The Cockney boy who conquered the silver screen

If you are old enough, you may remember the film Zulu from 1964, about a group of hopelessly outnumbered English soldiers who hold out against a much larger attacking force of Zulu warriors. One of the officers was played by a young, handsome man with blonde hair. His name was Maurice Joseph Micklewhite Jr. You probably know him better as Michael Caine. BY CLAUS VESTERAGER MARTINUS PHOTOGRAPH: GETTY IMAGES
Michael Caine

Michael Caine

Weather reports state that 14 March 1933 was a cold day, barely more than 9 °C. It was windy in South London’s Rotherhithe. In the nearby hospital St. Olave’s, a child was born – Maurice Joseph Micklewhite Jr.

A child who would grow up to win two Oscars and receive a knighthood - ‘The Most Excellent Order of The British Empire’. But all that is still a world away for the boy, growing up in London’s working-class district where police officers were forced to patrol in pairs.

His father’s frequent drinking and gambling, and the massive economic hardships of the 1930s came close to splitting the family apart. Maurice was also attracted to the hectic street life and its temptations.

Saved by the war

The Second World War had a crucial impact on the family. First, the father was called up for National Service but more importantly, Maurice, his sister and younger brother were evacuated to Norfolk. This had a huge effect on his life. Above all, because he thrived in the local village school, where teachers supported and encouraged him to such a degree, that he was able to finish secondary school.

Paradoxically, it was the war that also brought an end to the story of the poor boy and his family from London’s working-class district. As a young man he was called up by the Army to do his National Service and stationed in various places, including Korea – in the middle of a bloody war that split the Korean Peninsula.

From Micklewhite to Caine

Maurice’s mother had given birth to a son before marrying Maurice’s father. This halfbrother suffered from incurable epilepsy and was institutionalised. His mother – Ellen Micklewhite – regularly visited her son in what were almost secret missions. According to Michael Caine’s biography ‘Michael Caine: A Class Act’, the institution was located between Croydon and Banstead, south of London, and was called Cain Hill.

When Maurice returned to civilian life in 1954 he took the stage name Michael Caine. The name change is the only link to his brother and the poor life in London that he had escaped from. A new name, which showed his courage to seek a new life as an actor. And above all, a need to seek a different life, not one as a porter at the local hospital.

The war on the big screen

Home from the Korean War, he was the first substitute for Peter O’Toole in Willis Hall’s war drama ‘The Long and the Short and the Tall’. Even though O’Toole was known for his love of alcohol and drinking bouts, Michael Caine did not step on the stage until the play had reached the provinces.

After a number of small parts, he auditioned for the film Cockney Soldier. He did not get the part but the production company were about to start filming Zulu (1964) and they had noticed the tall, attractive young man. He was given the role of lieutenant Bromhead – a snobbish, upper-class aristocratic infantry officer who was awarded the highest medal of honour in the British Army - the Victoria Cross - for his efforts in the heroic battle against an overwhelming force of Zulu warriors in the battle for Rorke’s Drift in South Africa.

“I can bloody well play anything.”

Caine’s portrait of a snobbish, aristocratic officer was a world away from his cockney upbringing in the East End of the 1930s. But as he said in a later TV interview: “I can bloody well play anything.” And he said it through tight lips with a real cockney accent with ultraflat vowels, followed by a wide grin. And he did play anything. With over 170 films on his CV there is not a genre that Michael Caine has not acted in.

He has played the spy and the spy hunter. He was played the unsympathetic hustler in ‘Little Voice’ (1998), he has acted opposite Mia Farrow in ‘Hannah And Her Sisters’ (1986) and the doctor with an ether addiction in The Cider House Rules. With those last two films he became the proud winner of two Oscars for best actor in a supporting role.

Goodbye to poverty

Michael Caine’s did not just possess the courage to seek a future as an actor, he also had ambition, talent and the learning to become a success. How wealthy the 85-year old is, is anybody’s guess. But according to imdb.com – possibly the world’s biggest database about films and actors – Michael Caine already earned GBP 4,000 for his role in Zulu in 1964. A few years later, he was paid GBP 250,000 for his role in the gangster comedy Gambit (1966).

The Cockney boy from Rotherhithe did it – he conquered the world and the silver screen, and did it so convincingly that he was knighted for it. Now he is Sir Michael Caine. But despite wealth and success, he has not lost his self-ironic touch. As he said in an interview: “I’m an icon. Its says so in the newspaper!”

Michael Caine

COCKNEY

Cockney is an english dialect spoken be East Londoners. It is traditionally associated with the working class

The word cockney is most likely a combination of the two Middle Age English words ‘cocken’ + ey = ‘a cocks egg’. The cockney accent is dominated by the u-sound, for example, h is not pronounced at the beginning of a word, so ‘house’ becomes ‘ouse’. Michael Caine made the cockney accent known and loved. But perhaps it was not so respected in finer circles.

