War movies are an interesting genre for the film buff. Not for the action and adventure, or the visual recounting of history, but that the movie reflects the attitudes towards war in the time and place it was made. Movies made during a war tend to be all patriotic and supportive of the troops; movies made near the end of a long and “questionable” (to put it one way) war tend to be dark comedies or biting satires of the military. Movies made in peacetime can be either, but they also tend to reflect the attitudes of the time the movie was made towards the history of the war – historical accuracy be damned.
Zulu is one of the latter. It shows the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in January, 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War. A contingent of some 150 British troops at what was basically an outpost consisting of little more than a supply depot, a church, and what could be called a hospital with only the greatest amount of charity held off an assault by around four thousand Zulu warriors. That’s going to be great drama and action, as long as you show it with even modest accuracy and competence.
But what of the politics?
One would think, based solely on the time it was made, that the film would be a romanticized version of Imperial Britain at its peak; a hearkening back to the days of lost glory. Not a chance. Director Cy Endfield had fled the US for Britain after having been blacklisted in the “Red Scare” era of the 50s. Producer and star (he played Lt. John Chard) Stanley Baker was a lifelong socialist. Neither one of them would care one bit for “empire”.
Perhaps it says something about race relations? I don’t know much about that matter in Great Britain in the 1960s, but perhaps they were having the same civil rights issues as the US. In any case, while the movie premiered in the UK on the 85th anniversary of the battle, it would be released in the US that summer. If it was going to be “controversial”, that would be something to note, wouldn’t it?
The movie treats the Zulus with great fairness and respect. They pretty much had to; they needed hundreds of extras for the movie – and even secured the cooperation of Chief Buthelezi himself to play the role of King Cetewayo. The producers even treated the actors with the same respect; contrary to popular belief, the extras were paid in cash and not the cattle used in the movie. With much of the movie being shot on location (not too far from the actual battle site) in Apartheid South Africa, one suspects the producers told the government that if they weren’t allowed to do things their way (the right and proper way), they’d pack up and go home.
(I note that there’s been plenty of criticism of the movie’s “historical accuracy”, from the misrepresentation of some of the key people to the types of rifles being used. But I have read nothing at all about the accuracy of the depiction of the mass wedding in the first scene. Unless it’s perfectly accurate – which, given the participation of the Zulu nation in the movie, it probably is – I guess no one really cares about the proper depiction of Zulu society….)
The result is clear. There’s only one line of “insult” directed towards the Zulus, and it’s immediately shot down:
Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine): Damn the levies man… Cowardly blacks!
Adendorff (Gert Van Den Bergh): What the hell do you mean “cowardly blacks?” They died on your side, didn’t they? And who the hell do you think is coming to wipe out your little command? The Grenadier Guards?
Indeed, the Zulus are shown to be highly trained and well-skilled, and are a real threat to the British. The attack is coordinated via shouts and hand signals, which are seen and heard over the battlefield. The troops move in unison, creeping and crawling out of sight in the brush, using every little bump and gully in the landscape for cover. They’re a real threat, even taking into account the British superiority in weaponry.
Thematically, the movie is a Western. A ramshackle fort under assault by the local tribesmen. You’ve seen it before, in many forms. What makes this one worth watching is primarily the cinematography. It’s visually beautiful; clear blue skies, the red of the British uniforms, the whtie and dark brown of the Zulu’s cowhide shields, the gray cliffs of the Drakensberg Mountains….. It also presents a perfect example of how a massed volley can stop an infantry charge. While the movie is promoted as Michael Caine’s first major role, it’s actually Nigel Green as Colour-Sergeant Bourne who steals every scene he’s in. He’s the one who takes the orders from Chard and Bromhead and issues them to the troops in that stereotypical stern fatherly manner.
It’s well worth your time. Don’t expect explosions and blood and gore, though. It’s not a “modern” war movie.