September 23, 2013

Movie Review: Zulu (1964)

If it's a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it's a short chamber Boxer Henry point 45 caliber miracle. - Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker)

Director: Cy Endfield

Writers: John Prebble and Cy Endfield (screenplay)

Producer: Joseph E. Levine (executive producer), Stanley Baker and Cy Endfield

Studio: Paramount British Pictures

Major Stars: Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Nigel Green, Jack Hawkins, James Booth, Ulla Jacobsson

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing the ending of the film. With that in mind, there are SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

Zulu brings you back to the old days of the epic war film. It was mostly shot on location in South Africa, uses thousands of extras and has those wonderful large-scale war scenes. Held back only by a tendency to play loose with history, Zulu is one of the better war films ever made.

The battle in question is the defense of Rorke’s Drift in 1879 in Natal, South Africa. At the time, a war had just broken out between the British Empire and the Zulus. 1500 British soldiers and native levies moved out to attack the Zulu, leaving behind just under 140 soldiers to garrison the mission at Rorke’s Drift. The rest of the British soldiers were slaughtered at the Battle of Isandlwana to a man. That result left the soldiers at Rorke’s Drift facing over 4,000 Zulu warriors.

The commanding officer of the soldiers, Lieutenant John Chard, is played by Stanley Baker. Chard belongs to the Royal Engineers and isn’t a line officer, and Baker plays him right. Chard is rough around the edges, not hung up on the little formalities than permeated the British military in that time.

Michael Caine plays that kind of officer in his first role of note. His Lieutenant Bromhead is all upper-crust British, with the affectations and perfectly tailored uniform. Watching him develop into a battle-tested officer is one of the numerous character-growth threads that tie together the major story.

Another key figure is Color Sergeant Bourne, played by Nigel Green*. He is the classic sergeant that holds his men together and is utterly stoic in the face of danger. James Booth plays Henry Hook, a soldier who lingers in the infirmary to get out of duty but becomes a hero. These are the major players in the movie.

And mention must be made of Otto Witt, the missionary played by Jack Hawkins. He doesn’t want the British and Zulu to fight. He scares the native levies at Rorke’s Drift into deserting. He tries to scare the soldiers into fleeing. And he exits the movie as a broken and drunken man. It’s a great role to play, if an unsympathetic one, and Hawkins is excellent in it**.

But what drives this film are the battle scenes. The battle at Rorke’s Drift is the epic defense in British military history. 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to soldiers for their actions that day. They fought off a Zulu army that outnumbered them almost 29-1. And Zulu does a great job of showing how desperate the British defense was against the Zulus.

The native warriors come in waves with their spears and shield as the thin British line engages in volley fire and then use their bayonets. Each soldier has to deal with four or five Zulus. It always looks like they’ll be swallowed whole by the Zulu wave. And yet the Brits survive and keep fighting.

The last engagement is the best one as the power of technology is used against the Zulus. The soldiers form a three-row firing line and set up a rolling fire. Volley after volley crashes into the Zulus as Chard and Bromhead yell out the command to fire with desperation in their voices. It’s a tense scene as the roar and thunder of each volley fills your ears.

The scenery is as authentic as it comes; the film was shot in Natal. It is beautiful and adds even more realism to the film.

And mention must be made of the music and the sound. John Barry scored the film and the music enhances the scenes. There is one moment where the British soldiers, who are mostly Welsh in origin, sing “Men of Harlech” while facing thousands of Zulu singing their war chant. The songs of the two groups mixing with one another are a great bit of work.

But there are a couple of negatives. The first is that the history of Rorke’s Drift is manipulated somewhat. Henry Hook wasn’t a malingerer in real life; he was a damn good soldier. Bromhead wasn’t a near-lisping, wet-behind-the-ears officer; he was almost totally deaf. The Zulu weren’t armed with rifles taken from the British dead at Isandlwana; they had old muskets. Otto Witt wasn’t trying to break British morale and get them to leave; he worked with the British to beat the Zulus. And there wasn’t a big last engagement in the morning, just limited skirmishing before the Zulu left the area. By themselves, the inaccuracies are no big deal. As a group, it does matter a little more. And there were consequences for these decisions. Hook’s daughters walked out on the premiere because of the way he was portrayed.

And the other reason, while not impacting the film itself, is important. South Africa was in its “Apartheid Forever” mode at this time. The crew couldn’t fraternize with the Zulu extras and couldn’t pay them proper wages. The film-makers willingly did a deal with an apartheid regime, and that should count against them. To their credit, though, should go the hiring of Cy Endfield. He was a victim of the McCarthyite “blacklisting” in Hollywood by the studios in the 50s. Endfield moved to England and directed films there.

Nevertheless, the history of the film is inaccurate when there is no need for it to be that way. The story of Rorke’s Drift is compelling as is; how could it not be? Why did the filmmakers feel the need to tamper with it?

But that can’t detract from what is an enjoyable war epic. On the current list I would place it between Waterloo and Khartoum. I guess war films about the British Empire like to bunch together. In the end, Waterloo is just a better film and even more epic in scope.

But that is not a knock on Zulu. This is a good film and a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. It is worth owning on DVD (I don’t see it much on television anymore) and a good look at one of history’s most desperate, and amazing, battles.


* Green and Caine were also in another film I am going to review, Play Dirty. Green plays Colonel Masters in that one. I'll tell you now...two very different characters.

** He was so good at the role that he refused to attend the premier because of the way Pitt was portrayed. Which seems kind of silly to me. If you are playing a preacher trying to get soldiers to desert, odds are you won’t be portrayed as likable in the film.


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