How Stanley Baker made Zulu his ‘Welsh western’
FILM legend Sir Stanley Baker used his love of Wales to turn the epic battle movie Zulu into what he called a “Welsh western” by altering the facts of the conflict, says a new book on the star.
And on the set of the 1964 movie starring Michael Caine in his first major role, Baker had to contend with stubborn baboons who threatened the whole production as well as racism from some set workers.
According to Stanley Baker, a Life in Film by Robert Shail (University of Wales Press, £19.99), it was the Rhondda-born actor and co-producer of Zulu who decided to call the British soldiers fighting at Rorke’s Drift in the film the South Wales Borderers.
But in reality the regiment at Rorke’s Drift was the 24th (The 2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot which had a single recruiting office in Brecon.
The South Wales Borderers were not formed until two years after the Battle of Rorke’s Drift.
In the new biography, Robert Shail, head of the department of film and media at University of Wales, Lampeter, says when Zulu was made, Baker was a passionate Welshman who was desperate to produce what Baker called his “Welsh western”.
During the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa in January 1879 on which Zulu was based, just over 100 British troops held off 4,000 Zulu warriors from a supply depot near the Tugula River. Among the were 49 English, 32 Welsh, 16 Irish and 22 men of other nationality.
A total of 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded for the valiant defence, seven to the regiment, others to the Army Medical Corps, Transport Unit, Native Natal Contingent and Royal Engineers.
Baker formed Diamond Films to co-produce the movie with Cy Endfield after being approached by writer John Prebble.
Robert Shail said: “Baker seems to have been attracted to the project by one particular aspect of the script, its Welsh dimension.
“Baker could see the possibility of making a film which might pay affectionate tribute to his homeland and the heroism of its native sons.
“As John Prebble put it, ‘Wales prevailed everywhere when Stanley was working’. When the film was eventually made, the 24th Regiment magically became the South Wales Borderers.”
Baker, who died of lung cancer just after being knighted in 1976 aged 49, persuaded Paramount to back the film with a $2m budget... substantially lower than had been hoped.
Shail said: “Necessity proved to be the mother of invention and they saved money by making costumes and props in-house rather than buying them from expensive suppliers in London.
“With only 400 Zulu extras to depict 4,000, the props department came up with an ingenious solution.
“For the magnificent long shots in which we see Zulus spread out against the blue sky, shields were nailed onto long poles and held horizontally between two Zulus giving the appearance of 10 men instead of two.
“As second unit director Bob Porter has pointed out, if you look closely enough you can see that some of the warriors don’t have any legs.”
Bringing in the film on time was essential because of the tight budget and an invasion of baboons nearly brought the whole movie to a halt.
They took a liking to the encampment set and could not be shifted for days from their seats. Eventually they were coaxed away with food placed some distance from the set.
Shail said a more serious level of difficulty arose from shooting under the strictures of South Africa’s apartheid policy.
He said Baker, as producer (he also played Lieut John Chard VC in the film), was required by watching police to ensure “fraternisation” between black and white people on set was kept to a minimum.
Shail said: “As an avowed liberal it was an uncomfortable experience but the consequences of breaching South Africa’s laws at the time were made obvious by the authorities.”
But it did not all go smoothly.
Michael Caine said in his autobiography: “I saw a black worker make a mistake and stopped to watch him get a real telling-off.
“To my astonishment the foreman didn’t reprimand him but smashed his fist into his face.
“I started to run but Stanley (Baker) got there first. He fired the man on the spot then got all the white gang bosses together and laid down the law on how everyone was going to be treated from then on.”
Yesterday, Major Martin Everett, curator of the South Wales Borderers Museum in Brecon, said : “At the time of Rorke’s Drift British regiments, although having county names, did not actually have bases but recruited where they could.
“It was not until 1881 that the South Wales Borderers was formed because at that time regiments actually got bases so people could identify with them more. The British force at Rorke’s Drift was around 30% Welsh so quite a high number.
“Sir Stanley Baker did tell army personnel at a showing of the film that ‘certain changes had been made so it would be a commercial success’ so he did not hide it.”