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Film Review - Zulu (1964)
In 1879 the long reach of the British Empire had extended into South Africa, where the armies of Queen Victoria were attempting to establish law, order and 'civilisation' European style. Inevitably the settlers from other great nations as well as the native inhabitants of the region did not take too kindly to this, and so tensions throughout the region were beginning to escalate. In due course the clash of cultures would lead to the Boer Wars against the white Afrikaans of Dutch descent, but in 1879, there was a much more pressing concern. The British were encroaching on tribal lands, and the local tribe was hostile to this intrusion. Ultimately, war broke out with a succession of conflicts between the British redcoats, and the spear wielding natives. In this part of eastern South Africa, there were two actions above all others which would indelibly write the name of the local tribe into history as a synonym for ferocious resistance. The tribe were the Zulus, and the two actions were the Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. The first at Isandlwana became a monumental shock to the British Empire as a large contingent of the most powerful army in the world was annihilated by a native assault. Then, just a few hours later, a far smaller force of soldiers found themselves under a similar attack at the outpost of Rorke's Drift.
The film 'Zulu' relates the events of Rorke's Drift. It is a historical epic, the story of a heroic defence against seemingly impossible odds, and it is also the movie which introduced Michael Caine to the cinema audience in a starring role.
The section on 'THE HISTORY OF RORKE'S DRIFT' includes information relating to the outcome of the battle. The section on 'TRIVIA' reveals details of the fate of various of the leading characters. In other sections some inference may also be drawn regarding the outcome of the fighting.
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WHAT'S THE STORY ?
The film begins with a brief reference to Isandlwana and the disastrous defeat of the British army here. Soon however attention shifts to the Zulu camp and a ceremony of singing and dancing (not in celebration of this battle, but rather in celebration of a mass group marriage between Zulu warriors and women). The festivities are being watched by the Swedish missionary Otto Witt and his daughter - guests of the chief, and intent on sowing seeds of trust between the cultures of white Europeans and black Africans. But the tribal festivities are soon interrupted by a messenger who brings news of Isandlwana. Witt realises that his efforts are doomed to failure and he says in shocked tones to his daughter:
- 'One thousand British soldiers have been massacred. While I stood here talking peace, a war has started'.
The pair then make a very hasty exit from the escalating war fever of the Zulu tribe.
Action then switches to the little outpost of Rorke's Drift, nothing more than a small stone hospital and some wooden horse carts, and a sandbag defensive wall. Two junior officers command the post - Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead - and despite a total absence of battle experience, they have to muster their meagre force and await the inevitable onslaught. John Chard, a Royal Engineer who only happens to be in the vicinity because he's been employed in building a bridge, takes overall command by virtue of having received his army commission just three months earlier than Bromhead in 1872.
And so the small band of officers, infantry and civilians under their command wait and prepare. It's only a matter of time before the Zulus arrive and the fighting starts, and the fighting - with brief respites - fills the whole of the rest of the movie.
SPECIAL FEATURE - THE HISTORY OF RORKE'S DRIFT
The Battle of Rorke's Drift was an engagement of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. It was, when one looks at the hard facts, a minor conflict in the war, but it is this battle which has entered into British military legend.
The war had begun when colonial forces came into conflict with the Zulu nation led by King Cetshwayo. There had been efforts to form a federation of colonies in the region involving the British, the Dutch Boer settlers, and also the local African tribes, but under British jurisdiction. A series of disputes and incidents occurred, as a result of territorial issues and a clash of cultures, and tensions escalated, though for a long while the boundaries between Zululand and colonial territory were largely respected. Eventually ultimatums were issued to Cetshwayo by the local High Commissioner (acting, it is believed, without authorisation from London) which would have meant the effective disbanding of the Zulu army, and the emaciation of Cetshwayo's powers. This was unacceptable, and it led to Cetshwayo gathering his armies to go to war against the British.
And the war started with ruthless brutal slaughter. On 22nd January 1879 a force of about 1800 troops had entered Zululand and camped at a site called Isandlwana, when they were set upon by 20,000 warriors. The British were ill-prepared, they were ill-served by some of their commanding officers, and they were in territory which could not be defended adequately. Despite better weaponry, their ammunition soon ran out, and they were overwhelmed. More than 1300 of the soldiers were killed - the biggest humiliation ever inflicted on the British by a native army. Fresh from their triumph, some 4000 of the Zulu warriors then converged on about 150 soldiers and civilians at a little nearby mission at a site named Rorke's Drift.
This place in the middle of the African wilderness was now to become the scene of an event in British history which bears comparison with one of the legendary events of American history. Rorke's Drift - like The Alamo - is the story of a tiny band of soldiers defending a remote outpost, without hope of reinforcement. Like the Alamo, Rorke's Drift is synonymous with courage and fortitude in the face of overwhelming odds. Thankfully however from a British point of view, this battle had a much happier outcome for the defenders.
After Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, the eventual outcome of the Zulu wars was perhaps inevitable. Isandlwana became the only significant success for the native warriors - untrained in the use of captured firearms and otherwise equipped only with spears. Within six months, resistance was effectively at an end, and the British were in full control. Yet the courage and ferocity of the warrior onslaughts in these and other battles, bestowed upon the Zulus a reputation which remains to this day.
THE VICTORIA CROSS
The Victoria Cross is the highest award for valour in the British Army. It was first introduced in 1856 and is traditionally made from the gun metal of Russian cannon captured during the Crimean war. The award of the crimson-purple ribboned Cross is a rare event, with just 13 bestowed upon Commonwealth soldiers in all the conflicts since World War Two, and yet 11 were awarded in a single day to a single army unit in 1879 - the largest ever to such a small force. This was for the soldiers involved in the defence of Rorke's Drift.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
THE FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR : Cy Endfield
- John Prebble / Cy Endfield
YEAR OF RELEASE :1964
RUNNING TIME : 138 mins
GENRE : Historical Drama / War
GUIDENCE - Topless native dancing / Violence and many deaths
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS : None
As is seemingly inevitable with 'fact'-based historical dramas, truth isn't always allowed to stand in the way of a good story. So the precise events and the behaviour of some of the characters is not necessarily accurate (for example there is no evidence the real-life Private Hook was quite the hard-drinking rebel depicted).
However, 'Zulu' stays very close to the key facts, and all the leading characters are based on real people.
KEY CAST AND CHARACTERS
The stereotypical impression of British officers throughout the 19th century up to and including the First World War, was of an elitist bunch of rather arrogant upper classers, with plenty of self-confidence but with little common sense or respect for others. At the beginning of this film Lt Gonville Bromhead seems to fit the bill; he has a carefree rather smug attitude and a clearly dismissive approach to those of a different race. But soon the realities and brutalities of battle bring him down to Earth. He soon comes to realise that war is no game, and the fighting forces him to rapidly mature as a man. Michael Caine plays him in his first starring role, before turning to more working class characters in later films.
John Chard is a more serious minded individual at the start, yet still inexperienced in battle. Stanley Baker is excellent in the role - probably the highlight of his film career.
Jack Hawkins plays Otto Witt, the Swedish missionary, who we first see as a fairly rational man with a healthy respect for the culture and abilities of the Zulus. But trapped in a war situation with his life and his daughter's life in danger, and he begins to descend into a depressive state, fuelled by alcohol. It's an unglamorous role, but very memorable and quite a contrast to every other character in the movie.
A personal favourite character is Colour Sergeant Bourne - Bourne is a dignified, God-fearing sergeant who believes in military correctness and doing things 'the right way'. But he also has a clear compassion and a fondness for the men under his charge. In the same breath he seems able to treat an inexperienced and frightened private to a good dressing down, but also sees him as a young and vulnerable man with whom he feels some empathy. Nigel Green plays Bourne in arguably his best screen role.
Stanley Baker - Producer and Star of 'Zulu' - had a major role in the casting as well. From 1972 until his early death in 1976, Baker actually owned the VC which had been awarded to his real-life character John Chard, in the aftermath of the battle.
This was Michael Caine's first major film role. He originally auditioned for the lesser role of Private Henry Hook, but - fortunately - lost out to James Booth.
'Zulu' was largely shot on location in South Africa. Many of the Zulu extras had never seen a movie, so Stanley Baker organised a film show for them to show what movie making was all about. The racial situation in South Africa at the time led to all kinds of problems. Cast and crew had to be told to avoid too much socialising with the Zulu girls, for fear of infringing race laws, and black Africans were barred from viewing the film by the Government for fear that it might incite revolt against the white authorities. Also, pay rates for the Zulus were much lower - by law - than for white actors, and so Director Cy Endfield donated all the livestock used in the movie to the tribe at the end of filming - actually a more valuable gift, than if they had been paid the full fee for their services.
The Zulu King Cetshwayo was portrayed by the Chief of the Zulus, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. When apartheid ended, Buthelezi joined the new Government as Minister for Home Affairs, though was not a member of Nelson Mandela's ANC. He would also later sit on the opposition benches.
Both Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead sadly died young - Chard, who rose to the rank of Colonel died of cancer at 49, and Bromhead, who rose to the rank of Major, died of typhoid at 46. But Colour-Sergeant Bourne, who is played in the film by Nigel Green, and shown in the battle scene above, was actually much younger at the time of the battle than depicted. He was only 24, and he was to become the last of all the survivors to die at age 91 - remarkably on the day 'Victory in Europe' was declared at the end of World War Two.
The best moments in this movie are the battle scenes which are many and long, and also any scene which plays up the contrast between the small band of colonial soldiers and the army of native warriors.
