph E. Levine to form Diamond Films. Budgeted at R2 000 000, Zulu was Levine’s first mainstream production.

He subsequently went on to produce a string of hits, including Nevada Smith, The Graduate, Soldier Blue and A Bridge Too Far.

During pre-production in 1962, Baker and other production staff visited South Africa scouting for locations. They visited Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift with a view to filming on the actual sites. However, they decided the Amphitheatre would provide a more spectacular location, plus it had the added attraction of accommodation close by. During the shoot, crew and cast stayed at the Mont-aux-Sources Hotel and the Royal Natal National Park Hotel.

The location chosen for the mission station was on the banks of the Tugela River adjacent to the road leading to Tendele hutted camp. The Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) was paid R1 500 for the use of the location and an undertaking was made by the filmmakers that after the filming was complete, everything would be removed.

An article in SA Panorama magazine authored by Witness journalist Derrick Kain detailed the preparations on site before shooting commenced: “A complete mission station with a church, hospital and other buildings, as well as a large Zulu kraal and a pontoon bridge over the river were constructed against a picturesque background to serve as film sets.”

A small village was built “to accommodate the film unit during the day” while “a special residential area was also constructed … for the approximately 250 Bantu people whose services were needed daily. The remainder were brought from their homes in the neighbouring area … when they were needed.”

At the KZN Film Commission awards ceremony, Buthelezi recalled how he was contacted by the makers of the film to assist in the recruiting of Zulu extras.

“It was remarkable at the time to engage so many extras,” he said. “But what was more remarkable was that they were not emotionally removed from the work. Indeed, these men found themselves re-enacting the deeds of their own grandfathers. Somehow, this drew the audience into what was, in the end, a very human experience.”

Buthelezi found himself also drawn into the production: “They had already cast Mr Hubert Sishi, an announcer from Radio Zulu, for the part of King Cetshwayo. But when Enfield saw me, he was struck by the family resemblance, and persuaded me to play the role myself.”

Location filming in the Drakensberg lasted until the end of June and Witness reporter Kain was a frequent visitor to the set. He recorded that shooting began on March 28 “at the dammed-up Tugela River under overcast skies. In the middle of it all was Mr Cy Endfield, the director, a Yank, who was dressed in a natty pair of swimming trunks, gum boots and a red sweater.

“Smart, red-coated ‘British’ soldiers with white pith helmets marched along a Drakensberg rough road carrying their Martini-Henry rifles.

“The army fashion in those days was to grow the hair long down the nape of the neck. Many of these men have had false hair fixed in position in the cause of authenticity, but when they remove their helmets several very modern crew-cuts are revealed!”

The shorn heads belonged to the 50 South Africans “receiving their Active Citizen Force training near Ladysmith [who] were assigned to the unit by the Department of Defence to act as British soldiers in the film”.

When location shooting was completed at the end of June, the unit returned to London to film interior scenes during July.

Zulu premiered in London in January 1964, but only reached South Africa in December. Given the involvement of the hundreds of Zulu extras, not to mention Buthelezi himself, he found it “incomprehensible” that Zulu was “given a ‘D’ certificate by censors in South Africa, effectively barring black South Africans from watching the film … I was glad that a special arrangement was made to at least screen it for the thousands of extras, in places like Mahlabathini, Nongoma and Durban”.

Apart from its original big-screen release in South Africa in 1964, Zulu has been rarely seen in this country. A first television broadcast in 1993 was withdrawn “as it would be insensitive to screen the movie with so much violence going on”, according to an SABC spokesperson. After much criticism, this decision was reversed and the film was broadcast with little fanfare (or protest) later in the year.

“I don’t consider myself a film star,” said Buthelezi. “Yet, I did have the privilege of working with Simon Sabela when we acted together in … Zulu, where Simon was one of the stuntmen. We also acted together in Tokoloshe. I subsequently worked on the BBC documentary As Thick As Grass, which recounted the Battle of Isandlwana. But my friendship with Simon was firmly cemented with that first film, Zulu.”

• feature1@witness.co.za

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