Dad: “Victor Simmonds was a lovely chap and a very good artist. He was a little man, grey, a lot older than me. What? How old? Well, I was probably 35 then and he was grey. He was probably 50. He lodged with Ruth Wright (later Ruth Dominy) on the plot next door to ours, Glen Khyber. I doubt if he paid them any rent, they were probably just helping him out. He moved to the hotel in Royal Natal National Park where they allowed him to sell his art to the guests and that probably paid his rent.
“He was a hopeless alcoholic, unfortunately. He used to come to me begging for a bottle of brandy late at night, his clothes torn from coming straight across to Birdhaven from Glen Khyber, through the barbed wire fences. (Mom and Dad owned a bottle store, liquor store, in town) I said ‘Fuck off, Victor, I won’t do that to you,’ and sent him away. I wish I had bought one of his paintings. Sheila found these paintings he gave me for nothing. He said he did these as a young student. As I took them he said ‘Wait, let me sign them for you.'”
So I went looking and found a lot of his work available on the internet. Once again Dad’s memory proved sound. Victor was born in 1909, thus thirteen years older than Dad:
I knew this scene! To me this looks like the stream above the Mahai campsite in Royal Natal National Park – So I went looking and at lovecamping.co.za I found this:
A number of his paintings are available for sale. I’d love to see his ‘The Gorge, Royal Natal National Park, Showing the Inner Buttress and Devils Tooth’ but I’d have to subscribe for one day at 30 euros! That one was apparently painted in 1980, so he kept going for at least 23 years after he stayed in our neck of the woods. That would have made Victor around 70 and his liver a resilient organ.
One of Annie’s workers at the Central Service Station on the corner of Warden street and Southey street – the ‘Caltex garage’ as we knew it – was called Johannes. Because he looked so different from the other petrol attendants, we learnt his surname. He was Johannes Culling.
Today I found out a bit more:
The Boer War started in 1899 and ended in 1902, but a lot of British soldiers stayed on in Harrismith until 1913. One of these was Sergeant Culling, stationed on Kings Hill. He, in fact stayed on even longer, as he married a local lady and went to live with her in the ‘location’ called ‘Skoonplaas’ outside town, probably when it was south of Queens Hill on the far (left) bank of the Wilge river.
Dad knows of three children: Johannes, Henry and a daughter. They could not have had an easy life in the Free State of yore and Dad tells of problems: ‘run-ins with the police due to drinking and fighting.’
Koos Mof van Wyk was a bachelor who lived with his Ma out on the Kestell road. One evening he drove home and a Joburg driver drove right up his bum as he slowed suddenly on the main road in order to turn in at his gate.
The Joburg oke was angry, ‘Waddefok maak jy dat jy sommer so skielik stilhou innie mirrel vannie pad!?’
Koos Mof was astounded. Waddefok maak JY!? he yelled. Almal weet dis my hek hierie en ek draai altyd hier in. Ek is Koos Mof en ek BLY HIER!
Joburg driver: How can you just stop in the middle of the highway!?
Koos Mof: What do you mean!? Everyone knows this is my gate and I always turn in here! I LIVE HERE!
Sometime back in the fifties uncle and family lawyer Bunty Bland needed to go up to Rhodesia – ‘up north’ – to sort out the sale of his sister’s property. His Rhodesian brother-in-law drove down to Harrismith to fetch him. As ever, the finer details of my story should be checked out . . . pinch of salt. The car is probably right, the country – now Zimbabwe – is almost certainly right, and two of the people – Dad and Bunty – are right, that’s all I know. At first Dad said they drove up in Bunty’s Rover, but I couldn’t find a Rover station wagon. Seems they left ‘that sort of thing’ to Land Rover. I found this Vauxhall Victor station wagon and then Dad remembered it was the bro-in-law’s car and yes, it was a Vauxhall! Memories! Dodgy things.
The reason they took young Pieter Swanepoel, husband of favourite niece Mary, along was to share the driving. He says he ended up driving all the way there and back.
With him he had his new Eumig 8mm cine camera! He took footage of the ruins of the magnificent Great Zimbabwe. Bunty features in his trademark ‘fairisle’ sleeveless jersey . .
