Thursday, March 20, 2014



It's been absolute bliss to have two days in a row where I've not been needed on the set of Fillies , my new musical version of Equus. Norman has needed to sleep off his little nuit tropicale so he hasn’t needed much attention either. Even Patrick, my ever so talented pussycat has been self-entertaining, spending much of his time chasing blue tailed skinks across the south lawn. So, when Helmut, our producer, rang and asked me to join him for an intime little cocktail hour, I naturally said yes. I put on my Macavity little black cocktail dress from my GlamourPuss collection of designer wear and headed up to the Brentwood Hills to join him.

Helmut's imposing manse is a mix of Palladian windows, terra-cotta Romanesque arches and a Norman keep turret. It’s simply smashing and such a pure expression of style. He met me at the door in some sort of silk dressing gown, which I found very inappropriate for the cocktail hour. We chatted in some sort of rococo sitting room full of divans, poufs and little throw pillows for a while. He kept talking about going down, even though I did not see a basement. When no other guests arrived after half an hour, I had an Excedrin moment and hurried home. I do so hate hanging around a party that just isn't working.

When I got home, Norman was still snoring so I retired to the home theater and perused my recent purchases from the DVD sale bin at K-Mart and found Zulu . At the time, I thought perhaps it was a documentary on the development of Greenwich Mean Time but it turns out to be an epic film from the early 1960s on an incident from the Zulu war in Natal, South Africa and Michael Caine's first major film.

Zulu tells the story of the battle of Rourke's Drift, an incident from January of 1879 when a small British force of just over a hundred men held off more than 4,000 Zulu warriors. 11 of the defenders were awarded the Victoria Cross (the British equivalent of the Medal of Honor), the most ever for a single engagement. During the 1870s, the warriors of the Zulu King and the British were at war over the usual colonial issues and, in early 1879, things reached a head. On the morning of January 22,in a surprise attack, the British were defeated at Isandhlwana (sort of a British version of Little Big Horn). There was nothing left to protect a small garrison and mission station on the border of Zululand and Natal.

On hearing the Zulus are coming, there is some consternation amongst the small company left at the station. Their Leftenant, Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine), an unfortunately named aristocrat from an old military family, has never seen action. A leftenant from the corps of engineers, visiting to build a bridge, John Chard (Stanley Baker), out ranks him by a few months, takes command, and soon has things whipped into shape. The Zulus arrive and battle is enjoined. The British hold out until the Zulus withdraw and salute their gallant enemies. Plot is not this film's strong suit.

The film succeeds because it has strong actors in the central roles who make you believe in the reality and gravity of the situation and who make you care about the fate of the embattled British. It succeeds because it doesn't fall into the trap of making the Zulus naked savages. We come to realize these men are equally brave and honorable and have their own codes of discipline and ethics.

There is a wonderful use of color in the movie, which was filmed on location in South Africa. The high escarpments are lovely gray-blues while the rolling grasses are sun drenched yellows. Against these, the red dress uniforms and white pith helmets of the British make a marvelous (albeit historically inaccurate) picture. It's easy to see, from the stunning landscape, how South Africa has taken such a hold on the various peoples that have settled there over the centuries.

The film is far from perfect. Far too much screen time is given to Jack Hawkins as a fictional pacifist missionary and Ulla Jacobsson as his equally fictional repressed daughter. The politics of 1964 may have required a dove point of view in a hawkish universe and the presence of clergy gives an excuse to throw in a Zulu wedding with lots of National Geographic shots of bare breasted native women. The motivations of the Zulus for the attack on the station are never really made clear. Various stratagems, such as snipers on an overlooking ridge, make a quicker disappearance than one might expect as we move on to the next battle set piece. There are some rather quick and somewhat inexplicable character transitions - Michael Caine goes from supercilious to humble in the space of a few minutes for no special reason. There is also the occasional appearance of a Timex or two on the wrists of the Zulu extras (it's how they were paid – the film was made in apartheid era South Africa).

There are, however, moments and images that haunt you for some time after the movie is over. The sound of thousands of assegai beating on thousands of shields, creeping death, before the warriors even appear. The chanting of the warriors being met with a traditional Welsh hymn. The slow dolly pans of the compound with everyone stopped, expectant, straining to see what's coming.... It’s worth a look and a good example of old fashioned epic battle filmmaking.

Bridge building. Leopard hunting. Ostrich plumed headdresses. Shell game. Swedish missionaries. Gratuitous psalm quoting. Burning hospital. Bugle blowing. Cow stampede.

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