Letter from John Terry: "Framed by fire"
I saw James Booth in 1986 or '87. My brother was working as a stage-hand at the Tyne Theatre and Opera House here in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and he offered me a free ticket to see the pantomime that was playing there (I suppose it must have been around Christmas time). A local paper had run an article recalling Booth's most famous performance and remarking on the coincidence that he was playing another Hook so I went along. He was totally unrecognisable under the make-up and was very good, conveying a satisfying air of over-the-top menace and was popular with the kids, I should have got his autograph.
I first saw ["Zulu"] on TV when I was about eight or nine years old, I remember feeling exhausted from nervous tension at the end. It's the sort of historical epic usually shown on the BBC on Sunday afternoons but I haven't seen it for years on TV, I suspect because many believe the shallow charge that it is racist or imperialist.
As for the film itself, visually it is strikingly beautiful. The crisp red tunics and white helmets of the British and the dappled cow-hide shields of the Zulus contrasting with the dusty green-brown landscape and the big blue sky, all in gorgeous technicolor. For me, Booth and Nigel Green make this film what it is. Caine and Baker are good but their characters are insipid in comparison with Hookie and Bourne. The wonderful script by John Prebble (who died earlier this year) helps, of course. It has a real sympathy for the underdog, both the Zulus and the "damned rankers". It's also rich in memorable lines and darkly funny moments such as the musically-inclined Welshman's professional interest in the Zulu singing when facing imminent death; "Well, they've got a very good bass section mind you..." I would agree though that the finest scene is that in which Hookie steals the brandy, it's such a beautifully composed shot with the dishevelled Hook nerdishly reminded by Williams in their nightmare situation that he could be flogged... Hookie, framed by fire, is in hell already and he just doesn't care.
One criticism which I've often read is that the film is slow in the first half. I can hardly believe this, the tense, measured build-up is one of the great strengths of this masterpiece. The air of impending doom hanging over the post induces a claustrophobic atmosphere despite the wide open spaces and Big Sky. The sound of the approaching enemy "like a train in the distance" is like an elemental, unstoppable force and their spectacular, long-awaited appearance along the ridge-line does not disappoint. The furious action is superbly enhanced by John Barry's unforgettable swirling score. I ordered this DVD from amazon.com about a month ago and it still hasn't arrived yet, strangely there was no region 2(Europe) version available. I'm really looking forward to getting it now as I've never seen the film in widescreen format before.