Other footage featured the Vauxhall, Bunty again and some fountains . .
Back in 1963 we joined the du Plessis on a one-week beach and fishing holiday on the Natal north coast – Chaka’s Rock! They were beach regulars, this was one of our two beach holidays that I can remember. (flash: there were three!). Louis Brocket wrote in to remind us that, as Lynn’s boyfriend, he was also there for his first “vakansie-by-die-see“.
Sheila writes: “Found a postcard which Mary Methodist sent to her Mom Annie Bland (1½ cent stamp – remember the brown Afrikaner bull?). Mary wrote ‘We’re enjoying the swimming immensely. Coughs no worse in spite of it. We’re sleeping well and eating very well. The coast is beautiful. This is a picture of the pool where we swim.’ I think the three little Swanies all had whooping cough. Must have been fun for the du Plessis family who shared our holiday!”
It was amazing! The cottage on a hill above the beach, the rocks and seaside cliffs, narrow walkways along the cliffs that the waves would drench at high tide; magic swimming pools set in the rocks. The men were there to fish:
We baljaar’d on the beach and sometimes even ventured into the shallows – just up to safe vrystaat depth. A swimmer I was not, and I still vividly remember a near-death experience I had in the rock pool: a near-metre-high wave knocked me out of Mom’s arms and I was washed away out of her safe grasp! I must have been torn away by up to half a metre from her outstretched hands; little asthmatic me on my own in the vast Indian Ocean for what must have been a long one and a half seconds, four long metres away from dry land! Traumatised. To this day I am wary of the big-dam-that-you-can’t-see-the-other-side-of, and when I have to navigate across any stretches of salty water I use a minimum of a Boeing 737, but preferably a 747.
Well, this was the most threatening Free State water I was used to braving before I met the Indian Ocean: Oh, also the horse trough.
The view from the cottage looking down the flight of stairs:
vakansie by die see – beach or seaside holiday for naive inland creatures
baljaar – frolic
safe vrystaat depth – about ankle deep
postscript: I tried to keep up the luxury cottage theme but Barbara talked about the big spiders on the walls and yesterday even Dad, who was talking about Joe Geyser, mentioned ‘that ramshackle cottage we stayed in at Chaka’s Rock.’
Dad was saying Joe hardly ever caught a fish. He would be so busy with this his pipe, relighting it, refilling it, winding the reel with one hand while fiddling with his pipe with the other. My theory is the fish could smell the tobacco and turned their nose up at his bait. Dad reckons tobacco was never a health hazard to old Joe. Although he was never without his pipe, it was mainly preparation and cleaning, and the amount of actual puffing he did was minimal.
Once he caught a wahoo and brought it back to Harrismith. Griet took one look at it as he walked into her kitchen and bade him sally forth. Some wives had agency. So Joe brought it to Dad and they cut it up and cooked it in our kitchen.
I went back in 2016 and the beach and rocks and the pools still look familiar.
But don’t look back! The green hillslopes have been concreted.
Dad remembers the gymkhanas he took part in and so enjoyed in the late 1930’s and mid-to-late 1940’s.
They were held in Harrismith, Eeram, Verkykerskop, Mont Pelaan and Aberfeldy; and on the farms Appin near Swinburne, Primrose near van Reenen, and Maraishoek.
The entry fee was one pound per event – and prize money was less than the entry fee!
Events included Tent pegging; Sword and ring; Sword; Lance & ring; Potato & bucket.
Races were the bending race, we’ll need to ask him what that was; and the owners race, where the owner him or herself had to ride, no hiring a jockey!
Regular participants he recalls are Manie Parkhurst Wessels; Bertie van Niekerk; Kerneels Retief; Richard Goble; John Goble; Kehlaan Odendaal; his son Adriaan and his daughter Laura; Laurie Campher; Hans Spies and his kids Hansie, Pieter and Anna (Anna later married Jannie Campher, who helped Frank Bland with his farming for a while).
Dad says he was the only non-farmer riding! Kerneels was usually his partner.
** internet pics ** If anyone has some real Harrismith district gymkhana pics I’d sure love to display them – with full acknowledgment of course.
