The spirit of British colonialism has provided movie makers around the world with a considerable backlog of stories to tell – particularly in the aftermath of its implosion. The smugness that once typified England’s global reign under Queen Victoria has been viewed ever since as everything from barbaric to quaint with all points of reference in between usually reflecting the clichés of the aristocratic and indomitable ‘stiff upper lip’ while reinforcing the oft’ quoted ideal of an empire where the sun ostensibly never set. From Bombay to the Falklands Britons were, at least for a time, masters of the world. Like all aspirations perpetuated by mankind, this stately pride – nee, some would argue, arrogance - was not to endure beyond the dawn of the 20th century.
With the advent of WWII, Hollywood increasingly turned its reflections of Britain into a full-fledged love-in; visions of a ‘merrier, older/white cliffs of Dover’ fancifully reconstituted for the movies: extolling the virtues as well as the traditions without so much as a Jack the Ripper or Cromwell in sight. Even before the war, British talent had migrated to California’s sunny shores. But during the war Hollywood’s British colony experienced a population surge unlike any other; its stature as far-reaching as Hitchcock, Chaplin, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, David Niven, Ronald Colman and Basil Rathbone – to name but a merely handful, while movies like Cavalcade (1933), Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), and Mrs. Miniver (1942, the latter once described by Winston Churchill as being more beneficial to America’s involvement in the European conflict than an entire fleet of destroyers) became a main staple in the American movie diet. However, by the late 1940s Hollywood’s fascination with the Brits had begun to cool.
Throughout the 1950s this Hollywood-ized Europe went into a curious state of hibernation; the years of conflict quietly set aside as the studios mined other antiquities; ancient Egypt and Rome or even more exotic tropical locales. But in the mid-1960s change was underfoot – not the least exhibited in Hollywood itself, reeling from the government consent decrees that forced studio divestitures of virtually all their extemporaneous assets. On screen, change was wrought in a growing more self-reflexive cynicism; a probing of the past with a critical eye cast ahead to the future.
Whether derived from a conscious or subconscious effort to combat the so called ‘British invasion’ – that sudden influx in pop culture typified by The Beatles, Tom Jones, Petula Clark and The Rolling Stones, and in the movies nowhere more noticeable than by the iconic debut of Ian Fleming’s James Bond - Hollywood’s view of England became increasingly more introspective. While movies like Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady continued to extol England’s jolly ol’ atmosphere of chimney sweeps and cockney flower girls from the turn-of-the-century, the more contemporary fare chose social critiques with a harder edge to fill their runtime, on occasion, with an axe to grind. Two films in 1964 did much to demystify the British verve. The first was Arthur Hiller’s The Americanization of Emily; an unapologetic slam at saucy British girls throwing caution and their panties to any Yank with a bottle of perfume or Hershey bar in his hand. But the other was ironically made by a British cast and crew: Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964); a resplendent – and fairly factual – account of the 1879 bloody battle at Rorke's Drift.
Patrons entering the theater expecting a flag-waving patriotic salute to the gallant British forces were to be disillusioned, though arguably not disappointed. For Zulu is a thinking man’s epic, fraught with a thinly disguised debate over the pluck of conflict; laying bare the awfulness of war, the folly behind the notion of empire and even more so, showcasing bravery on both sides of its willful self-destructiveness. John Prebble’s screenplay (co-authored with Endfield) had been inspired by a series of articles demystifying the concept of bravery. In breaking down the societal precepts that remake men into warriors - unshakable in their belief that death is synonymous with valor - Preeble came to his own understanding that ‘might’ is not always on the side of ‘right’. Such opinions were decidedly shared by Endlfield who had managed to outlive HUAC’s blacklisting in the mid-1950s. Yet, the catalyst for bringing Zulu to the screen was neither, but in fact, Welsh-born actor Stanley Baker who had established himself as a hot commodity on both sides of the Atlantic by 1964.
Baker began his career on the stage and later in movies, but always cast as the villain. Increasingly dissatisfied by the roles being offered to him, Baker chose to take a daring proactive step in his own defense; becoming Zulu’s producer as well as one of its stars. Baker was thirty-five in 1964; the task of managing a mammoth production like Zulu, with the added impediments of shooting virtually all of the movie (except for a few scenes) at the mercy of uncertain weather conditions on location and further still, under the most crippling oppression of apartheid, was daunting to say the least. That the subsequent movie proved one of the undisputed highlights of the decade remains a testament to Baker’s foresight as well as to his commitments on the project.
