Zulu: With Some Guts Behind It
by Sheldon Hall
Tomahawk Press, 2005
Attention, Zulu fans: this is the book for you! Obviously a labor of love for author Sheldon Hall, Zulu: With Some Guts Behind It covers every conceivable angle of the film, with whole chapters devoted to the music, the casting, the various scripts, reviews in the press, and so on. Hall has given us a witty, well-written making-of with scrupulous regard for factual accuracy, a nimble, diplomatic approach to controversy, and a deep appreciation of Zulu’s poetic core. A film scholar, Hall sees the film in aesthetic terms (so refreshing after decades of commentary with a political/military/historical focus). He isn’t primarily concerned with the details of the battle itself and he doesn’t begrudge the film its artistic license.
Hall authoritatively disproves some entrenched myths: Stanley Baker didn’t finance Zulu himself and the Zulu extras didn’t receive payment in the form of wristwatches. Hall also packs each chapter with fascinating anecdotes you won’t find anywhere else, many based on interviews with the few surviving principals of the film. There’s an amusing story about a huge, physically intimidating-looking Zulu who surprised the cast with his mincingly epicene manner. There’s the sad story of Neil McCarthy (“I’ll get you some milk, eh?”), who suffered from the medical condition of acromegaly, which he blamed for his lack of success with women. (You’re not that homely, Neil; I’d go out with you.) There's surprising information about what the Zulu chants actually mean. And there are loads of photographs and color illustrations.
Okay, okay: does Hall tell any interesting stories about James Booth? Does he ever! The best one concerns Ulla Jacobsen's reaction to Booth. Jacobsen seems to have been almost as intense and religious in real life as she was in her role as Margareta. She took an instant dislike to Booth, for no discernible reason. In fact, she found his presence so "threatening" that she (unsuccessfully) demanded his removal, which Booth recounts in understandably surprised, wounded tones. (Maybe Ulla felt the way Margareta did—turned-on and uncomfortable about it.) Booth calls her “the queen egomaniac.” Booth’s masterly way with the bayonet goes back to his three years of army service, which included a stint training soldiers in its use.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that Hall quotes from my review of Zulu on this very site, with emphasis on the brandy scene, and even expresses qualified agreement with one of my more controversial ideas. (Thank you, Sheldon!). Though Sheldon Hall’s scholarship is admirable, the text does contain one possible error for which I must take full blame (if it is, indeed, an error). The text says James Booth was born David Geeves-Booth. This is what James told me via email, and it’s what I told Sheldon. But all the obituaries say his birth name was David Geeves, and Matthew Booth, his son, confirms this. So which is it? And if it was Geeves, why would James have said otherwise? Sorry—I don’t have answers to these questions.
No matter. It is simply inconceivable that a better overview of Zulu will ever be written. Sheldon Hall has done fans a tremendous service—and just in the nick of time, too. Sadly, Stanley Baker, Ulla Jacobsen, Cy Endfield, John Prebble, and Jack Hawkins were all dead by the time Hall started his researches. James Booth died before the book was printed. Had Hall waited even a few more years, there might have been no-one left to talk to.
Conspicuous by his absence is Michael Caine. Though Zulu gave Caine’s career an important boost, and he’s still alive to talk, Caine has reportedly snubbed all of Hall’s efforts to interview him. Maybe Caine has said all he has to say about Zulu in his autobiography, or maybe he chooses to distance himself from Zulu for other reasons. In any case, Caine’s unavailability for comment is unfortunate and somewhat ungracious. We’ll never know how many interesting, revealing stories he didn’t tell.
© Diana Blackwell 2005