We always called it The Moth Hall, and for a while it was where Dad was probably drinking. But it was more correctly called Platberg Shellhole of the M.O.T.Hs – The Memorable Order of Tin Hats. And there was an older shellhole before that one – an older ‘Moth Hall’. It was down near the railway line; down near the Royal Hotel.
This was where old servicemen would lie to each other and themselves in song:
“Old Soldiers Never Die;
Never Die, Never Die;
Old Soldiers Never Die;
They Just Fade Away.”
Back then they were all survivors of WW1 and WW2. Only later did they take in ever-more members from ever-more wars. And there’s an endless supply of those; the armaments industry sees to that.
The things I remember about the old shellhole was playing in the dark next to and behind the building – big adventure; And seeing 16mm movies, with big reels whirring in the dark; some were sponsored by Caltex and other companies; I remember Hatari! about yanks in darkest Africa, catching animals for zoos; It starred John Wayne, but who was he to us, back then?
. . and Northern Safari, about a 4X4 safari in the Australian outback with a very annoying theme song “We’re Going NORTH on a Northern Safari! We’re Going NORTH on a Northern Safari! We’re Going NORTH on a Northern Safari!” ad nauseum. We loved it!
What the folks would remember, if the truth be told, would be booze and sing-alongs and booze and skits and booze and plays; these were the order of the day. * click on the pic * if you want to read some names.
Seated on the left next to Mary Swanepoel and Trudi Else in full voice, is Harold Taylor, veteran of WW1. Under those voluminous trousers is one wooden leg. The other is buried at Delville Wood. He would take his turn standing next to the piano singing:
Mary & Trudy
Etienne Joubert remembers:
The old MOTH hall was not opposite the Royal Hotel but in the vicinity. In fact it was next to Llewellyn & Eugene Georgiou’s home. It was near the railway line below the G’s house.
I remember Ray Taylor who had some shrapnel in his head, not Harold with a wooden leg; also Uncle Jack Hunt; Arthur Gray & of course your folks. I also remember playing in the dark outside. I remember my first sip of beer which I did not like; but I overcame this in years to come to absolutely love it!
I remember the song A Long Way To Tipperary; The piano was very rickety, as was the wooden floor, which squeaked with the slightest step. On the walls were very big portraits of Winston Churchill & Jan Smuts; Dan Pienaar was also there, but smaller; and a pin-up of Jayne Mansfield. This pin up made it to the “new” Moth Hall.
One thing I did not like was helping my Old Man clean the Shellhole on a Saturday morning; the smell of stale beer & cigarette smoke remains very vivid in my memory.
and here’s Vera Lynn, 101 yrs old and still going (Nov 2018). In 2009, at the age of 92, Lynn became the oldest living artist to make it to number 1 in the British album chart.
The ole man acting Paganini:
The real Niccolo Paganini – and probly why the ole man wanted to be him:
When he was eighteen the young virtuoso escaped his father’s control, following his elder brother to the Tuscan city of Lucca. “Freed from parental control, Paganini embarked on a life of famous excess. As he later put it, ‘When at last I was my own master I drew in the pleasures of life in deep draughts.’ He would spend the next twenty-seven years in Italy, filling his life with music, love affairs, and gambling, interrupted by long periods of utter exhaustion.”
My first recollections are of life on the plot outside Harrismith, playing with Enoch and Casaia, childhood companions, kids of Lena Mazibuko, who looked after us as Mom and Dad worked in town. The plot was was in the shadow of Platberg, and was called Birdhaven, as Dad kept big aviaries. I remember Lena as kind and loving – and strict!
I was there from when I was carried home from the maternity home to when I was about five years old, when we moved into town.
I remember suddenly “knowing” it was lunchtime and looking up at the dirt road above the farmyard that led to town. Sure enough, right about then a cloud of dust would appear and Mom and Dad would arrive for their lunch and siesta, having locked up the Platberg bottle store at 1pm sharp. I could see them coming along the road and then sweeping down the long driveway to park near the rondavel at the back near the kitchen door. They would eat lunch, have a short lie-down and leave in time to re-open at 2pm. I now know the trip was exactly 3km door-to-door, thanks to google maps.
