Night 1, Hour 1
Farewell: Fynn, if this empire is quite vast, and I’m told that it is, then the Pharaoh must be giving his people something in return for their fidelity, or they’d all be wandering.
Fynn: Have you read Faust, Lieutenant?
Farewell: Marlowe’s, Bacon’s, Lessing’s, or Goethe’s?
Fynn: Touche. What was Faust given in return for his fidelity? [Farewell chuckles] There is a legend, Lieutenant, among the native witch doctors, of a child, a prophetic child. They say he will bring with him an era in which the name amaZulu will signify terror and death. Many people see Shaka as the incarnation of that prophesy.
— Lt. Francis Farewell recruits Dr. Henry Fynn for his expedition to make contact with Shaka. From hour 1 of Shaka Zulu.
The opening night of Shaka Zulu begins in 1823, and chronicles the assembly and travels of a small-but-diverse European team given the unenviable mission of dissuading Shaka from overrunning the British Cape colony. This diplomatic plan is hatched back in distant England by Lord Henry Bathurst, played by Christopher Lee, who brings the threat posed by Zulu expansion to King George IV, played by Roy Dotrice, in a scene directed by series writer Joshua Sinclair.
Along with Trevor Howard, who plays the Cape colony’s Lord Somerset, the casting of veteran English actors Lee and Dotrice bought the series some prestige. Dotrice was coming off his famous film role as Mozart’s humorless father in 1984’s Amadeus, while Lee had long ago cemented his notoriety in pop culture as a commanding Dracula in the Hammer Films series from the 1950s-’70s. Here, though, the tone of each man’s famous screen persona is flipped. Dotrice’s George is a snickering monarch holding informal cabinet meetings from his bedroom, while Lee is unceasingly deferential to his debauched king — as Sinclair recalled during his 2013 interview for my film site, Camera In The Sun:
George IV as prince regent was actually rather fat, and maybe gay, maybe not gay. Who really cares. Everybody was something in those days. Especially in France, where they were a little bit of everything — and especially Louis XV. I think Louis XV was probably the most promiscuous king in the history of mankind. But George IV was a close second. Especially since he had free reign, considering his father was mad. Now, when you write something like this, you’re not thinking of an actor. Often I do. But in this case, I didn’t. I thought, “I’m gonna make him camp.” In other words, the absurdity for an English king to have to worry about the Zulus, when his father had lost half the empire in America with the Revolutionary War. This is a couple of decades after it. Henry Bathurst was the Secretary of the Colonies, and he comes to George IV as somebody as great as Christopher Lee, and with his wonderful English says:
Bathurst: “It is Africa, I’m afraid, sir. I have received a most alarming missive from Lord Somerset at the Cape. It concerns the Zulus, sir.”
George IV: “The Zulus? Are you implying that the Colonial Office of the British Empire considers a tribe of savages running around in their birthday suits a problem? Oh, really. What ineffable twaddle, Lord Henry.”
Bathurst: “It is somewhat more than a tribe, sir. We are convinced that we are at grips with a proper empire of a quarter of a million such birthday suits.”
George IV: “Really? My, my, they do multiply, don’t they… like bunnies.”
Bathurst: “Your majesty, it is possible that the Zulus will attack the Cape. If that should happen, we would have to deal with a very large number of these bunnies, under the leadership of a March hare by the name of Shaka.”
Meanwhile in South Africa, director William C. Faure was guiding English actors Edward Fox and Robert Powell through a rigorous on-location shoot as British expedition leaders Lt. Francis Farewell and Dr. Henry Fynn. Later, Sinclair recalled his own efforts to convince the two actors to take part in the miniseries, despite the risk of being associated with apartheid:
I said to Powell, “Look, you realize there’s a cultural boycott. I personally cannot return to South Africa. Are you going to do it?” And I remember Powell looked me in the eye and said, “I’m going there because the script you wrote is just too damn good.” I didn’t know what to say about that. I had James Earl Jones to play Dingiswayo — just as Martin Sheen was supposed to play Fynn. But then they didn’t, because of the cultural boycott. Powell and Fox did it. And not because they didn’t care about apartheid. You see, another aspect [of participating] was to believe that by doing Shaka, and making it such a big thing, it would explode out of South Africa, and the regime would be forced to accept Shaka as one of their heroes. And by doing so, they would have to accept the fact that the blacks could have heroes at all.
Farewell meets Fynn in a hot and dusty yard in October of 1823, tending to a sickly crowd of black Africans from many different tribes defeated by Shaka. Now, these tribesmen sit under the blazing sun in European chains, bound to be sold as slaves. When Farewell asks Fynn what he knows of Shaka, a murmur rolls through the captive crowd around them, echoing the warrior king’s name, and Fynn notes the reason for their response:
The Masane tribe, Nxumalos, Hlubis, Cunas, Ngwanes, countless others, the banished of southeast Africa. Fleeing Shaka’s spears, and going straight into the arms of the white slave traders and the British troops on the borders of the Cape colony. In a way, Lieutenant, they are the ultimate victims of recent history. If you’ll favor my comparison, they are the wandering Jews of Africa, fleeing the Pharaoh Shaka into the Babylonian captivity of slavery.
Before Farewell and Fynn can meet Shaka, though, they must sail up the South African coast and make landfall in his territory. However, their mission begins disastrously when their ship sinks in a storm, throwing a soaking mix of men, horses, and supplies upon the shores of Natal. As the battered team gather what remains, a group of black-plumed Zulu warriors jog up the beach, astounded at the appearance of the whites, and a tense standoff ensues. When the team’s Dutch translator, Piet Vegte, tells the Zulu general Mgobozi that they seek audience with Shaka, the old man is whisked away to the capital kraal of Kwa Bulawayo — while Farewell and Fynn are forced to watch him go, and wait until the next hour of Shaka Zulu.