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Adapted from a true story, "Zulu" retells the harrowing tragedy of the British Army on January 22nd 1879 when Zulu warriors ransacked and killed 1,500 British soldiers (one of the British's most devastating defeats recorded) at Isandlhwana. Shortly thereafter the Zulue gather a tribe of 4,000+ strong to wage war against an inept British hospital where nothing buth the infirmary and a few able men, British soldier and Welsh infantry alike, are present to "hold" British ground. What follows is carnage in a bloody 12hr+ battle where British troops under the command of Lt. John Chard (Baker) of the Royal Engineers and Lt. Gonville Bromhead (Caine), do their best to achieve victory. Endfield's adaptation is, though slightly free with its historical lens, altogether realistic in depicting this hallmark moment in the period of Western Imperialism and British rule in Africa.
Written by: John Prebble (article and screenplay) and Cy Endfield.
Genre: Drama, Action, History, War.
Tagline: "Nothing to hold a man in his grave…"
Set in 1879 in the time of imperialistic England, "Zulu" commences with the African tribe, the Zulus, having just waged war against and seized control of several thousand English colonists. The tribal warriors prepare to celebrate with traditional African song and dance, making way for a few nuptial ceremonies before waging more bloodshed against the "white man". Meanwhile two Swedish missionaries, Father Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins) and his Western daughter Margaret Witt (Ulla Jacobsson), particularly the latter, watch in horror and shock as the Zulus engage in traditional nuptial ceremonial dance and chant. Welcome to the enchanting land of Africa; the compelling people, the Zulus.
While Otto Witt attempts to explain the vast distinction between Zulu culture and Western "rites" and norms, Margaret is enlightened as to the prospect of "free" marriage (so far as the woman has the right to choose), as well as polygamy, and other such disarming notions of Zulu culture. But just as soon as Margaret finishes shrieking in horror of the Zulus uncanny marital practices, she and her father learn another terrible truth. The Zulus have just waged open war and massacred 1,500 British soldiers. Forced to flee the protection of the Zulu tribe and return to their Western folk, Father Witt and Margaret make their way back to their Western headquarters.
As Margaret and her father head to "white" shelter to seek news of the status of the war, the film pans to a British military colony where, any African "survivors" are held captive as slaves tending to daily physical labor. At this encampment Lt. Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine), a rookie but highly ranked British officer, is to be found newly cloaked in the military garb of the British Imperial army, hunting and tending to boyish fancies while war is on the verge of the horizon. Also joining the "red coats" is experienced officer Lt. John Chard (Stanley Baker), Royal Officer of Engineers. A brief introduction establishing a power play between Bromhead and John quickly reveals tension between two Western men of differing ranks. All the same, England's the name, and as John Chard espies two Zulu riders approaching their encampment it seems perhaps more war will wage sooner than expected, be it John or Bromhead who leads the defensive attack.
While Bromhead anxiously awaits the attack, Chard leads the defensive initiative; the Witts arrive at the camp, with news of the Zulus' plans. Witt sends news of 4,000 Zulus coming to wage war against the meager encampment of the sick and unqualified. More surprises follow when John Chard learns that the Christian Witts have as members of their parish none other than King Cetshwayo (Chief Mangosuthu), head chief of the Zulu tribe. Preparing to fight against the "savage" Zulu's "jolly deadly" buffalo-head war-tactics, Chard and Bromhead prepare to hold ground despite their unfavorable odds, with cavalry hopefully on their way.
In due time the cavalry arrive, however, having just survived a Zulu attack, the cavalry have come forth only to hint at the horror on the way and then disappear as quickly as the dust that trails from their horses' hooves. Alas the lowly numbers of the sick and wounded will once again have to play "soldier" and fight for their lives against the interminable number of savage warriors. Meanwhile, the African's working as part of the encampment question killing the deadly Zulu while Father Witt speaks of peace. The result is the fleeing of several handy African hands that would have helped fight off the British enemy.
As the sound of the Zulu approaching, the sound of a "train coming in the distance" bespeaks of bad tidings for the scrappy British regiment, all redcoats anxiously await for the worst. With whispers of "mark your target when it comes", behind turned over wagons and other insufficient protection, soldiers fearfully await their doom while Father Witt's voice can be heard echoing bad tidings of "obey the Word of the Lord; though shalt not kill". All the same war encroaches from the horizon and soon enough, like it or not, war will be upon the British regiment, who stands insufficient, afraid, and under the control of two men, Chard and Bromhead, vaingloriously battling for pride and esteem as wishfully speaking, successfully commanding officers of the British army. The only question that remains: will the technologically advanced tactics of Western warfare prove superior to the primitive, albeit deadly and successful methodologies of the primitive Zulus?
