Behold the mighty pith helmet: Handcrafted, genuine cork, dyed with tea to match your khakis. Yes, the pith helmet; sometimes called the “Home Service Helmet,” it is still worn by the British army on several ceremonial occasions; a truly magnificent accessory to any ensemble, a singularly bold, if not grandiose, fashion statement, and oh yeah, Michael Caine also wore one as Lieutenant Bromhead in the number 63 on our list, the majestic English war film Zulu.
This incidentally was Michael Caine’s first film role. Stanley Baker co-stars as Lt. John Chard, a Royal Engineer who, by a quirk of fate, outranks everyone in the regiment including Lt. Bromhead. Even though Chard and Bromhead are both Lieutenants, Chard is given the command because he is older than Bromhead by three months. Also he was taller. Royal engineers incidentally were real soldiers, but also actual engineers. They are responsible for building London’s famous Albert Hall, Rideau Canal, The Western Heights of Dover, and the new Arby’s on the corner of Seventeenth. They were also commissioned not once, but twice throughout history to draw up the border between Canada and The United States. Apparently at some point Canada “forgot” that they were a different country and had to be reminded. At this juncture, Lt. Chard and his men have come to the tiny fort at O’rourkes Drift to repair the pontoon boats that the British forces used to cross the buffalo river, which is the border between the British Colony of Natal and the mighty Kingdom of the Zulus.
This former missionary station is the site of the now-famous battle where a small group of British soldiers held off approximately 4 thousand Zulu warriors. Originally staffed at about 400 soldiers, the garrison dwindled to just over 150 after several battalions bravely turned their tales and fled. Of the 150 who were left, at least 40 were patients in the local hospital. Amazingly many of the soldiers had to fight without the benefit of having their head covered by 7 centimeters of tea-dyed cork. One of these unfortunate soldiers was Private Henry Hook, in the film portrayed by James Booth. He is portrayed as a drunkard and a rebel rouser, but in real life, he was a teetotaler who enjoyed playing canasta and taking long walks on the beach. His daughters were so incensed at his rough-hewn portrayal in the film that when it was shown to them in 1964 they walked out of the screening.
The perimeter defenses of the small station were hastily built out of surplus food bags as the British soldiers hunkered down to wait for the impending onslaught of the Zulus. Luckily, although they numbered in the thousands, the Zulus were averse to carrying firearms, believing them to be the weapons of cowards. I won’t tell you exactly how it all plays out, but suffice it to say, that no fewer than eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to members of the British military that day. Including Lieutenants Bromhead and Chard, as well as to Private Hook.
The film Zulu is actually quite well known in certain circles. For instance the “Germanic” war chant at the beginning of the movie Gladiator is actually a song sung by the Zulu army in Zulu and no less than Peter Jackson claimed that it was the main inspiration for his filming of the Helm’s Deep sequence in The Two Towers. The original film was written and directed by Cy Endfield a blacklisted American working in the U.K. Endfield also wrote a prequel called Zulu Dawn which starred Peter O’toole and featured a thrilling Boonta Eve pod race sequence. Zulu itself had actually lapsed into the public domain at one point; making it widely available on DVD so to this day you can probably find it in the 5-dollar bins at Wal-mart underneath the copies of Apocageddeon and Gigli. Happy hunting.
Next up … 62!