Every day I “just knew” they were coming. I wonder if I actually heard their approach and then “knew”? Or was it an inner clock? Here’s an old 8mm movie of the old green and black Ford Prefect on the Birdhaven circular driveway – four seconds of action – (most likely Barbara waving out the window):
1. Ruins of our house; 2. Dougie Wright, Gould & Ruth Dominy’s place; 3. Jack Levick’s house; 4. The meandering Kak Spruit. None of those houses on the left were there back then.
Back then they would buzz around in Mom’s Ford Prefect or Dad’s beige Morris Isis.
Our nearest neighbour was Jack Levick and he had a pet crow that mimic’d a few words. We had a white Sulphur-crested Cockatoo Jacko that didn’t, and an African Grey parrot Cocky who could mimic a bit more. A tame-ish Spotted Eagle Owl would visit at night.
Our next neighbours, nearer to the mountain, were Ruth and Gould Dominy and Ruth’s son Dougie Wright on Glen Khyber. They were about 500m further down the road towards the mountain, across the Kak Spruit over a little bridge. Doug’s cottage was on the left next to the spruit that came down from Khyber Pass and flowed into the bigger spruit; The big house with its sunny glassed-in stoep was a bit further on the right. Ruth and a flock of small dogs would serve Gould his tea in a teacup the size of a big deep soup bowl.
Judas Thabete lived on the property and looked after the garden. I remember him as old, small and bearded. He lived in a hovel of a hut across a donga and a small ploughed field to the west of our house. He had some sort of cart – animal-drawn? self-drawn? Self-drawn, I think.
Other things I remember are driving out and seeing white storks in the dead bluegum trees outside the gate – those and the eagle owl being the first wild birds I ‘spotted’ in my still-ongoing birding life; I remember the snake outside the kitchen door;
I don’t remember but have been told, that my mate Donald Coleman, two years older, would walk the kilometre from his home on the edge of town to Birdhaven to visit me. Apparently his Mom Jean would phone my Mom Mary on the party line and ask “Do you have a little person out there?” if she couldn’t find him. He was a discoverer and a wanderer and a thinker, my mate Donald.
Bruno the doberman came from Little Switzerland on Oliviershoek pass down the Drakensberg into Natal. Leo and Heather Hilcovitz owned and ran it – “very well” according to Dad. Leo came into town once with a few pups in the back of his bakkie. Dobermans. Dad said I Want One! and gave him a pocket of potatoes in exchange for our Bruno. He lived to good age and died at 95 Stuart Street after we’d moved to town.
rondavel – circular building with a conical roof, often thatched;
spruit – stream; kak spruit: shit stream; maybe it was used as a sewer downstream in town in earlier days?
stoep – veranda
donga – dry, eroded watercourse; gulch, arroyo; scene of much play in our youth;
Our Ford Prefect was somewhere between a 1938 and a 1948 – the ‘sit up and beg’ look, before sedans went flat. They were powered by a 4 cylinder engine displacing 1172cc, producing 30 hp. The engine had no water pump or oil filter. Drive was through a 3-speed gearbox, synchromesh in 2nd and 3rd. Top speed nearly 60mph. Maybe with a bit of Downhill Assist?
Mom & Dad went to Lourenco Marques in Mocambique for their honeymoon in 1951.
With cars being very scarce after the war, Dad looked around for anything he could afford. He found a Mr Smith selling a fifteen year old Hudson Terraplane 4-door for £100. It came with a spare engine in the boot – and the feeling that it would probably be needed.
But it made it to LM – and back. Mom had to put her feet on the seat – the floor got too hot, even with shoes on. While in Lourenco Marques the Hudson started missing so Dad took it to a garage but the Portuguese owners couldn’t understand him. He tried Italian, which he’d learnt in the war. “Candela?” – Ah! Candela! Yes, they had sparkplugs and they could sort him out.
They stayed in a boarding house a couple blocks back from the seafront. ‘It was cheaper than a hotel’. While there they met with Frank Cabral a big game hunter married to some relative of Mom’s. They swam – Mom remembers the huge beach and the shallow sea with only tiny waves. They had fish for breakfast one morning – a whole fish whose eye gazed balefully at Mom, spoiling her appetite.
