Although not starring Michael Caine, Zulu pointed him out as a future star for the 60s. The unusual aspect of Caine’s role in his film is that he is not playing the Londoner that would mark him out in his role as anti-Bond agent Harry Palmer, cockney lothario Alfie or Charlie Croker, the debonair crook in The Italian Job (1969).
Here he plays Lieutenant Broomhead, an aristocratic career officer who is cutting his teeth in his first engagement in the Boer War in South Africa. Really, this is Stanley Baker’s film in almost every way. Like many films coming out of Britain and Europe in the 60s, an American studio, Paramount, financed this project. Produced by Hollywood mogul Joseph E. Levine and directed by another American, Cy Endfield, much of the control and look of the film was orchestrated by Baker.
Baker had set up his own production company, Diamond Films, that made Zulu with Paramount. Levine, as most studio heads and producers would be inclined to do, encouraged Baker to make the film on as low a budget as possible. The original budget was $2.5 million and Levine asked Baker to reduce this to $2 million meaning that Baker had to cut some corners. One of these was to put up the cast and crew in a tented compound near the location, rather than in hotels, thereby saving on accommodation and transport costs.
This cutting of the budget meant that Baker had to ask many of his friends to be in the film at cut price including James Booth in a memorable performance as Private Hook, Glynn Edwards as a corporal, Patrick Magee as a surgeon and Caine as Broomhead. Stuntmen were also used in bit-parts. Baker, his family and crew headed out to South Africa in search of locations all over the country including Namibia and the Transvaal before settling on the beautiful locations in Natal, near the actual Rorke’s Drift; although the site of the battle was in reality very flat. The studio parts of the film were shot later at Twickenham Studios, but most was actually shot on location. On arrival it rained for several days before blue skies and bright sunshine no longer impeded the filming.
Not only can this an epic, it is also an exciting period war film. Just over ten minutes into the film Caine appears for the first time as Broomhead, out hunting a leopard. Shortly after the shoot, Broomhead is seen riding back to the compound with his spoils where he introduces himself to Chard. Many have commented on Caine’s accent in the film; but this is really only because we’re used to hearing him speaking with his Cockney accent. (Listening carefully to his accent, certain Cockney nuances do come out and Caine did apparently speak as Broomhead at the London premiere of the film, allegedly fooling officers.)
Caine originally went for the part of Hook and lost out to Baker’s chum, James Booth, before being offered Broomhead. He was deemed ‘terrible’ at the audition until the producer had a sudden change of heart at a party. Much of the dialogue centres on the struggle between Baker’s career soldier Chard and the aristocratic Broomhead who heroically cuts his teeth in this battle; in reality both men were apparently quite unremarkable.
Zulu still stands the test of time today as an epic, as an action movie, as a war movie and as Caine’s first major part. Although he had been in a handful of films since his debut in 1956, the title credits do say ‘introducing’ Michael Caine. As a result many consider this as Caine’s first film and it set the tone for British cinema with American backing in the 60s.