Michael Caine war films
War films

Five war films that feature Caine

In many ways the Second World War was a turning point in Michael Caine’s life. The evacuation from war-torn London to Norfolk and National Service in Korea and the war film Zulu from 1964, are all important events in his life. Even though Caine has acted in every kind of genre, war films have played a major role in his career. We have chosen five of his films, where he was able to use his experience from Korea:

ZULU (1964)

The major film about the heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa by the British Army against an attack of 4,000 Zulu warriors on 22 January 1879. A battle that really happened and which lasted for more than 10 hours. Fifteen British soldiers and more than 350 Zulu warriors were killed during the battle.

Caine plays lieutenant Bromhead in the 138-minute film as a traditional snobbish upper-class officer who manages to organise the defence against the attackers.

Battle of Britain (1969)

Perhaps one of the most famous films about the Second World War; the aerial fights over South England and London in particular made the film a huge success.

The film is a precise description (from the point of view of the winners) of the Battle of Britain, when during the summer and autumn of 1940, the RAF dealt the German Air Forces a strategic defeat and forced Germany to abandon its planned invasion (Operation Sea Lion) of Great Britain. The major strategic victory by the outnumbered RAF was famously summed up by Winston Churchill: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Michael Caine plays Squadron Leader Canfield in the film, the leader of a squadron of Spitfire pilots.

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

In this film Michael Caine switches sides and plays Colonel Kurt Steiner, a German officer court-martialled because he tried to save a Jewish teenage girl from a transport wagon in a hellish train station somewhere on the Eastern Front. Instead of being shot along with his men, he is made captain of a motor torpedo boat that carries out suicide missions along the English coast. Stationed on the German-occupied Channel Islands, Steiner and his men are given the opportunity to redeem themselves by carrying out the operation to kidnap the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The operation goes ahead with Michael Caine and his men parachuting into an idyllic village that Churchill has planned to visit. An intense drama unfolds, and Steiner and his 16 men, aided by a fifth column and IRA terrorist and local intrigue, almost manage to make the operation succeed. At the very least, Kurt Steiner kills the man he thinks is Churchill. But in fact, Churchill is at a conference in Tehran. The man Steiner kills, was an impersonator used as a stand-in for Churchill.

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

An epic war film about one of the most spectacular attempts by the Allies to end the war before Christmas 1944. Almost all of the major stars of the day are in the film: Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, Elliott Gould – and Michael Caine.

The film recounts English Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s attempt to enter the history books as a heroic victor who was crucial to the Allies’ against Germany. A magnificent operation called “Operation Market Garden”, where thousands of soldiers would parachute into the Dutch town of Arnhem and secure the bridge over the Rhine – and thus pave the way for a direct invasion of Germany.

Michael Caine played the role of Lieutenant-Colonel Vandeleur, head of a tank division tasked with conquering the bridges on the way to Arnhem, which the paratroopers had attacked. The film follows the battle slavishly. But it is a notable historical narrative of the war’s most important battle.

Dunkirk (2017)

Including Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk from 2017, might not be an obvious choice because Michael Caine is not credited on the film.

At the beginning of the film the camera follows a group of Spitfire planes on the way to the French coastal town of Dunkirk to provide air support to the hundreds of thousands of trapped British and French troops who waited to be evacuated. There is some radio communication between the pilots and their squadron leader, and the distinct voice of Michael Caine is heard speaking as the Fortis Leader: “Check fuel reserves!” and other similar instructions are heard until this: Pilot: “Dunkirk’s so far, Why can’t they load at Calais?” FORTIS LEADER (over radio) – Caine: “The enemy has something to say about it.”

Even though it is only a cameo role, the 85-year old Caine can do what few others can. Despite the deadpan, cliché-like conversation, Caine’s intimation and confidence gives the scene truthfulness and quietness. The film is directed by Christopher Nolan, who has said he will always find a role for Michael Caine in his films.

Michael Caine Get Carter

PER JUUL CARLSEN: No one talks quite like Caine

Per Juul Carlsen, TV host of Filmland on P1, takes only seconds to name his favourite Michael Caine film: Get Carter (1971). Per believes it is an outstanding film.

“I can quickly name the Caine film Get Carter from 1971 as the one I remember. WOW! I thought when I saw it, Can you really do it like that? Caine plays a quiet, cool gangster. A ‘Gun for Hire’ guy. He’s a little bit James Bond but on the wrong side of the law. When he kills gangster’s daughter, the way he does it, it’s almost as if she thinks it’s OK!”

Michael Caine

Per Juul Carlsen is a film critic and TV host on the programme Filmland on DR1. He thinks Caine’s language is what carries him in a film. “He’s not a trained actor. And he doesn’t act in the British theatre like other actors. But he’s magnificent when it’s about voice. His cockney English accent is brilliant. No one talks quite like Michael Caine,” ends Per Juul Carlsen.