Outside the zoo Dad bought six parakeets or lovebirds with red faces. He made a cage for them and as they approached the border he hid it behind the large Hudson cubbyhole – there was plenty of space under the dashboard. So he’s a smuggler.
On the way back they went through Kruger Park and Mom distinctly recalls feeling very uncomfortable at how flimsy the reed walls of the park huts at Skukuza seemed when she thought of the wild animals outside! They went to visit an old friend of Dad’s, Rosemary Dyke-Wells, an old Boschetto agricultural college girl who was married to a game ranger there. He was the son of the famous Harry Wolhuter.
The Kruger Park was opened to tourism in 1927 and after a slow start – only three cars entered the Reserve in that ﬁrst year – soon turned into a popular destination. Within a decade, 3600 kilometres of roads had been built and several camps established. In 1935, some 26,000 people passed through the gates. By 1950 a research station and rest camp had been developed at Skukuza, transforming Stevenson-Hamilton’s base into the “capital” of Kruger.
Some Kruger Park pics from the later fifties – 1956 to 1958:
Later back in Harrismith when the clutch packed up Dad found out the Hudson had a cork clutch. He bought dozens of cork medicine bottle tops from the chemist and hammered them into the angled holes set in concentric circles in the clutchplate, then cut the protruding parts off as level as he could and it worked again.
When it came time to sell it he can’t remember who he sold it to and for how much, but he does remember Pye von During would pay £25 for them and convert them into horse carts.
Years later they came across one at a vintage car show. Dunno when this was, but this year they’ll be married 67 years (2018).
1936 Hudson Terraplane
Soon after this the Post Office moved Dad back to Pietermaritzburg following a back injury. They stayed in the Creamery Hotel – ‘a dive, but cheap’. They moved to the slightly better (but ‘very hot in the afternoon’ – Mom) Windsor Hotel. Mom took a sewing course at ‘the tech’ while pregnant and then, just before first child Barbara was born they moved in with Ouma Swanepoel in Bourke Street in downtown PMB. Mom gave birth at Greys Hospital in mid-summer, 7th January, then came home to Ouma. Mom remembers the Bourke street home being beautifully cool.
Somewhere before or after, they stayed in Howick, in The Falls Hotel.
Annie came to Mom and said ‘Peter Swanepoel has tickets to the Al Debbo concert in the Town Hall, would you like to go?’ He sat between Mom and Annie in the upstairs stalls, and ‘that was the beginning of their romance’ says Mom.
An old LM citizen spotted this post and used the pic of Mom & Dad sitting on the seawall in his blog here – but first he deftly tidied it and colorised it. It looks terrific! Thanks Antonio!
The film ZULU starring Stanley Baker, Michael Caine and Jack Hawkins was one of the biggest box-office hits of all time in England. It ‘premiered’ in 1964 and for the next twelve years it remained in constant cinema circulation before making its first appearance on television. It has since become a Bank holiday television perennial, and remains beloved by the British public. Some pommies watch it every Christmas, year after year. Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lie-ies.
The film premiered on 22 January 1964, 85 years to the day after the event it commemorates – the battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879. Very few people know though, that it had its REAL WORLD PREMIERE in our lounge in 95 Stuart Street, Harrismith. In late 1963.
Count yourself as one of a very tiny privileged minority who’s “in the know”!
Back in late 1963 my old man showed us an 8mm movie he had filmed with his state-of-the-art Eumig camera.
Whirr whirrr whirr – those of you who watched them will remember the noise of the projector. Also maybe Thuk! Oh shit! Eina! as the film broke and had to be re-threaded in the projector with its super-hot bulb.
Super 8 Sound Projector Eumig Mark S810
He and Mom had been to Royal Natal National Park down Oliviershoek Pass to film the filming of the film ZULU.
What I remember seeing was a lot of dust and a lot of be-feathered Zulu warriors charging at some umLungus in funny red coats, falling down in a cloud of dust and then getting up laughing, walking back and doing it all over again. Mom and Dad remember being asked to stop filming, and then once they saw it was a tiny 8mm camera, just to move out of the way as they continued filming.
