Siener van Rensburg, a Boere farmer born in 1864 grew to prominence as a religious mystic and years after his death would become firmly entwined with Nelson Mandela and be turned into a media myth. Van Rensburg died in 1926 and the Afrikaner cattle herder belonged to a religious sect that specialized in “visions.” “Siener” became the nickname and title of the man christened Nicolaas Pieter Johannes Janse van Rensburg.
Directed and adapted from William Mulvihill‘s novel by Cy Enfield; produced by Joe Levine, Enfield and Stanley Baker, Sands of the Kalahari was released “hot on the heels” of Zulu. Baker’s and Enfield’s maiden voyage into the world of film together; Zulu was a massive hit and Levine (who controlled the purse strings) wanted another film by the two men as soon as possible.
I watched this film one leisurely Sunday afternoon after the Pub had closed. I’d never seen it before (I was only eight years-old when the film was initially released and I don’t think my parents would have liked their over imaginative son watching this one) and the thing that stuck with me all those years ago was the baboons.
A disparate group of passengers are flying on a commercial flight through Nairobi. Their plane develops technical problems and they are forced to lay-over in a small African town. One of the passengers finds out about a smaller “private” plane that will take a few of the passengers on ahead.
This German passenger, Dr. Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel) goes around trying to get enough people interested in going to reduce the cost of the flight. The last person he approaches is English-woman Grace Munkton (Susannah York), she agrees and the flight is on. A last-minute potential passenger arrives as he plane is about to take off in the form of big game hunter Brian O’Brien (Stuart Whitman) who talks his way on board.
The plane takes off and in the middle of the desert hits a giant swarm of locusts and crashes. With one of the pilots dead, and one of the passengers badly injured, Mike Bain (Stanley Baker), the survivors leave the crash site.
Although this film has not aged too well after all these years (some of the baboon shots look like small men in monkey suits, although fortunately, this only happens once for a few seconds) and the locust swarm plunges between impressive and hokey; but over all, the film still impresses.
The cast is impressive. Apart from the actors listed above, it also featured Nigel Davenport and Harry Andrews both well-known and well versed character actors.
Whitman as the survival extremist O’Brien, is brutal, selfish and handsome. This real life Army veteran was a leading man and worth a fortune due to wise investments over his career. Susannah York was, then, a star in the making, When younger, she resembled Ingrid Bergman and enjoyed a long and busy career before her death in 2011.
Stanley Baker played the third point of this “love triangle” and I’ve saved him for last. Baker, like Richard Burton, came from Wales and because of his rugged good looks and his excellent acting ability soon became a star. As mentioned in the first paragraph, he produced and starred in the 1964 film Zulu. His untimely death at the age of 48 deprived the world of a great actor.
Sands of the Kalahari is an ensemble film, with an eventual focus on the “triangle” mentioned above and O’Brien’s repeated bullying of a troop of baboons who live in the rocks where the group have taken shelter. Baboons are savage creatures and quite vicious when attacked (in the film at any rate) and O’Brien’s constant torture and killing of the animals can only end badly.
I found this on Netflix last night and I was overjoyed. I had not seen it since that Sunday afternoon viewing years ago. It is an impressive film and I urge you to watch it while it’s still streaming.
A definite “retro” 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Just for fun – Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were originally cast as Munkton and O’Brien. Susannah York was brought in to replace another actress and Stuart Whitman was the fourth choice to play O’Brian. *IMDb*
- Rorke’s Drift lost soldier honoured (bbc.co.uk)
- Rorke’s Drift forgotten hero finally honoured 134 years on from the Zulu war (mirror.co.uk)
A kind of ‘retro’ retro review today. My daughter and I watched this magnificent film again last night. It is an eternal favorite in this house and has been for a long time.
For those of you who might live under a rock or perhaps on some planet where television signals don’t reach, Zulu is a 1964 historical war film depicting the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British Army and the Zulus in January 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War. It was produced as a joint venture with Stanley Baker‘s production company Diamond Films.
Cy Enfield directed the film (Cy was blacklisted in Hollywood by the HUAC who decided that he was an ‘sympathiser’ to the ‘red peril’ that the industry was hysterically trying to stamp out in the 1950’s. Enfield left the USA and set up shop in the UK IN 1951). The film’s producers were Stanley Baker, Cy Enfield and Joseph E Levine.
The film was shot on using the Super Technirama 70 cinematographic process, and distributed by Paramount Pictures in all countries excluding the United States, where it was distributed by Embassy Pictures. The Technirama was obviously good choice as the film still looks magnificent. The colours are rich and full and the film feels panoramic to the extreme.
All the exteriors of Zulu were filmed in South Africa. The interiors were filmed at Twickenham Studios in England. Michael Caine(in his first ‘starring’ role, “Introducing Michael Caine”) writes about the experience in his first Autobiography, What’s it all About?. Caine talks about how abysmally the ‘locals’ were treated and how Stanley Baker was furious about it.
He also talks about the ‘spies’ the South African Police had mixed with the local film crews. It was a deplorable time in South Africa’s social and political history.
Caine also writes about the weeks of waiting by the film crew and cast because of rain. He also talks of his own personal trials and tribulations on his first big role.