There is one nice scene I would like to mention. The British defence includes a large contingent of Welsh soldiers, whose nation is renowned more than almost anything else for their operatic singing qualities. During a brief interlude in the fighting, the Zulus begin to voice a quite melodic, almost hymn-like song of war - harmonious yet curiously powerful because of the sheer size of the warrior choir singing it. And it clearly has a very disconcerting effect on the British. John Chard senses this and approaches Private Owen (played by Ivor Emmanuel - a noted singer in his own right). Owen is the lead of the Welsh soldiers' 'choir'.
- 'Do you think the Welsh can't do better than that Owen?'
And so the soldiers begin a rendition of 'Men of Harlech' one of the most stirring of all Welsh anthems, and for an all too brief while both sides are singing with gusto and pride. These black warriors and these white soldiers are not so different from each other after all. And I'm sure one of the intentions of the makers of the film is to demonstrate that both sides, however superficially different they may appear to be, are made up of the same kind of people - brave, disciplined, proud.
Then the Zulus begin to bang their spears against their shields and the next phase of the battle begins.
The early scene in which Otto Witt introduces his daughter to the delights of a mass Zulu marriage ceremony is quite interesting as Margareta Witt embodies all the prejudices and the fears of a Western girl unable to comprehend this alien culture. At times she looks on the dancing half-naked Zulus with distaste, and at times with terror in her eyes. One thing she cannot understand is the very concept of a mass marriage. Otto Witt explains that this is not perhaps such a bad idea:
- 'In Europe, young girls accept arranged marriages to rich men. Perhaps the Zulu girls are luckier - getting a brave man'.
At one point the soldiers hear a distant sound which they cannot quite make out. But it's a very ominous sound. The noise is that of thousands of stamping feet heralding the arrival of the warrior army. Lt Bromhead says:
- 'Damn funny - like a train - in the distance'.
And when the Zulus arrive, and fear begins to clutch at the defenders of Rorke's Drift, and some of the soldiers begin to feel so alone and isolated, Private Cole turns to Colour Sergeant Bourne and pleads:
- 'Why is it us? Why us?
- 'Because we're here, lad. Nobody else. Just us.' replies Sergeant Bourne.
It's just their bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT ?
The story itself is an evocative and inspiring tale of courage and defiance, whilst the interplay of the two central figures of John Chard and Gonville Bromhead - at first mistrustful of each other but later mutually respectful - makes for good dialogue and character development. The music too - a driving pounding soundtrack - perfectly compliments the action.
But it is the Zulus and their beautiful lands, and the contrast of the native hordes with the disciplined red-tuniced soldiers of the British army which really makes this movie. The film plays on both fears and respect for the Zulus. Therein, the film treads a difficult line. The attitudes of the past and particularly that of 19th century colonialists to black Africans was very very different from what is acceptable today, and the movie of 'Zulu' presented from a British perspective could easily have descended into just a clichéd tale of heroic civilised man defeating savage natives, much along the lines of some of the early Westerns in which the cavalry were always the 'good guys' and the Indians were the 'bad guys'.
'Zulu is presented from the perspective of the British soldiers, and I think we must concede that put in the position of the small contingent at Rorke's Drift, there would have been something immensely frightening about the Zulus - more so than with a more familiar foe. You can call it an inate primal fear of people who are different, or you can call it racism, but no doubt almost everything about this 'alien' culture - the chanting, the clashing of spears against cowhide shields, even the dancing as thousands of feet pound the ground in perfect unison - would have instilled terror into many hearts. And the director of 'Zulu' makes much of this with all these evocative sounds and with numerous shots of vast hordes of spear wielding natives emerging on the hilltops above Rorke's Drift with just a sandbag wall to hold them off.
However, even though the movie is filmed from the British viewpoint, Cy Endfield and his fellow writer John Prebble, ensure a clear contrast exists between the savagry of the warriors as perceived by the soldiers, and the courage, dignity and code of honour of the Zulu army, as perceived by the detached eye of the camera lens. Early in the film one warrior tries to restrain Otto Witt from leaving the Zulu camp and lays his hands on Margareta, but this show of disrespect by the warrior to the guests of Cetshwayo is met with swift retribution on the orders of the king. Then at the end of the film, respect shown by the Zulus for their adversaries (which may not have been reciprocated in other circumstances) brings the battle to an end without the need for continued excessive bloodshed.
'Zulu' is a great film which successfully treads a morally dangerous line - it applauds the stalwart bravery of the thin red line of soldiers without condemning their enemy who are merely intent on defending their homeland. I think both sides come out of this movie with credit, and that is also to the credit of the film's makers.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
'Zulu' is a film in the finest traditions of the historical war genre - very heroic characters, lots of tension, and lots of action. Set in a wonderful landscape, and with the added appeal that the battle scenes portray a real-life event, I trust all who watch this film will find themselves able to identify with the courageous defiance of a tiny force against seemingly overwhelming odds, but also perhaps with the courageous defence of their homeland by a proud native tribe. 'Zulu' is a critically acclaimed movie well worth watching from beginning to end.
IF YOU LIKE THIS FILM ...
DVD - The story of the other battle of January 1879 - the events at Isandlwana
Kindle e-book documentary
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