Thanks to the huge success of the film – which was longer than the two minutes we saw – the Battle of Rorke’s Drift has entered British folklore. A New Film is being shot this year (2019/2020) which might just include some of Dad’s 8mm footage! See all about that here.
Remember, though, to take their version of the battle with a large pinch of cerebos.
The background story of the film Zulu, 54 years on
The Real History – lesson: always take ‘official’ histories with a pinch of salt:
On 22 January 1879, at a remote mission station in Natal, South Africa, 157 men, mainly British soldiers (the number is usually downplayed, sometimes “under 100”) held off wave after wave of attacks by some 3,000 Zulu warriors (the number is certainly exaggerated – your son’s rugby opposition was always MUCH bigger than your boys, right?). Remember who wrote about the battle – jingoist reporters for jingoist newspapers.
Although the Zulus had some old-fashioned muskets and a few modern rifles, most of their warriors were only armed with shields and spears. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift lasted 10 hours (often stated as ‘over 12’), from late afternoon till just before dawn the following morning. By the end of the fighting, around 365 men lay dead, 15 (or 17) British inside the barricaded buildings they had defended, and around 350 Zulu outside them. Plus many wounded men, most of whom were murdered after the battle!!
The defences are most always characterised as ‘biscuit boxes and bags’ and paintings show the British defenders hugely exposed and vulnerable. A photo taken soon after the battle looks very different to the descriptions and the paintings: I haven’t seen a painting showing soldiers firing through holes in a stone wall.
Historically the battle was a minor incident which had little influence on the course of the Anglo-Zulu War. It might have remained a footnote in the history books or an anecdote told at regimental dinners had it not been for:
It being hailed as a victory – and then an EPIC victory, although it was actually simply a NON-DEFEAT after the truly epic defeat at Isandlwana the same day;
The number of Victoria Crosses and other awards that were dished out for the battle – probably because of the prior defeat? Not all the true heroes got VC’s and some who should not have, did. In fact the truth of the battle was probably FAR more sordid than the glorious accounts a desperate British government wanted to portray. The image of valour and nobility in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 turned to shame when documents were uncovered which show that Rorke’s Drift was the scene of an atrocity – a war crime, in today’s language – which Britain covered up. In the hours after the battle senior officers and enlisted men of a force sent to relieve the garrison are said to have killed hundreds of wounded Zulu prisoners. Some were bayoneted, some hanged and others buried alive in mass graves. More Zulus are estimated to have died in this way than in combat, but the executions were hushed up to preserve Rorke’s Drift’s image as a bloody but clean fight between two forces which saluted the other’s courage. The Zulu salute in the film was FAKE;
AND then, and especially, for a film – ZULU – which dramatised the story and has kept it in the public mind ever since.
The story behind the film’s making is almost as remarkable as the battle it depicts(most of this account taken from talks by Sheldon Hall, Sr Lecturer, Stage and Screen Studies Sheffield Hallam University)
The principal artists responsible for Zulu were hardly Establishment figures. Screenwriter John Prebble was a former Communist Party member who had volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. His co-writer, the American director Cy Endfield, had fled Hollywood in the early 1950s after he was named as a Communist during the McCarthyite witch-hunts. Endfield’s production partner and the film’s main star was Stanley Baker, a life-long supporter of the Labour Party.
All three were committed to progressive causes, but their motives in making Zulu were not political. It is not an anti-imperial diatribe any more than it is a celebration of colonial conquest. Its main purpose was frankly commercial, but Baker also saw the story as an chance to pay tribute to his Welsh homeland. This certainly explains the strong emphasis on the Welshness of the private soldiers – one of the many fictionalised elements of Zulu that have created a myth around the battle.
Filming under Apartheid
The producers had to keep their political views in check when they made the decision to shoot the film in South Africa, then in the grip of Apartheid. There were strict, legally enforced guidelines regarding the degree of freedom permitted to the cast and crew. It was impressed upon the 60-odd British visitors that sexual relations with people of other races would result in possible imprisonment, deportation or worse. Warned that miscegenation was a flogging offence, Baker is reported to have asked – in glorious Pom tradition – if he could have the lashes while ‘doing it’. The authorities were not amused.