*If you haven’t read Michael Caines Autobiography, I strongly urge you to do so. He talks a great deal about Zulu and other films he has worked on and well as personal aspects of his life. He was a firm favorite of mine before he wrote the book, after reading it, I became a firm devotee of the man’s work.*
Despite the political problems faced by the production crew and (in some cases) the cast. The film was finished and shown to rave reviews and huge box office returns.
There were a few folks who were less than delighted by the portrayal of some of the ‘real’ characters in the film. The screenplay was adapted from an article about Rourke’s Drift written by John Prebble. Cy Enfield talked to the Zulu historians to get a picture of the battle from ‘both sides’ and he and Prebble came up with the finished script.
Historical license was taken with some of the characters in the film to either enhance their story or to make it more poignant. The Wittes and Private Hook in particular were changed to fit the mood of the film and to make the character cinematically more interesting.
Some things were ‘made up’ for the same reason. There was no instance of the two groups ‘singing’ at each other and the Zulu’s did not, in fact, ‘salute the soldiers’ for their bravery. But in true Hollywood style it looks brilliant and moves the film on nicely. In other words, “If it wasn’t like that brother, it should have been.”
The cast list was a compilation of some of Britain’s finest actors:
- Stanley Baker as Lieutenant John Chard
- Michael Caine as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead
- Jack Hawkins as Reverend Otto Witt, a Swedish missionary based at Rorke’s Drift
- Ulla Jacobsson as Margareta Witt
- Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi as King Cetshwayo
- James Booth as Private Henry Hook, described as “a thief, a coward, and an insubordinate barrack-room lawyer”
- Nigel Green as Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne
- Ivor Emmanuel as Private Owen, a Welsh baritone and head of the company choir. At the end, Owen leads the men in singing “Men of Harlech”.
- Paul Daneman as Sergeant Maxfield
- Glynn Edwards as Corporal William Allen, portrayed as a model soldier (despite the real Allen being recently demoted from Sergeant for drunkenness)
- Neil McCarthy as Private Thomas
- David Kernan as Private Frederick Hitch
- Gary Bond as Private Cole
- Peter Gill as Private 612 John Williams
- Patrick Magee as Surgeon-Major James Henry Reynolds, the overworked doctor
- Richard Davies as Private 593 William Jones
- Denys Graham as Private 716 Robert Jones
- Dickie Owen as Corporal Christian Schiess, a hospitalised Swiss corporal in the Natal Native Contingent
- Gert Van den Bergh as Lieutenant Josef Adendorff, an Afrikaner officer serving with the Natal Native Contingent and a survivor of the battle at Isandhlwana
- Dennis Folbigge as Commissary James Langley Dalton
- Larry Taylor – Hughes
The action scenes are brilliant considering the Zulu tribesmen had never acted before. Since Stanley Baker viewed the film as a western, the producers brought in a western film for the tribesmen to watch so they could see how the action sequences were to look and how to ‘die’ on film.
The film opens and closes with the magnificent voice of Richard Burton (who was a close friend of Stanley’s) telling, firstly of the massacre of British troops at the Battle of Isandlwana and at the end of the film he details a brief history of the Victorian Cross and which of the men who fought at Rourke’s Drift were awarded the Cross.
This epic film about an out-numbered group of British solders (150 soldiers and 4000 Zulu warriors) and their desperate battle to keep from being overrun by the Zulu’s and their eventual ‘victory,’ is a true timeless masterpiece.
I defy anyone to watch the film and not come out in gooseflesh at the ‘train noise’ the advancing Zulu warriors make as they approach the Drift or to see the scenes of the Zulu chanting and striking their cowhide shields as they prepare to charge the soldiers. These scenes alone are worth the price of admission (so to speak).
The makeup, the costumes and the set all scream out with authenticity although the river that Chard is to build a bridge over is laughably small and looks more like a dammed section of a small creek. I do know there were some technical problems with the actual river and unfortunately it shows.
But water difficulties aside, Caine absolutely knocks it out of the park in his first starring role. At the beginning of the film you cannot stand his character and by the end of it you like and admire the man. Baker is as resolute and as firm as an oak tree, using his engineer skills to build a way to defend the Drift with wagons and ‘mealie’ (corn) bags.
Nigel Green as the colour sergeant also trumps the rest of the cast, but James Booth (as Private Hook) who did not even get to film outside of England comes a close second to Green in performance.
If you want to see a film that shows ‘how they used to make em’ watch Zulu. In fact, if you are an aspiring young film maker, I would make it a requirement to study this film. Well, this film and Terminator 2: Judgement Day on how to make a action movie work.
Michael Smith 12/10/2012
As a postscript I just realised that I have not mentioned the exquisitely epic score and soundtrack by the magnificent John Barry (perhaps better known as the creator of the ‘Bond’ music). Mea Culpa to the estate and survivors of messer Barry (3 November 1933 – 30 January 2011). How could I forget when the music was playing through my head while I wrote this.
- William C. Faure (en.wikipedia.org)
- SA anger over roads to Zuma home (bbc.co.uk)
- Who are these Zulu fiction readers in the UK? (phentiza.wordpress.com)
- ‘A Wonderful Land’ Student Graphic Design Project (2010) (nathanheins.wordpress.com)