But the fist encounter with the Zulu's is disappointingly anticlimactic. While the Zulu stand idle, falling to the gunfire of British soldiers, the latter seem uncannily too eager to celebrate their too-easily won victory. Still, while the regiment sings and dances in celebration, a soldier warns of the Zulu's expedient return whereby they have rearranged their war tactics to compensate for the British' gun power. Awaiting a sequel, Father Witt and daughter Margaret are preparing to evacuate, with the trailing of Father Witt's "foreboding" summons echoing in their ears. So the second war comes, with new surprises for the British Army. After ransacking several British troops it seems "Zulu" hallmarks the eve that primitive tribes adopt the gun to save themselves from their Western enemies… It's man against machine in the trademark war against "white man's" imperialism as confronted on African soil like you've never seen it (or at least like you'd never seen it when it was first produced in 1964)!
"Zulu" is a powerful film that, especially for its day in age, was a paramount accomplishment that brought to the silver screen the grandeur, drama, and spectacle of large-scale battle scenes carefully orchestrated to exact realism as closely as possible. Staging one of the most momentous battles on African soil at the infamous Rorke's Drift, the film portrays a multi-day battle between a degenerate regiment of the British army, low in number, strength, and capable manpower, facing the deadly Zulu warriors who have the man strength of 4,000 plus. What starts as an anti-climactic battle turns into a multi-day arresting of the senses and interminable onslaught of courageous and relentless Zulu warriors who persist through the smoke and fire of gun power, to ransack the regiment and stop the encroachment of Western imperialism on their homeland.
Having marched effortlessly through several other British battalions with strengths at least ten fold of that of Chard and Bromhead's, the last thing the men expect is to succeed at holding the line, yet, with a bit of gusto, a lot of gun power, that's exactly what Chard and Bromhead manage to accomplish. And, on the second day, after innumerable bloodshed, warriors trade their spears and guns in for an exchange of words, a battle of song. With primitive chants echoing acoustically from the proud Zulu warriors, the British do their best to recount familiar battle hymns and prepare to once more stake their right to colonies in Africa. This is arguably the most poignant and epically moving moment of the film (that and of course the spectacular ending). The "song battle" captures a historic moment and the dichotomy of two cultures distinctly at odds with one another. From the bright red of the British outfit to the primitive costumes of leopard skin pelts and wild grass, director Cy Endfield brings to life his vision of Imperialism in Africa, and its disastrous effects for both white man and "Zulu" warrior (read native African) alike.
Specifically calculated, and masterfully crafted, "Zulu" depicts no hero, no antagonist, just tragedy and victory masked in the ambiguity of two countries fighting for what they believe to be right, each suffering their dire and irreplaceable losses along the way. Among the carnage of the war are relics of two divergent cultures that have yet to reconcile. Still, the men march on. "Zulu" is a brilliant, realistic, and tangible film that resurrects the memory of the grand scale historic period of Imperialism and its great stakes that were placed in the hands of young men in red coats to spread the power and beliefs of Western civilization.
Yet, in the birth of the colony is the death of a legendary culture, for the film, a specific culture (Zulu), and "Zulu" respectfully captures the harrowing gains and losses at both ends of the stake. Still, perhaps more reverence is paid to the relentless Zulu, or at least their cultural and war ideologies, who lay all on the table and fight for their independence from the white man. The Zulu truly epitomize what it means to be a warrior, and "Zulu" pays homage to the ideals of an ideology long gone since the rise of the Enlightenment and the military man. Here, "Zulu" distinctly situates itself between a pivotal moment where the birth of the soldier replaces the death of a legendary myth, that of the warrior, and a silent prayer of reverence resounds through the enchanting hymns of the African warriors and British soldiers alike. As such, even if for a tiny moment, at least in "Zulu", the warrior lives on- be he a warrior dressed in animal skin or a red coat with brass buttons.
"Zulu" received a nomination for the BAFTA Film Award for Best British Art Director (Ernest Archer) (Colour) in 1965. This was Michael Caine's up-and-coming performance and he delivers spectacularly, rivaling the lead roles of Baker and Hawkins with the grace and ease of veteran. Kudos to the cast of "Zulu".
Michael Caine plays Lt, Gonville Bromhead, the British army's second-in-command.
Stanley Baker plays Lt. John Chard, the Royal Army's commanding officer of engineering.
Ulla Jacobsson plays Margaret Witt, Father Witt's Western Christian daughter.
Jack Hawkins plays Father Otto Witt, the god-fearing Swedish missionary.
James Booth plays Pvt. Henry "Hookie" Hook, the degenerate soldier.
Patrick Magee plays Maj. James Henry Reynolds, the surgeon.