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Sheldon Hall is a senior lecturer in film studies at Sheffield Hallam University, UK, and is the author of Zulu: With Some Guts Behind It – The Making of the Epic Movie (2005). He also is co-author (with Steve Neale) of Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History (2010), and co-editor (with John Belton and Steve Neale) of Widescreen Worldwide (2010). Sheldon also participated in the recording of an audio commentary track for Zulu (found on the previously-released DVD and Blu-ray from Paramount) and Once Upon a Time in the West. The Bits caught up with Sheldon to discuss his thoughts on the 50th anniversary of Zulu’s premiere, his comprehensive book on the making of the film, and the film’s legacy.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is Zulu worthy of celebration on its 50th anniversary?
Sheldon Hall: In the United Kingdom it has a very large and devoted following, partly because of its huge box-office success on first release and long subsequent circulation in cinemas; then, from 1976 onwards, because it has been frequently shown on network television, especially at holiday times (for some reason war movies are a TV tradition on holidays in Britain!). But it’s also a remarkable film in its own right, which has captured the imaginations of several generations of viewers, often inspiring a serious interest in history.
Coate: How is Zulu significant within the historical/war genre?
Hall: The film was released at a significant moment in the mid-1960s, when the British Empire was crumbling and attitudes to imperialism and colonialism were changing – they were no longer thought of automatically as a “good thing,” as previous generations had been taught. Zulu conveys this with a very skeptical view of the imperialist project – it’s decidedly ambivalent about the British soldiers’ presence in Africa, even though it conveys very little about the historical context of the Anglo-Zulu War, and depicts the mass slaughter of the enemy as a shocking and shameful thing, while also paying tribute to the courage and honor of both sides.
Coate: Was Zulu a box-office success?
Hall: It was an enormous box-office success in the UK, a disappointment in the US, and a moderate success in the rest of the world – though in fact each of these three territories returned about the same rental, totaling $9 million in all.
Coate: Why does Zulu have a strong following in the UK but not so much in the US?
Hall: It depicts an episode from British military history – though one that was not well known to the general public at the time the film was made – and dramatizes aspects of what many people feel to be the “British character” – stoicism in the case of Col.-Sgt. Bourne (Nigel Green), working-class chutzpah in the case of Hook (James Booth), and so on.
Coate: Can you recall your reaction to the first time you saw Zulu?
Hall: I was eight years old at the time, and sitting in the front row of the Carlton cinema, Tynemouth, in the North East of England where I grew up. I was quite overwhelmed by it. It was a hugely impressive, exciting, moving experience – it instantly became my favorite film, and so it has remained ever since.
Coate: Zulu was shot in a large format (Technirama), yet there seems little evidence of many 70mm presentations in its original release or even stereo on some of its home-video releases.
Hall: The intention was always to release it in 70mm for initial engagements, though not necessarily on a roadshow basis. When it premiered at the Plaza, Lower Regent Street, in London’s West End (the Paramount showcase at the time), the cinema was not yet equipped with 70mm projection: it was installed for the next engagement, the roadshow premiere run of Becket. I have no definite information to explain why it was not more widely exhibited in 70mm (or four-track mag), but my hunch is that Paramount was focusing its roadshow hopes that year on Becket and that executive producer Joseph E. Levine (whose company Embassy Pictures released the film in the US) wanted a wide saturation release such as he had used for other historical spectacles like Hercules and Hercules Unchained (the latter had been a particularly big hit in the UK). So that’s what it got instead. Some overseas territories got the 70mm version, but the UK had to wait until the 1972 reissue for it.
Coate: What was the objective with your book, Zulu: With Some Guts Behind It?
Hall: I wanted to write a production history that cast the net wider and deeper than most “making of” books – to give as thorough, comprehensive and detailed a picture of the production and release of one movie as I was able to research. It’s a kind of contextual sourcebook on the film, and I’m pleased that many people have told me that they particularly like the detail in it.
Coate: Zulu features an early-career performance by Michael Caine. Describe his contribution to the film.
Hall: Coming to it with Caine’s subsequent career and image in mind can be disconcerting, and it’s possibly this that leads some people now to take him for granted or to mock his upper-class accent – which, an occasional slip aside, I find impeccable. It’s a fine performance and I can’t imagine that it would have worked better with anyone else in the part.
Coate: Zulu features an early-career score by John Barry. Describe his contribution to the film.
Hall: The score is tremendous – spacious, sweeping, exhilarating. It was one of the films that established Barry’s reputation, and rightly so. It was also one of the first (of many) soundtrack albums I ever bought, and probably the one I’ve played most often!
Coate: What was the objective with the audio commentary track (on the previous DVD & Blu-ray) on which you participated?
Hall: The goal was simply to give an insight into the production process and the film itself, with the aid of its second unit director and location manager, Bob Porter. It was recorded at a relatively early stage of my research on the film, and I’d like to be able to record a new one that incorporates some of the vast amount of material I’ve accumulated since then.
Coate: Any idea on why your commentary track was not ported over to the new Blu-ray?
Hall: The rights to Zulu are owned by different companies for different territories. In most of the world, including the UK, it’s a Paramount picture, and the Region 2 DVD releases and Region B Blu-ray, all of which feature largely the same extras, were created by Paramount. In the US, it’s controlled by MGM, which sub-licensed the rights to Twilight Time for their Blu-ray. So the releases are completely different, even down to the source material used for the master.
Coate: Should there be more supplemental features on the Blu-ray? In other words, does Zulu deserve a more lavish treatment than it has received?
Hall: More is always better when it comes to home video extras! But the market for the film is more limited in the US, and the Twilight Time print run is limited to 3,000 copies, so I’m guessing more extras would not have been commercially viable.
Coate: What words do you have for someone who has never seen Zulu to entice them to watch it?
Hall: It’s not what you might think!
Coate: Any words about the 1979 prequel, Zulu Dawn?
Hall: It’s a noble attempt to do something different and to provide some of the historical context missing from the original film. But partly because the events involved are so much less cohesive than in Zulu (the Battle of Isandlwana involved many more groups of people, spread over a much larger area and time period, than Rorke’s Drift), I don’t think it works as well dramatically. Despite a much bigger budget and far many more extras, the battle scenes themselves are not especially well staged or shot. It’s a fair try, but a disappointment.
Coate: What is the legacy of Zulu?
Hall: Several generations of viewers have been turned on to history because of it – I know some who became professional historians because the film inspired them to take an interest in the subject. And it has been influential on a number of filmmakers in the conception and staging of battle scenes. Mainly, however, it has burned its way into the imagination of millions of people, not just in Britain but around the world, as a powerful, exciting and moving experience.
- Michael Coate