Monday, November 26, 2012

#22 - Zulu

BACK-STORY:  “Zulu” was released in 1964 and was so successful that it not only resurrected the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, but molded the modern image of it.  The film was a labor of love for Stanley Baker.  It was directed by the blacklisted Cy Endfield.  After The House Unamerican Activities Committee branded him a communist, he moved to England to continue his career.  The movie was filmed on location in South Africa.  700 blacks were used as extras.  Many of them were descendants of the Zulu who participated in the battle.   So many had never seen a movie that Endfield screened an old Gene Autrey film for them.  Because of apartheid, they could not be paid so Endfield let them keep the cattle.
OPENING:  A narrator (Richard Burton) reads a dispatch outlining the British defeat at Isandlwana on Jan. 23, 1879.  We see the aftermath of that disaster in the corpse-strewn British camp.  The scene shifts to a Zulu village where a missionary named Witt (Jack Hawkins) and his daughter Margareta (Ulla Jacobsson) witness a marriage ceremony.  It’s a fascinating slice of Zulu culture.  They leave for their mission at Rorke’s Drift when word of Isandlwana arrives.
Chard is in command
SUMMARY:  Back at Rorke’s Drift, Lt. Chard (Baker) is building a bridge.  He meets Lt. Bromhead (Michael Caine in his first major role) who has been left in command.  Bromhead is your typical upper class officer who is touchy about his status.  When they are alerted to the approach of a large force of Zulu warriors, Chard assumes command based on being commissioned three months earlier.  He orders the position be prepared for defense using mealy bags, crates, and overturned wagons.  He rejects Bromhead’s suggestion of evacuating the post.  The decision to stay and not even evacuate the wounded sets off Witt who is a pacifist Bible-thumper who considers the Zulu king to be a member of his parish.  He is also a closet alcoholic who gets himself and his daughter kicked out of the camp while ranting that they are all going to die.  This sobers up the men, but they continue to prepare calmly for the onslaught.
                We are introduced to some of the soldiers (especially the future Victoria Cross recipients).  The standouts include Colour Sergeant Bourne (Nigel Green) who stoically ramrods the enlisted.  Private Hook (James Booth) serves as the film’s anti-hero.  He is a malingering, petty thief, malcontent.  Will he find redemption as a real hero?  Duh!
Bromhead joins in
                An eerie train-like droning noise heralds the approach of the enemy.  The suspense builds as they sneak up and then launch a frontal charge which comes to a surprise halt within rifle distance of the British line.  A Boer ally named Adendorff informs Chard that the strange tactic is not to allow for the standard Gunga Dinish wanton slaughtering of the natives, but in fact is the Zulu leader’s way of determining the fire power of the defenders.  Get your calculators out if you want to find out whether this movie will approach a “Where Eagles Dare” death count.
there is a Chinese laundry at the post
                As though things are not bleak enough, a unit of the enemy is positioned on a hill where they can use their newly acquired British rifles to harass the defenders.  When one soldier asks “why us?”, Bourne responds with “because we’re here”.  The second attack breaches part of the wall and leads to hand to hand (or bayonet to iklwa) combat.  There are a series of attacks followed by lulls in the fighting.  The casualties mount, but none of the Brits panics.  They all have their upper lips stiff or their cheek on (as in the case of Hook).  Chard is growing into command and Bromhead proves an able second.  At one point, Chard calls for firing by ranks in a mini-counterattack.  Discipline and firepower – how an empire was won.
                The fifth attack reaches the hospital.  Bromhead fights on the roof and Hook leads the interior defense.  The building catches fire to add to the chaos.  Hooks throws on the mantle of a hero, but wears it reluctantly as he stops to take a drink of medicinal alcohol before being the last to leave the burning building.  A cattle stampede breaks the momentum of the assault.  Attacks continue in the night, but we are swiftly in the broad daylight of the second day
CLOSING:  The Zulu serenade the British with a war song so the Brits respond with the regiment’s anthem, “Men of Harlech”.  “Keep these burning words before ye / Welshmen will never yield”.  Could this be a Hollywood moment?  The final assault is defeated with three lines of British riflemen using coordinated volleys.  Result:  a pile of black bodies.  A mad minute of European fire power ends the native dream of evicting the foreigners from their land.  Just when it looks like it’s over, the Zulus mass again on the hillside.  However, this time it’s to acknowledge respect for fellow warriors.  Richard Burton’s voice returns to check off the eleven VC winners.
Acting -  B
Action – 9/10
Accuracy -  C+
Plot -  A
Realism -  B
Overall -   A-