Paramount encouraged Stanley Baker to sign Terrance Stamp for the coveted role of upperclassman Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead. But Baker was more interested in Stamp’s flat mate, Michael Caine; who had done good solid work on the stage but had yet to break through to national – and most certainly international – acclaim in the movies. Reluctantly, Baker agreed to test both men for the part – concurring that Stamp’s test was by far superior to Caine’s and yet recognizing that there was something more to plum from Caine himself – perhaps at the cusp of his own stardom. Baker cast the rest of the film accordingly, choosing to work with friends mostly; secure in the understanding that such familiarity would ultimately breed a sense of camaraderie on the set.
He also elected to keep costs in line with the $2 million blank check afforded him. The biggest name in the cast was Jack Hawkins, who had made a career out of playing stolid, forthright Englishmen. Yet, Baker chose to cast Hawkins against type, as the Swedish pacifist, Reverend Otto Witt; a missionary at Rorke’s Drift who, after witnessing the Zulu’s declaration of war goes utterly mad, shouting to Bromhead and Lieutenant John Chard (played by Baker) that they are all going to die in bloody civil war. Zulu’s depiction of Witt as a heavy-set middle-aged widower with an adult daughter is entirely incorrect. In reality, Witt was a thirty year old man with a wife and two young sons and some forty miles out of harm’s way when the battle at Rorke’s Drift occurred.
The actual battle pitted 110 regimented British against 4000 Zulu tribal warriors. The movie was afforded only 250 legitimate Zulus; Endfield’s masterful staging of the battle sequences and Stephen Dade’s exemplary camerawork creating the illusion of vastly superior numbers on both sides of the conflict. To keep expenses down only about half the cast went to South Africa, the reason being that Actor’s Equity insisted on first class accommodations as well as airfare to and from locations. Hence even some of the movie’s more prominently featured players, like James Booth (Private Henry Hook) never saw the savannah. Virtually all of Booth’s scenes were shot on interior sets at Twickenham Studios; the footage seamlessly married to scenes shot at Drakensberg National Park – its craggy terrain, parched yet with occasional outcroppings of greenery, as much a character in the story as any flesh and blood counterpart. Interestingly, the family of the late Private Hook was rather incensed by Booth’s portrayal as a somewhat embittered coward. Their reflections were obviously different.
The Zulu shoot was delayed by twelve days of horrendous weather. At one point future South African political leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi (cast as King Cetshwayo kaMpande) even called in a witch doctor to perform a ritual ceremony in the hopes of improving the outlook. But only after Mother Nature had had her way did the clouds part. In point of fact, this gave Baker and Endfield ample opportunity to rehearse – the net result: that once filming began the production moved with breakneck speed, going only one week over schedule – but never over budget.
Educated at Oxford, Buthelezi spoke perfect English and proved an exceptional liaise between Baker, Endfield and the Zulus. Under apartheid, the white cast and crew were limited in their interaction with the native peoples who were denied the proper pay scale and remained under constant scrutiny by an ever-vigilant secret police observing the production company’s every move. Nevertheless, Stanley Baker chose to compensate the indigenous actors in other ways, affording them 300 head of cattle and constructing most of the sets out of solid materials rather than mere false fronts. These remained intact, later bequeathed to the Zulu to be converted into homes, schools and other facilities after production wrapped. An interesting postscript: when Stanley Baker died of lung cancer at the age of forty-five in 1974, his widow received a handsome mourning wreath and affectionate letter from Buthelezi, who referred to Baker as “the finest white man I have ever known.”
As production neared completion, composer John Barry was approached to write the score. As most the movie was concurrently being assembled in the editing room as dailies arrived at Twickenham, Barry had the luxury of seeing the end product in rough cut. He also had tracks recorded live during the Zulu’s ceremonial wedding dance; the chants greatly influencing Barry’s composition for the main Zulu theme. This incorporated an interesting sound mix of effects created by Rusty Coppleman, who had layered the sound of Zulu spears beating against their shields over the pulsating rhythms of a steam locomotive; the latter indiscernible to the ear as such, yet greatly enhancing the aural magnitude of the Zulu’s charge.
