The Conflicted Film Snob shares a special bond with his father, so special, in fact, that I’ve never lied to him. Ever. Because of the bond. The power of which is explained in this clip from Albert Brooks’ 1991 comedy Defending Your Life…
Although not mentioned in Brooks’ fumblings, the bond also includes movies–it is a father’s sacred duty to nudge his impressionable children towards classic cinema because otherwise they’d just watch crap. Back when I was one of those impressionable children being “conditioned” to enjoy more challenging fare…
…most of The Conflicted Film Snob Sr.’s choices were greeted with clenched fists and gritted teeth. Of course, in the end I greatly enjoyed them all and certainly I’m better for it. How else would I have known at such a young age about The Seventh Cross or Dr. Strangelove or The Duellists or The Night of the Generals, among many others. And then there was the granddaddy of them all, the manly, politically incorrect classic to end all manly, politically incorrect classics, the 1964 widescreen epic…
You familiar with the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift on which the film is based? Unless you took a 400-level “British Empire and South Africa: 19th Century Imperialist Dreams and Bitter Conflict” class in college, probably not. So here’s a quick primer:
It seems the British, back in their “sun never sets on the Empire” days, meant to have the whole of South Africa under the Crown. One of the things standing it their way? The Kingdom of Zululand and its army. Hoping to instigate conflict so they could “rightly” invade, British representatives issued the Zulu king an absurd ultimatum, which, of course, was refused, thus resulting in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.
In the first major encounter between the armies, at the Battle of Isandlwana in Natal province, the Zulus shockingly routed the the technically superior (rifles v. spears) British, resulting in the loss of some 1,300 troops:
According to our unimpeachable friends at Wikipedia, “Near the end of the battle, about 4,000 Zulu warriors…after cutting off the retreat of the survivors to the Buffalo River southwest of Isandlwana, crossed the river and attacked the fortified mission station at Rorke’s Drift. The station was defended by only 140 British soldiers who nonetheless inflicted considerable casualties and repelled the attack.”
So there you have it–the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, one of those few-against-many Battle of Agincourt-type victories that make for rousing cinema. And so, some 80 years later and inspired by an article on the 1879 battle, American screenwriter and director Cy Endfield—who, incidentally, had moved to England after being named as a Communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951 and subsequently blacklisted from Hollywood–recruited actor Stanley Baker to produce and co-star in the (somewhat historically loose) retelling.
The film opens with a voice-over (provided by none other than Richard Burton) reading from the communiqué sent by a British officer in Africa to the Secretary of State for War in London outlining the rout that was Isandlwana. Endfield then cuts to Natal to introduce Baker’s Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, who is supervising the construction of a bridge near the missionary station at Rorke’s Drift, which is being used by the British as a supply depot and hospital.
In the distance we hear gunfire, which turns out to be stuffy Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Caine), commander of the depot, doing some big-game hunting.
Word soon reaches the two officers of the Isandlwana debacle and the even more alarming prospect of 4,000 Zulu warriors heading towards the mission to finish the job. Their orders from the now-decimated regiment: hold their ground. Chard is incredulous, leading to this great exchange:
Lt. Chard: “What military genius thought up that one? Somebody’s son and heir? Got a commission before he learned to shave?”
Lt. Bromhead: [snappishly] “I rather fancy that he’s nobody’s son and heir now!”
Here is an approximation of how Caine speaks when snappish:
Lt. Chard, who received his officer commission just months earlier than Lt. Bromhead, takes command of the mission. If indeed their small force is to hold their ground, Chard decides they’ll make a stand within the mission rather than go on the offensive. Bromhead, quite grumpy about having his command stripped on a technicality, strongly disagrees (“You mean your only plan is to stand behind a few feet of mealie bags and wait for the attack?”). He’d rather disperse the men into the hills, fight an ambush in the passes. Later, as Chard and his grudging subordinate supervise fortification of the station, the two do a disheartening inventory:
Lt. Chard: “What’s our strength?:
Lt. Bromhead: “Seven officers including surgeon, commissaries and so on; Adendorff now I suppose; wounded and sick 36, fit for duty 97 and about 40 native levies. Not much of an army for you.”
As preparations continue we’re introduced to a variety of characters, including Hawkins’ drunk, fire-and-brimstone Swedish missionary, Reverend Otto Witt (“You’re all going to die! Don’t you realize? Can’t you see? You’re all going to die! Die! Death awaits you all!”); his sexually confused, easily offended eye-candy daughter, Margareta Witt (Jacobsson); the by-the-book/suffers-no-fools Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne (Green); Surgeon-Major James Henry Reynolds (Magee), soon to be harried, indeed; and malingering ne’er-do-well Private Henry Hook (Booth), among others.