WILL CHICKS DIG IT?    Very unlikely.  This movie is testosterone-fueled.  The one female character is not a positive one and disappears early in the film.  On the plus side, the movie is not particularly graphic.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The Battle of Rorke’s Drift took place during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.  The war was brought about because of British desire to expand its South African colony into Zululand.  They manufactured a threat from the Zulus as their provocation and used it as justification for an invasion.  King Cetshwayo wanted peace, but could not meekly accept his own overthrow and annexation of his land.  The movie does not explain the background to the war possibly because the British did not want to mar the feel-good aspect of such a sterling battle. 
                The allusions to the Battle of Isandlwana are accurate.  The British central invading column did get wiped out by 20,000 Zulu warriors.  However, King Cetshwayo did not follow this up with the attack on Rorke’s Drift as the movie implies.   The attack was the idea of his glory-seeking half-brother whose unit had not gotten to Isandlwana in time to participate.  In fact, the King had forbidden his forces to go on the offensive into British territory.
                The recreation of the hospital/supply depot is accurate.  It was leased by the British government from the missionary Witt, but his depiction is way off.  The real Witt was married with two young kids.  He was not a pacifist, nor a drunkard.  He supported British policies.  The Zulu king was not a parishioner of his.  He was not drummed out of the camp, but left voluntarily to see after his family.  His is not the only mischaracterization.  The most egregious is Hook.  He was not the malingering malcontent depicted in the film.  He was actually a solid soldier and a teetotaler.  His portrayal was so offensive that his daughters walked out on the premiere.  Bourne was actually very young for a Colour Sergeant and also slight in stature.  The doctor was not cynically anti-war and earned his VC by leaving the hospital to tend the wounded on the front lines.  Not to mention the unit itself is misidentified.  In the movie it is identified as a Welsh regiment when in reality it was not predominately Welsh.
                Some of the incidents are close to reality.  The native levies did flee before the battle, but not because of the rantings of Witt.  They were actually led out by their British officer who was subsequently court-martialed.  The Boer cavalry that refuses to augment the defense actually stayed for the early festivities, but left after its cavalry carbine ammunition ran low.  Chard was actually appointed to command by the unit’s captain before he left.  This was partly based on seniority, but he was commissioned three years before Bromhead.  They did not disagree on strategy and Chard actually favored a withdrawal.  It was Acting Assistant Commissary Dalton who pointed out that a small column slowed by wounded would be easily caught and wiped out.
                Although Adendorf accurately describes the Zulu tactic described as “the horns of the beast”, the movie does not depict them using this tactic.  This might truly reflect the battle as the attacks are best described as piecemeal.  The Zulu spear called an iklwa (the sound it made when being pulled out of a wound) is authentic.  It was a variation of Shaka’s assegai.  They also carried the cow-hide shields shown in the film.  Unfortunately for realism, this force would not have had access to looted British rifles to snipe with.  Like most Zulu units, they would have had an assortment of inferior guns.  Five of the seventeen British deaths were from gunfire.  The British weaponry is accurate.
                The battle itself has some problems.  There is no evidence for the opening “cannon fodder as intelligence gathering” gambit.  The assaults were more consistent and not as easily differentiated as in the film.  The assault on the hospital, its defense led by Hook, and its subsequent burning are pretty close.  They did cut holes through the walls to go from room to room.  The last survivors exited from a window, not out the back door.  Strangely, the movie foregoes the suspense of the consistent night attacks which tapered off after midnight.  They ended around 2 A.M. and the subsequent gunfire was over by sunrise thus ending the battle.  There was no climatic charge after dawn.
                It will not surprise that there was no sing-off.  Plus the song would not be the unit anthem for another two years.  It goes without saying that the Zulus did not salute the courage of the Europeans.  As far as why they withdrew, a final decisive assault was abandoned with the approach of a relief force (“the cavalry was coming”).  By the way, the movie leaves out the post script of the British dispatching any wounded Zulu.  On a similar note, the British actually lost only 17 dead in the battle – the movie gives the impression it was quite a bit more.  
CRITIQUE:  “Zulu” has many strong elements.  The set is authentic and the scenery is amazing.  The movie was filmed in a national park which, although hillier than the real locale, certainly added to the visuals.  The music by John Barry is used sparingly, but effectively.  Some scenes have little or no background music.  A good example is the opening attack which is allowed to build without music.  The cinematography is outstanding.  It’s old school without the modern pizazz, but you are in the thick of the fighting.  The acting is excellent.  Jack Hawkins chews the scenery a bit, but everyone else controls himself like a proper British soldier would.  Baker, Caine, Booth, and Green are standouts.  The most remarkable performances are by the Zulu extras.  They are naturals.  That Gene Autry movie must have really done the trick.
                The movie gets the small things right.  The soldier behavior is true to British soldiers of that era.  Their dialogue is not forced or cringe-worthy.  The comroderie is evident.  There are several friendships that are highlighted.  The soldiers’ bond is apparent.  There is not a lot of humor, but then there is not a lot to laugh about.  There is also very little whining.  Hook is the only soldier who appears to be avoiding combat.  A bit unrealistic.  The movie does not play up the chasm between the upper class officers and the lower class enlisted which is often a theme in movies about the British army of that time period.
                The character development is well done.  The movie does a good job of fleshing out all of the VC winners and several more roles.  Each man is distinct (although name tags would have been nice).  The evolution of Chard from engineer building a bridge to combat leader is instructive.  There is a quiet moment when he goes from trembling hand while reloading his revolver to steadiness.  Of course, the most fascinating arc is that of Hook.  It’s a bit cliché, but it works.  He could have been a tedious character ( he reminded me of some of my students), but Booth does a good job making him a likeable rogue.  His swigging on the broken liquor bottle before fleeing the burning hospital is another nice touch.
                As a movie about a battle, “Zulu” is one of the best.  This is partly because it has few frills.  It concentrates almost totally on the battle and the men who fought it.  The tactics are realistic although some of them have a textbook feel to them.  In reality, it is doubtful the British used the variety the movie depicts.  That’s acceptable for entertainment purposes.  The action is intense and edge of your seat.  The deaths are swift and not melodramatic.  There are no death speeches.
                The movie is not without flaws.  I have already expounded on the historical inaccuracies.  One problem is the lack of background about what brought on the war.  The audience is treated to a fair treatment of the Zulu.  They are not demonized as the Indians were in most Westerns and they are shown as brave warriors, but it is not made clear that they were in the right.  We are manipulated to root for the Europeans instead of the natives fighting for their lands and liberty.  A related flaw is the lack of a Zulu perspective.  This is perplexing given that the movie opens in their village with an interesting take on their culture.
CONCLUSION:   The ranking of “Zulu” at #22 appears to be appropriate.  It is not a great war movie (as some claim), but it is certainly very good and accomplishes its mission effectively.  I am little uncomfortable with this.  As a war movie lover, I really enjoyed the movie.  But as a military history buff, I can see how the movie used a different medium to do in the 1960s what the British government used the newspapers to do in the 1870s.  Think about it – 11 Victoria Cross winners!  Assuming a Victoria Cross is equivalent to the Medal of Honor, it should take extreme bravery to be awarded one.  Not taking away from the defenders, but it would appear the British government was looking for a civilian morale booster to soften the Isandlwana disaster.  The movie does a similar job in glamorizing the imperial days of England.  Unlike its most obvious equivalent (Wayne’s “The Alamo”), the film does not recreate the myths, but instead actually creates the myths.
the trailer
the full movie
a neat battle scene
POSTER -  Outstanding.  A+

