Changing the face of history

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All great movie pictures have an iconic moment which sticks in the memory. Who can forget Kate Winslet hanging over the bow in Titanic, the Japanese planes appearing out of the great big blue in Pearl Harbour and Charlton Heston careering around the sand track of the Colosseum in his chariot pursued by a posse of Romans in Ben Hur?

People get Oscars for creating these archetypical scenes. And then, some people just do it by accident. You see, it happened like this.

Sometime during the late 1970s, an advert appeared on the noticeboard of the Faculty of Arts of the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal. Auditions were opening for parts for the Hollywood blockbuster Zulu Dawn about the famous battle of Isandlwana. Ray and his mates immediately applied and lo and behold they got the job. There was significant appeal. Apart from the pocket money, they would be rubbing shoulders with legends like Burt Lancaster and Peter O’Toole. This was far more exciting than spending the winter recess drowning his boredom at the Boshoff St Country Club, watching movies at the drive-in at Cedara or wandering around the botanical gardens with the latest chick.

"He was given the role of a troop in the 24th regiment of foot and was dressed accordingly, with a red tunic, white solar topee helmet and dark blue trousers with red piping down the side. He, at times, carried a breach loading single-shot Martini-Henry rifle and bayonet, although it was unlikely to have been an original. It would have been far too risky giving a functional weapon to an irresponsible student. Who knows what would have happened?"
Village Vet

And who knows where this would lead him. He had not really thought about Hollywood when he started his teaching course, but now he could already see his name in lights in L.A, playing five-card tricks in Las Vegas, and rubbing shoulders with Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando. The sky was the limit — the stars were within reach. So, came the time and they were piled into a bus, their destination Zululand and the battlefields. He was bit miffed that it was not a Cadillac but that, he reasoned, would come later. They were billeted in a marquee. Ray was vaguely disappointed that he did not have a trailer with his name on it like the big stars. Also, they were hardly any girls (I guess, history had not really given them a part in the battle) and those who were there, were already on the arms of the bigger names.

But he was in the company of good mates, the beers were cold, and it was exciting.

He was given the role of a troop in the 24th regiment of foot and was dressed accordingly, with a red tunic, white solar topee helmet and dark blue trousers with red piping down the side. He, at times, carried a breach loading single-shot Martini-Henry rifle and bayonet, although it was unlikely to have been an original. It would have been far too risky giving a functional weapon to an irresponsible student. Who knows what would have happened?

Had he not already suspected it, Ray would have realised his fate when, on the last day, “wardrobe” issued him with a sturdy Sam Brown belt with an assegai sticking through it. Not the short stabbing spear, the “iklwa” that Shaka made famous, but the longer throwing spear.

"One would also realise that it is uncomfortable to lie under the hot African sky with a long throwing spear sticking in your back and out through the front, particularly with Peter O’ Toole (Lord Chelmsford), the perfectionist, practising his entrance time and again. Death can be so boring, so Ray mingled, wandering around and talking to everyone who would listen, trailed by his ungainly, attached assegai."
Village Vet

This requires description, not only regarding the remarkable engineering of the design, but for two other features.

Firstly, the tip was protruding from the front, implying that Ray’s character was fleeing when impaled. Heroes in the movies, if they are killed off, are usually done in a more dignified manner.

More importantly, for the sake of this tale, is that the shaft protruding from the back was much longer than that emerging from the front. When they designed this feature, maybe they underestimated the strength of the Zulu, or maybe their design software featured an arthritic old khehla.

Perhaps it is now appropriate to refresh the readers memory of history. Lord Chelmsford, lured away to the south by the canny Cetshwayo, returns to camp in the evening to find the entire garrison slaughtered by the Zulu army. It is a poignant moment and the climax to the story, the iconic picture, and the crew had been practising getting the timing right to coincide with the setting sun.

One would also realise that it is uncomfortable to lie under the hot African sky with a long throwing spear sticking in your back and out through the front, particularly with Peter O’ Toole (Lord Chelmsford), the perfectionist, practising his entrance time and again. Death can be so boring, so Ray mingled, wandering around and talking to everyone who would listen, trailed by his ungainly, attached assegai.

READ | Pietermaritzburg’s rich heritage

It came to a climax, with the setting sun approaching the required ghostly glow, when Ray, forgetting he was mortally impaled, carelessly whipped around and the shaft of his assegai caught Lord C’s prancing pony on the rump. The horse, clearly not used to being whipped on his rear end by a rigid shaft protruding from someone who was supposed to be dead, reared up and dumped the hero on the not-so-soft African turf. Lord C, unhurt but clearly not used to such indignities, stormed off to his trailer, only emerging later when his bruised ego allowed him to.

It was night.

So, when you watch that most poignant moment at the end of Zulu Dawn, with the sun glowing dramatically in the west over Fugitives Drift, you might notice a strange phenomenon. The sun does not actually set, and, if your imagination allows it, you might hear the faint rumble of a generator fuelling the lights that had been positioned for effect.

And you definitely won’t read Ray Sidey’s name in the credits.

The Village Vet is a semi-retired veterinarian. Follow his exploits at www.villagevet.wordpress.com

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