Zulu opens with an 1879 communiqué from Lord Chelmsford (voiced by Richard Burton) to the Secretary of State in London; the crippling defeat of the British at the Battle of Isandlwana realized in a thought-numbing sprawl of the slaughtered being picked over by Zulu warriors and giving rise to John Barry’s pulsating theme: the word ‘Zulu’ emblazoned across the screen in writhing orange flames.
From here, we digress to a no less spectacular display: a mass marriage ceremony presided over by King Cetewayo (Buthelezi) and witnessed with equal portions of benevolent fascination by Swedish missionary Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins) and modest disdain from his rather prudish daughter, Margareta (Ulla Jacobsson) – who doesn’t much care for all the ‘needless flesh’ being paraded about. The ceremony – authentically recreated and staged – gives way to a declaration made to Cetewayo by a returning warrior on foot. The news of Isandlwana’s decimation is met with an impassioned uprising. Cetewayo suggests to Otto and Margareta that they leave the ceremony at once; signaling the mood has turned against the white man’s presence on their native soil.
We shift our focus to the 24th Regiment of Foot, currently using the Witt’s mission outpost at Rorke's Drift as their supply depot and hospital. Natal’s Native Contingent Commander Adendorff (Gert van den Bergh) forewarns Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker) of the advancing Zulu army some 4000 strong. Chard is placed at the head of command, a decision that does not bode well with upperclassman infantry Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine). There are brutal choices to be made – neither satisfactory to Chard. The first would be to abandon the wounded in an exodus. But since the Zulu already outnumbers the British roughly twenty to one there is no guarantee that a similar fate will not befall the regiment on the open plains. Hence, Chard elects to fortify the mission and stand his ground; a decision opposed by Bromhead who, as a subordinate, has no choice but to stay and serve. Using capsized wagons, sacks of grain and crates as his defensive perimeter, Chard plots his military strategy. Meanwhile, his faith tested, Otto succumbs to strong drink and slips into a sort of hallucinogenic insanity, admonishing Chard and Bromhead for their foolish bravery and declaring that everyone will surely die. In order to quell the very real fear spreading like a cancer throughout his ranks Chard orders Otto and Margareta restrained, the pair locked inside one of the supply huts but later released to their own defenses.
Bromhead hears the distant echo of the Zulu warriors, the horizon suddenly outlined in advancing forces. A contingent of Boer horsemen retreats in haste, encouraging Chard and his soldiers to do the same. But it’s already too late and Chard digs in for what will ultimately prove to be a very long and exceptionally blood battle. The Zulu infantry make it to within one hundred yards of the mission; Chard and his men mowing them down in a hailstorm of gunfire. Chard misperceives this early confrontation as a sort of faux victory with the promise of more to follow. But Adendorff explains that the Zulu warriors have only begun their assault; sacrificing their lesser fighters merely to survey the competition before the real battle gets underway.
The mission’s lack of fortification is of grave concern, more so as the Zulu contingent materializes and Chard realizes that an attack will come not from a single charge but from all sides attacking at once. Worse for Chard and his men, the Zulus have learned how to use the firearms taken from the dead at Isandlwana. Although their lack of training moderates the casualties inflicted by their gunfire the very notion of being attacked with their own weapons causes a distinct plummet in the British morale. The Zulu’s advancing armies are relentless. In an exhaustive campaign they pursue Chard and his men as an advancing plague, setting fire to the hospital and forcing Private Hook – who has thus far been feigning injury – to take a valiant stand in order to save himself as well as other trapped in the infirmary who are much sicker than he.
At the break of dawn the Zulus cry out with another war chant, this time met with refurbished fortitude as the British sing ‘Men of Harlech’ (they would have actually sung The Warwickshire Lad instead). Chard and Bromhead redouble their efforts, consolidating their defenses to a small fortification constructed out of mealie bags. A three-tiered firing squad manages the impossible, to hold back the tide of advancing Zulus with peerless precision. The Zulus are eradicated; the guns eventually falling silent. Surveying the incredible loss of life, five hundred all told, Bromhead declares that he “feels ashamed”; a sentiment uncharacteristic of the British in war movies but thoroughly echoed, perhaps with less articulation, by Chard.
The grotesqueness of this human waste is reflected in the morning duty roster; the names of the fallen read aloud as a reminder to the troops. Chard takes notice that the hillside is once more blanketed by Zulu warriors and fears that he and his men have reached the end of their line of defense. Resigned to imminent death both Chard and Bromhead are reduced to anxious tears when they realize the Zulus have come - not to attack - but to serenade their enemy with a chant of honor – the defiantly brave extending a salutation of respect for their unconquerable foe. In reality, the Zulus afforded no such benevolent mark of appreciation, but were forced into retreat by a British vanguard commanded by Lord Chelmsford.
