All The Glamour of Hollywood; Working on the extras for 'Zulu Dawn'
I must admit I've always had a soft spot for Zulu Dawn. My own interest - in the history of the Zulu people, not just the Anglo-Zulu War itself - was, as I've said before, sparked by seeing Zulu back in 1964, when I was a kid. I remember sitting in a cinema in Brighton - possibly the old Regent, long since gone - being almost swallowed up by the seat folding in on itself, and feeling dwarfed by the huge widescreen, which towered above me and seemed to completely frame my field of vision. And I remember the moment Zulu got me - and it was right at the beginning, with that opening shot of the devastated field at iSandlwana. As the camera panned round through the flames of the burning wagon, across all those dead redcoats scattered in the tawny winter grass, before coming to rest on the bloody hand of a man draped over the gun carriage, I remember wondering 'what on earth has gone on here..?' And in a sense, I've probably been trying to figure that out ever since, though I'm never quite sure whether the film triggered some deep-seated well of creativity within me, or whether I'm still working through the childhood trauma of that bloody hand! So the idea, when I first heard in sometime in the mid-70s (when at that stage Sir Stanley Baker was still hoping to produce it himself) that the follow-up would be about iSandlwana really gripped me. Sadly there was no hope at that stage that I might be involved - my own writing career then had got no further than contributing regularly to a long-defunct military history magazine Soldier On, which certainly wasn't influential or important enough to gain me access to the exciting world of big-screen epics (of which, incidentally, Zulu Dawn would turn out to be one of the last of the old school, of those films with hordes of extras, in the days before CGI). Nevertheless, I followed the news reports of it's production - and tribulations - avidly, and when it was finally released (rather hurriedly and quietly, without a London premiere, allegedly as a result of the many financial disputes that had dogged its completion) I did manage to get a press pass to the first public screening in the UK. Inevitably, it was never going to top that first experience of Zulu, but it was still hugely impressive in the cinema, and I remember just thinking 'wow!' during all those stunning scenes of the Zulus storming through the camp. Of course, over the years - and it disappeared from cinema release quite quickly, and it was a long wait until it eventually came out in a rather fuzzy VHS release - I did develop a more measured and critical response. Naturally, from a historical point of view there are anomalies - those lancers, those powder-blue uniforms (oh-so-1970s!), all those too-obvious carbines, the fact that the real crossing at Rorke's Drift took place in the dark, before dawn (and from the Natal bank to the Zulu bank, not the other way round, as it was filmed). And...and ...
Yet seeing it again on the new blu-ray now, looking gorgeous again for the first time in years, has left me forgiving all it's faults once again, and taken me right back to those first positive impressions of 34 years ago. It's like meeting an old friend again whose path you haven't properly crossed in too long a while - past irritations are forgotten, it's great to see you, and my, you are still looking damn' good after all this time.
So of course, I was absolutely delighted to be invited to contribute to the extra features on the disc, it was like being involved with the film production all over again - well, sort of. Except, as I'd rather expected, the re-release of a 34 year-old film with a decidedly checkered distribution history meant that there wasn't exactly a huge pot available for the extras, and everything would have to be made with an excess of goodwill, and not much else. Severin Films had first contacted me out of the blue in October 2011, just as I was about to fly out to South Africa with a Holts Tour. There was an obvious opportunity there, and since Severin had no film crew based in South Africa, they offered to send a high-def camera to meet me at Isandlwana Lodge, where we would be staying during our time on the battlefield, in the hope that someone would be able to use it. Sadly the camera was impounded by customs, and at various times on the early part of the tour I had worried messages from the Lodge saying it might not arrive. And sadly it never did - after a wrangle about the duty payable, it was shipped back to Severin in the US. At that point the ever-resourceful Paul Marais - who is the local end of the Holts operation - came to the rescue. He had his own personal camera with him which had a high-def video capability, and he offered to shoot some material on it with me. Of course, we had to fit this in around tour commitments, although the tour did at least take us to the real places represented in the film. Mostly, though, we had to get up before the tour day started - and it starts early! - and nip down to the battlefield to shoot some footage before rushing back to join our clients for breakfast. Generally this was fine, but an early morning mist often descends on the battlefield, and several times we were pacing about waiting for it to lift enough for us to get a shot of the mountain. At that point, because this had all unfolded in a rush, I had no very clear idea of what Severin would want, so we decided to just film everything we could think of, with myself trying to give a five-minute history of the battle from various viewpoints. I remember on one occassion we waited for the mist to lift to show the mountain and the iNyoni escarpment behind, and I launched into full flow, dwelling dramatically (well, as dramatically as I get) on the Zulus spilling over the ridge - and Paul panned round to show the escarpment, only to find that the mist had rolled back in and smothered it completely. Even so, we were quite pleased with what we'd achieved - until, that is, Paul downloaded it that evening on his laptop, and we found that - because the camera had no dedicated microphone - most of my glorious improvisation was drowned out by what sounded like a succession of ten-ton lorries hurrying past. It's funny how you don't notice the wind until you listen to it through a sensitive technology - and clearly my solution at the time (talk louder!) hadn't been the answer! So, up again at dawn the next morning, and try it again...and again...In the end, we never did fully overcome the problem, but we downloaded the footage to Severin and, I must say, I'm impressed with what they managed to do with our (very) raw material. Later, when I was back in the UK, Severin invited me to London to film an interview in the studio, with the intention of cutting this with the material we'd shot on location. It's a good job by this stage I was not expecting a Hollywood experience, because this wasn't - Severin's studio was a neatly set-out studio in the basement of a house off Tottenham Court Road which had been converted into offices and which, frankly, was long past its best; there was a moment as I was invited to go down the rather narrow and dank staircase to the celler that I found myself just checking that the address wasn't Rillington Place..
But, in the event, there was enough workable footage to make two disctinct features, and I'm very pleased with what Severin accomplished, given the limitations. And the other extras are interesting too, particularly an interview with my old friend Midge Carter, who was the film's historical adviser, who offers some intriguing insights into the film's sometimes difficult production history. And for me, at last I can feel I'm a very small part of the Zulu Dawn experience, and can pay my own tribute to something that had a big impact on my career in my early days.
Having said that, of course, there is probably room still to make a different film about iSandlwana now, with modern production techniques; and if anyone is thinking about it, can I have Midge's job next time - pretty please ...?
Here are the first impartial reviews of the new blu-ray release which understands the techy stuff better than I do, and the first one sums up the film quite fairly in the 'bottom line'. There are also some nice screen grabs, which give a good idea of its refreshed quality, a few of which I've shamelessly pinched here. And the second one made me laugh a lot!
This guy also likes it, but notices the wind problems we struggled with on the outdoor footage -