Friday, October 20, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #1: Zulu

At the suggestion of a regular reader [thanks Chris], I'm posting uncut entries from my book Starring Michael Caine. Each one details the background, making of and post-release history of film featuring British actor Sir Michael Caine. In the book the films were presented in alphabetical order, but here I I'm going for chronological order. First up, the film that turned the former Maurice Micklewhite into a rising star.

ZULU (1964)

Cast: Stanley Baker (Lieutenant John Chard R E), Jack Hawkins (Otto Witt), Ulla Jacobsson (Margareta Witt), James Booth (Private Henry Hook), Michael Caine (Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead), Nigel Green (Colour-Sergeant Bourne), Ivor Emmanuel (Private Owen), Paul Daneman (Sergeant Maxfield), Glynn Edwards (Corporal William Allen), Neil McCarthy (Private Thomas), David Kernan (Private Hitch), Gary Bond (Private Cole).
Crew: Cy Endfield (director), Stanley Baker and Cy Endfield (producers), John Prebble and Cy Endfield (writers), John Barry (music), Stephan Dade (cinematography), John Jympson (editor), Ernest Archer (art direction).

Synopsis: In January 1879 more than 1000 British soldiers are killed during a battle with the Zulu forces of King Cetewayo at Isandhlwana in South Africa. The next target for the 4000 Zulu warriors is a mission station at Rorke’s Drift that also has a hospital for British soldiers. Swedish missionary Otto Witt and his daughter Margareta hurry back to the station when they hear of the coming attack. Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers is at Rorke’s Drift to build a bridge. When word of the approaching Zulu arrives, Chard takes charge from the commanding officer, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead. They have the same rank but Chard has three months’ seniority. There are just seven officers, 36 sick and wounded soldiers and less than 100 fit infantrymen at Rorke’s Drift to face 4000 Zulu warriors. South African cavalrymen pass the mission station but refuse to stay and help. Chard is forced to send Witt and Margareta away after the reverend causes trouble and gets drunk. The Zulu send wave after wave of attackers against the station, but the Welsh infantrymen stand firm. The battle continues through the night and resumes next morning. Eventually the Zulu withdraw, chanting a salute to the brave British warriors. Eleven Victoria Cross medals for valour and extreme courage were given to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift, the most ever awarded for a single battle…

In the early 1960s journalist John Prebble wrote a series of articles about courage, using the true story of the battle at Rorke’s Drift for one of his pieces. A shortened version of that piece appeared in Lilliput magazine. Film rights to the article were acquired by Diamond Films, a production company set up by Welsh actor Stanley Baker and American director Cy Endfield. They choose it as their first project, developing the screenplay with Prebble under the working title The Battle of Rorke’s Drift. Originally budgeted at £2.6 million, finance was provided by US producer Joseph E Levine on the condition the budget was cut to £2 million.

Baker was already attached as the star and cast people he had previously enjoyed working with, several of whom had appeared in A Hill in Korea (1956). Among the young actors Baker befriended on that picture was Caine, then struggling to make an impact in a succession of bit parts. During pre-production for Zulu Baker went to see Caine on stage in a play called Next Time I’ll Sing For You. Afterwards he invited Caine to audition for the role of Cockney malingerer Private Hook in Zulu. But the part had already been given to an actor called James Booth. Caine thought his chance had gone.

‘Cy Endfield … was convinced my face was that of a British aristocrat,’ Caine told Films and Filming in 1969. ‘“It’s long … you’ve got a long face like a horse.” He was never very complimentary towards me but he sort of talked himself, and Stanley, and me, into playing the aristocratic lieutenant. This was based on my “horsey” face, longish blond hair … and, of course, economics came into it.’

In a documentary on the Zulu DVD, the widow of Stanley Baker recalls Caine’s screen test. ‘Paramount were pressing for Terence Stamp,’ Lady Ellen Baker says. ‘There were only two tests made, Terry and Michael. Michael’s wasn’t a good test, Terry’s was very, very professional. But both Stanley and Cy knew it had to be Michael. Stanley said, “He’s going to be a massive star.”’ Lady Baker says Paramount and Levine fought against the casting of Caine and tried to have the actor sacked several times during filming. But Enfield and Baker stood by their decision.

Caine had fought in the Korean War as a soldier, but wanted to know more about how officers treated each other. ‘I’d go to the Grenadier Guards’ mess [in London] every lunchtime to talk with the officers,’ he told Film Comment in 1980. ‘I’d only been a private in the army, so my view of officers had been a private’s view. I spent two weeks having meals with them, seeing how they spoke to each other.’ The actor was also preparing to adopt the accent of an upper class Englishman.

Location shooting took place over 14 weeks in Natal, South Africa during 1963, with subsequent studio work at Twickenham Studios in London. During filming in South Africa each day’s footage was sent to England for developing, then came back as rushes so it could be screened for the cast and crew. Caine was horrified by the results. ‘This person came on, quite strange to me, completely awful looking,’ the actor said in a public interview at the NFT in 1998. ‘Suddenly this terrible voice came out, and there was this terrible acting going on, and I threw up on the floor. I threw up and rushed out, and I’ve never been back to rushes.’ The sole exception was The Man Who Would Be King (1975) when director John Huston insisted everyone attended the screening of rushes.

Zulu got its premiere (rated U) in Britain on January 22 1964 - the 85th anniversary of the battle it depicted. Critics questioned the film’s historical accuracy and considered the style old fashioned. But it still found favour with audiences, grossing more than four times its budget at the box office. Film and Filming magazine stated Zulu was the third most successful UK general release of 1964, behind the James Bond blockbuster Goldfinger and the Beatles’ movie debut, A Hard Day’s Night. Zulu was BAFTA-nominated for best art direction. The movie reached US cinemas in June 1964, but failed to replicate its UK success. The picture was reissued to British cinemas in 1967, 1972 and 1976.

Zulu was released on video in 1989, reclassified as a PG in the UK. In a BFI to find the Top 100 British movies of the twentieth century, Zulu was the second highest placed of seven Caine pictures, being voted 31st. It was issued on DVD in 2002, accompanied by a commentary track and two-part documentary about the film’s genesis and production.

Reviews: ‘The production is distinguished by its notable onscreen values … top quality lensing … and intelligent screenplay which avoids most of the obvious clichés.’ – Variety
‘Zulu is a typically fashionable war film, paying dutiful lip service to the futility of the slaughter while milking it for thrills.’ – MFB

Verdict: Zulu is a war film that still stirs the soul and compels the viewer, despite being 40 years old. The screenplay tweaks reality for dramatic effect, but the key facts of this remarkable true story are accurate. There is a lot of time spent setting the scene, but this is more than repaid by the gripping battle that fills the second hour of the picture. Enfield extracts strong performances from his cast and the whole production looks fresh and new, aided by an evocative John Barry score. Caine creates an empathetic characterisation from limited material as the aristocratic Bromhead. His presence on screen belies the fact that this was Caine’s first role of any note. He helps make Zulu a classic of its kind.

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