A Guest Blog by Descriptive Video Works writer/describer Neil Every
In my role as a writer/describer with Descriptive Video Works I’ve had the opportunity to help make a staggering variety of shows accessible to the blind and vision-impaired. Of these shows, the feature length movies are often the most challenging. However, when a movie comes along that is regarded as a classic, the challenge becomes so much more than meeting the delivery deadline and making it accessible to the vision impaired – it becomes a responsibility to do it right and honor the respect the movie has achieved with audiences worldwide.
Released in 1964, Zulu depicts the infamous Battle of Rorke’s Drift when British soldiers suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of thousands of Zulu warriors in January 1879. In an historical context, The Battle of Rorke’s Drift can be considered the British equivalent of The Alamo or The Battle of Little Bighorn.
As a film, Zulu is up there with the best historical war movies ever made – it’s truly cinema on an epic scale. Considering the movie was made more than 50 years ago, well before the anti-war movement of a Post-Vietnam era world, one might expect the film to revel in colonialism, patriotism and the glorification and honor of battle but the film has a surprising perspective on the matter for the time. Even the most patriotic and dutiful of characters, Lt. Bromhead (played by a young Michael Caine in one of his first starring roles) is devastated at the senseless loss of life come the end of the movie.
Michael Caine as Lt. Bromhead cradles Stanley Baker as Lt. Chard
Unlike many Westerns of yesteryear, where the antagonistic Natives are portrayed as stereotypical, one-dimensional violent savages, writer-director Cy Endfield gives the Zulus an air of mystery, majesty and empathy and he does it with barely a single line of dialogue.
Preserving the intent of the filmmakers and communicating the story, its tone and sweep in as truthful a manner as possible quickly became apparent to me in describing the film. The process began with a viewing of the film from start to finish, taking notes as I went. The first challenge is always identifying each of the characters. With modern films there is usually a plethora of actor details to be found online through the IMDB (International Movie Data Base) and Google image search. Sometimes I’m even lucky enough to track down a copy of the screenplay. However, when a film is decades old as was the case with Zulu, it’s not so easy. There were few pictures identifying the characters other than the main stars and the screenplay has never been made public. Making matters worse in this case was the fact that 99% of the cast were all wearing red and white British Army uniforms and many had period mustaches. Patience and perseverance are the order of the day.
Uniforms and facial hair. Stanley Baker as Lt. Chard and Nigel Greene as Color Sgt. Bourne
What makes Zulu really stand out is the depiction of the battle that forms the centerpiece of the movie. The battle is a masterclass in action directing with a slow building of tension that increases inexorably until the Zulus finally attack. From this point on it is a war of attrition that keeps the viewer engaged and wondering how on earth any of the characters will survive the situation. Indeed, the battle scenes are so well staged that many contemporary filmmakers have found inspiration in them. One only has to look at Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (which even re-purposed the Zulu chant in the opening Roman Legion battle) or Peter Jackson’s Battle of Helms Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to see homages aplenty.
Capturing the pacing, intensity, tone and atmosphere of the battle scenes was a unique challenge in describing Zulu. When describing action sequences, one strives to paint as vivid and authentic a picture as possible whilst still timing the description so that various elements line up with the appropriate sound effects.
For example the description for one sequence was:
His men returning fire, Chard hunkers down, revolver clutched in one hand as he slowly moves along the edge of the barricade. He fires off a shot.
The word “fires” was timed to land at the point in the action when the viewer hears the sound of the revolver firing.
Following five days of work, the descriptive script for Zulu was completed. Totaling 18 pages and including 356 separate events for a sum of 8,324 words our voice talent and post production wizards at the studio were certainly kept busy bringing it all together and completing the movie in time for delivery!
Here’s a sample sequence of the finished audio described film:
Zulu is well worth the moniker of “Classic Movie” and is well worth your time. The audio described version of the film will be airing as part of “Saturday Night At The Movies” on TVO at 8pm on September 8. I hope our hard work making Zulu accessible helps a new audience of vision impaired viewers re-discover the film.
In addition to working as a describer at Descriptive Video Works, Neil Every is an accomplished Writer, Director and Story Consultant. Check out his website here or visit his blog here.