Zulu is an exceptionally bold undertaking to say the least. Stanley Baker’s exquisite vision and Cy Endfield’s gargantuan recreations of the battle sequences only partly sums up the film’s preeminence. Moreover, it is the eloquent execution of the story, told as a struggle of wills between equals rather than from the traditional ‘us vs. them’ scenario that sets Zulu apart from most any war movie yet attempted – certainly apart from any made until its own time. Evidently the Zulu players wholeheartedly agreed. At the beginning of production they had had their misgivings about partaking in the endeavor; perhaps that the resulting epic would depict them as a nation of blood-thirsty savages.
In point of fact, Zulu never devolves into such obscene misrepresentations. Within a few weeks of shooting the tribesmen came to respect this and were as devoted to the making the movie. The real battle of Rorke’s Drift resulted in eleven Victoria Cross medals being awarded for valor – the most ever bestowed to a regiment for a single battle. The film crew paid their respects to the Zulu men and women in another way, engaging them with movies (which they had never seen) and establishing a genuine rapport even under the stringency of apartheid. Stanley Baker, in particular, was sympathetic to the people and diligently strove to engage them in the story, to make them aware that the tale being told was as much a part of their heritage as it remained a chapter in the British manifest destiny of wartime conflicts.
As predicted by Baker, Zulu also proved to be Michael Caine’s international movie debut. Initially, Cy Endfield had expressed concern that perhaps Caine’s lower middle class upbringing would conflict with Bromhead’s upperclassman’s mannerisms. When Caine arrived, looking every bit to the manor born, and furthermore carrying on in a demeanor befitting his character, Endfield was utterly convinced – perhaps more so by the actor’s absolute professionalism that endured throughout the shoot. It is worth pointing out, that for logistical reasons Endfield chose to dramatize much of the battle by daylight when, in fact, most of the conflict occurred under the cover of night. The need for embellishments elsewhere, however, was kept to a bare minimum with Stanley Baker and Endfield each concurring that fidelity to the actual event was preferred.
Cinematographer Stephen Dade achieved something of a minor coup, multiplying the 500 actual Zulu tribesmen into a hoard of 4000 through his skillful choice of camera angles, further advanced by John Jympson’s editing, and finally, by a bit of Hollywood trickery done in long shot. The moment when Chard and Bromhead survey the impenetrable line of Zulu warriors on the horizon is fudged: second unit director Robert Porter coming up with an inspired notion to nail shields onto posts driven into the ground, capped off by a plume of feathers. By interspersing the real extras in between these mock-ups, approximately one person for every six shields, the 500 extras became a veritable stronghold shimmering in the sunshine. Upon its release, Zulu was an immediate hit with audiences and went on to become one of the top grossing movies of the year. Today, it continues to resonate with a clear-eyed sad sentiment about the beginning of the end for Britain’s globe-encompassing empire.
For one reason or another Zulu remains absent on Blu-ray in North America. Thankfully, Paramount Home Video has released a hi-def equivalent, region free in the U.K. However, released during Blu-ray’s infancy, this minting of Zulu suffers from an overabundance of DNR scrubbing. On monitors 65 inches or less the image will look quite spectacular with a robust palette of colors and superior sharpness. However, when blown up to projection the image quite simply becomes waxen and smooth; fine detail lost under the digital noise reduction that has rendered the texture of natural film grain virtually invisible to the naked eye.
The pluses remain for those viewing the movie on regular or even larger-than-average video monitors. For this particular segment of the home viewing audience (undeniably the largest of the video consumer market share) Zulu will appear quite breathtaking. Just don’t expect perfection – because this disc is decidedly not. The 5.1 DTS audio is appropriately aggressive and very well represented. Good stuff. Extras are plentiful too; with extensive featurettes and interviews quelled from surviving cast and crew that document the movie’s history and afterlife. There’s also an audio commentary and theatrical trailer.
I am going to recommend Zulu as a solid purchase for those who wish to view it on a TV monitor. In point of fact it does look very good on my flat screen. In projection, it wasn’t nearly as impressive and that is a shame indeed. If this title ever materializes in a North American reissue perhaps Paramount will do us the favor of remastering its image as it should be.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)