The main filming location was in the spectacular Drakensberg Mountains in the Royal Natal National Park, a popular tourist spot distant from any large township. But a number of incidents brought home the realities of the oppressive regime. Chatting to John Marcus, one of several professional black stuntmen employed on the film, assistant editor Jennifer Bates invited him for a drink in the bar/canteen that had been built on site for the crew. Marcus pointed out that he was forbidden by law to mix socially with whites and could not enter.
In his autobiography, Michael Caine recalls an incident in which a black labourer was reprimanded by an Afrikaans foreman with a punch in the face. Baker sacked the foreman on the spot and made clear that such behaviour would not be tolerated. Caine swore never to make another film in South Africa while Apartheid was in force, and kept to his word.
Introducing Michael Caine
Keeping watch over the tightly budgeted film was production supervisor Colin Lesslie. “I am very glad to be able to tell you,” he wrote at one point to the Embassy Pictures’ chief in London, “that in my opinion and from the little he has done so far, Michael Caine as ‘Bromhead’ is very good indeed. When he was cast for the part I couldn’t see it but I think (and hope) I was wrong.” This must have been a common reaction.
Not quite an unknown, the 30-year-old Caine was already making a name for himself on television but was becoming type-cast in working-class Cockney parts. Casting him as a blue-blooded officer in his first major film role represented a considerable risk, but it was one that paid off.
Thousands of ’em?
The soldiers were played by real soldiers – eighty national servicemen borrowed from the South African National Defence Force. And most of the Zulus were real Zulus. A mere 240 Zulu extras were employed for the battle scenes, bussed in from their tribal homes over 100 miles away. Around 1,000 additional tribesmen were filmed by the second unit in Zululand, but most of these scenes hit the cutting-room floor.
Living in remote rural areas, few if any Zulus had visited a cinema and television had not reached Natal. The crew rigged up a projector and outdoor screen, and the Zulus’ first sight of a motion picture was a Western. From then on, the “warriors” had a better idea of what they were being asked to do. Responsible for training and rehearsing them were stunt arrangers John Sullivan and Joe Powell. “The Zulus were initially suspicious of us in case we were taking the mickey,” says Powell, now 91. “After a couple of days they realised we weren’t and got into it. After that you couldn’t hold them back.”
Contrary to stories the Zulus were not paid with gifts of cattle or wristwatches but received wages in Rand. The main corps was paid the equivalent of nine shillings per day each, additional extras eight shillings, and the female dancers slightly less again. Associate producer Basil Keys remarked: “There is no equality of pay for women in the Zulu nation!”
For the opening sequence depicting a mass Zulu wedding, 600 additional background artists were brought in, including nightclub performers from Johannesburg, to play the principal dancers. During breaks in filming, they twisted and jived to modern pop records played over Tannoys, with director Cy Endfield among the crew members joining them.
The small but key role of King Cetshwayo was given to his direct descendant, the present-day Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The wedding dance was choreographed by Buthelezi’s mother, a tribal historian, and supervised by stuntman Simon Sabela, who later became South Africa’s first black film director.
History and politics
Like all films, Zulu is of its time and captures the mood of its time more profoundly than is often realised. A conservative view would see it as a hymn to gung-ho heroism, to flag-waving patriotism and the glory days of the British Empire. In fact, by 1964 the sun was already setting on the empire and undoubtedly Zulu stirred a lot of nostalgia for it. For some, that explains its appeal.
But look again. The knowledge that colonialism was in its dying fall is there in the film. The script is filled with a sense that the soldiers are in a place they don’t belong and don’t want to be. The indigenous people are not disorganised savages but a disciplined army. And the young lieutenant, played by Caine, who had earlier dismissed the enemy as “fuzzies” and the levies on his own side as “cowardly blacks”, now declares himself ashamed at the “butcher’s yard” he has brought about.
A modern awareness of racial representation means that Zulu has undoubtedly “dated”. If the film were to be remade today, as internet rumours continually suggest, it would certainly be done differently. But the absence of individuated black characters doesn’t make it racist. Though told from the British point of view, it shows that viewpoint change from dismissive contempt and naked fear to respect and even admiration. The famous (and entirely fictional) salute the departing Zulu army pays to the garrison survivors is returned with their – and our – gaze of awe and wonder.