TRAILER -  Disorganized.  Doesn't give a clear picture of what the movie is about.  C


  1. How nice that we agree. I enjoyed ths one a great deal. It was suspensful, the acting was great and, as you pointed out, the cinematography is very good as well. The colors are so intense. I need to re-watch and the review it as well. I still like the battle in Waterloo better. I alos liked that it was about another conflict for a change.

  2. I forgot to mention the vivid reds, but the pictures evidence that. I enjoyed researching the battles and the war. It's always fun to learn about something new and interesting. This blog has taught me a lot.

  3. I loved this movie when I first watched it. I really liked the Private Hook character, but it is unfortunate that writer treated the real man so unfairly. You make a really good point that the viewer is set up to root for the British when they were invading another nation. Still,amazing battle scenes.

  4. What does that say about us when we excuse switching the good guys and the bad guys because the story is exciting? No offense meant, I had the same reaction. I am a big fan of westerns, but a huge number of them make the Native Americans the villains. One improvement apparent in war movies made since the 1960s is a more balanced approach to the opponents. However, the most popular war films still tend to demonize the enemy.

  5. No offense taken, that is a good point. One effect of all of my research is that my worldview has changed. The problem is that it is hard to not get swept up in the story when it is as good a movie as Zulu. You are right that movies have changed in the past few decades, but the tendency to demonize is still there.

  6. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  7. I would give the movie a "B". It's not terrible. But I don't believe it deserves the acclaim it has received. I find it a bit overrated, if I must be honest.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.