What follows is two hours of pitched battle, the first of which is memorable for the brilliant way Endfield creates tension even before the first shot is fired (or spear thrown), a decidedly “less is more strategy” that unfolds like this:
The men, still preparing fortifications, begin to notice a strange sound in the distance, one described by Bromhead as “…like a train in the distance.” The camera sweeps the vast horizon beyond the mission’s walls–there’s nothing there but African bush and mountains and yet the sound continues, unnerving the men. The locomotive that is the Zulu army is barreling down the tracks. Then, quick as it started, the sound stops, yielding an eerie silence. Colour Sergeant Bourne reports to Chard and Bromhead that sentries stationed on a hill have spotted Zulus in the distance. Chard orders Colour Sergeant Bourne to have the men assemble on the line and soon every able-bodied soldier stands on the ramparts, rifle in hand. Colour Sergeant Bourne slows walks the ranks, reminding his men of the best firing practices (“Mark your target when it comes; look to your front”). Noticing a soldier with a loose tunic, in the best British military tradition, Bourne orders the offender to button up (“Where do you think you are, man!”). Suddenly, the train-like sound begins anew. Chard nods to Bromville, who orders the men to fix bayonets.
The camera surveys the soldiers’ nervous faces until one of them appears to spy something in the distance. Endfield cuts to a wide shot of a far-away ridge. Standing atop it, set off by an impossibly blue sky (the kind of blue in the picture above, not the one below), are Zulu warriors with shields and spears at the ready. Endfield has the camera pan the ridge and we see that what at first looked like dozens of Zulus is actually more like hundreds and then thousands, a never-ending line:
John Barry’s iconic score kicks in, crescendoing as the camera finishes its pan and then all goes silent as the men (and the audience) contemplate the fate of the British, the expression “dead meat” immediately coming to mind.
Here is some great filmmaking by a director who’s knowledgeable enough about the art form to know that great tension can spring from the unseen and that sound can unnerve as effectively as a thousand rushing warriors.
And it’s scenes like this that make Zulu such an influential movie to directors who saw it in their youth. Steven Spielberg, while in post-production for 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, had his sound designer, Gary Rydstrom, watch Zulu to get a feel for what he–Spielberg–was looking for sonically as the U.S. troops, desperate to defend a strategically important town, await the German advance. Spielberg wanted to unnerve the audience (and his fictional soldiers) by inflicting on them a terrible metallic groan coming closer and closer, thus mimicking the concept used in Zulu. No troops or tanks, just that grating, repetitive sound, which causes one’s imagination to run wild. As Rydstrom explained in an interview:
“We don’t see the tanks, we just know they’re coming closer to the village. What Steven has always been great at is giving references to other movies. For that moment he sent me to watch Zulu. There’s a sound in the movie where they beat on their shields. Sounds like a train, inevitable. He didn’t want that sound exactly but he wanted the same feel of the sound. A sense of an ominous rolling presence getting closet and closer. A sense of oncoming evil.”
Ridley Scott, who also grew up loving Zulu, uses a chant that appears later in Zulu for the amassed hoard of German barbarians as they taunt the Romans before battle in his 2000 film, Gladiator.
Anyway, in addition to all the exciting battle scenes and great Super Technirama 70 widescreen photography capturing South Africa in all its 70MM glory, Zulu also boasts a great script chock full of memorable lines such as…
Surgeon Maj. Reynolds: [looking up from a bloody body on his operating table] “You know this boy?”
Orderly: “Name is Cole, sir. He’s a paper hanger.”
Surgeon Maj. Reynolds: “Well, he’s a dead paper hanger now.”
Lt. Bromhead: [excited after their first, seemingly successful engagement with the Zulus] “Sixty! We dropped at least 60, wouldn’t you say?”
Adendorff: [sardonically] “That leaves only 3,940.”
Pt. Cole: [at the breaking point after wave after wave of slaughter] “Why is it us? Why us?”
Colour Sergeant Bourne: [calmly] “Because we’re here, lad. Nobody else. Just us.”
Colour Sergeant Bourne: [watching the Zulu army retreat] “It’s a miracle.”
Lt. Chard: “If it’s a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it’s a short chamber Boxer Henry point 45 caliber miracle.”
Colour Sergeant Bourne: “And a bayonet, sir, with some guts behind.”
And, finally, my favorite, delivered with obnoxious upper-class condescension by Caine when he first meets Lt. Chard at the latter’s bridge construction site…
Lt. Bromhead: “I’ll tell my man to clean your kit.”
Lt. Chard: “Don’t bother.”
Lt. Bromhead: “No bother. I’m not offering to clean it myself. Still, a chap ought to look smart in front of the men, don’t you think? Well chin-chin. Do carry on with your mud pies.”
So there you have it…Zulu. A great action film, albeit one that trails an unfortunate whiff of racism in that it’s about the slaughter of innocent Zulus at the hands of the big. bad invading British. But if you can put aside that bit of ickiness, give your politically-correct-o-meter the evening off, you’ll be rewarded with a decidedly cinematic experience.
Zulu is available via streaming. It is also available in one of the most extraordinary Blu-rays I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. The picture is so sharp, the colors so vibrant, one wonders if it looked so good on its opening night back in 1964. Here’s a link to the specific version (it’s a British import but works on U.S. blu-ray players). All other version suck and aren’t worth your money.
Here’s the trailer.