Adapted from an article in Cinema Retro No 28 (c) Sheldon Hall 2014
Sheldon Hall is a Senior Lecturer in Stage and Screen Studies at Sheffield Hallam University. See an expanded second edition of his book ‘Zulu: With Some Guts Behind It – The Making of the Epic Movie’ – Tomahawk Press.
Cy Endfield’s epic military marathon about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift was actually shot 90 miles south-west of Rorke’s Drift in the Royal Natal National Park in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa. It had the far more mountainous and picturesque Drakensberg Amphitheatre as backdrop, rather than the low hills like the Oscarberg at the real site of the battle.
Below see the movie backdrop, the Drakensberg Amphitheatre (left) – and the real backdrop, the Oscarberg (right):
2.Many of the Zulu extras had never seen a motion picture
Many of the Zulus who were hired as extras for the film had never seen a motion picture prior to filming and were unsure what to expect. With this in mind, director Cy Endfield and Stanley Baker, who played Lieutenant John Chard, set up a projector in order for them to watch a western, starring Gene Autry. Then the Zulus probably said “Ah, so its all bulldust?” and acted accordingly.
3. The real Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead was extremely deaf…
Played expertly by Michael Caine, this snobbish character was described by Lieutenant Henry Curling, who fought alongside Bromhead at Rorke’s Drift, as “a stupid old fellow, as deaf as a post.” Major Francis Clery, who spent time with Bromhead after Rorke’s Drift, described him as “a capital fellow at everything except soldiering”, while his commanding officer said in private that Bromhead was “hopeless”. Still, political face-saving at the time saw Bromhead awarded the Victoria Cross.
4. Michael Caine initially auditioned for the role of Private Henry Hook
This was Michael Caine’s first major film role and, although he eventually put in an exceptional performance as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, he was crippled by nerves and beaten to the role he initially auditioned for, that of Private Henry Hook, by James Booth. Interestingly, Caine was also unable to ride a horse so a member of the filming crew took his place in the scene where he crosses the stream on horseback at the beginning of the film. This explains why the camera pans down on to the horse.
5. Private Henry Hook was badly portrayed in the film
In the film, Private Henry Hook (James Booth) is placed under arrest for insubordination. He is seen lounging around in the shade and trying to pilfer free booze as his comrades prepare for battle in the stifling heat. In reality, Private Hook was an exemplary soldier and teetotal, who was also awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry. Hook’s daughter walked out of the film’s premiere in disgust at this inaccurate portrayal.
6. Eleven British soldiers were given a Victoria Cross; Twelve had been nominated
Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne (played by Nigel Green in the film), requested a commission rather than the Victoria Cross. He was duly granted this wish and went on to become a Lieutenant Colonel. When he died in 1945, he was the last surviving British soldier from the battle.
7. Mangosuthu Buthelezi played his great grandfather Zulu King Cetshwayo kaMpande in the movie
Mangosuthu Buthelezi was the chieftain of the Buthelezi tribe when he played the role of Zulu King Cetshwayo kaMpande in 1964. Buthelezi went on to found the Inkatha Freedom Party and was the leader of the former KwaZulu bantustan. He has also held positions in the new, legitimate SA government and parliament.
EUMIG was an Austrian company producing audio and video equipment that existed from 1919. The name is an acronym for Elektrizitäts und Metallwaren Industrie Gesellschaft – “Electricity and Metalware Industry Company” – In 1982 EUMIG went bankrupt – punishment for choosing such a boring name? Its patent for the macro system in lenses was sold to the Japanese company Canon.
Thuk! Oh shit! Eina! – gosh;
umLungus – paleface; speak with forked tongue; in Africa as well as America;
I’ll add a link to the 8mm movie footage the old man took on the film set in the ‘berg as soon as I can. A new movie about the making of the film is in the offing and we have offered this seven minutes of behind-the-scenes footage to Henry Coleman the film-maker. As we have undertaken not to use the footage till after his premiere, we have forfeited a chance to repeat our 1963 scoop!! Darn!