director/writer: Cy Endfield; screenwriter: from an article by John Prebble; cinematographer: Stephen Dade; editor: John Jympson; cast: Stanley Baker (Lieutenant John Chad), James Booth (Private Henry Hook), Jack Hawkins (Reverend Otto Witt), Ulla Jacobsson (Margareta Witt ), Michael Caine (Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead), Nigel Green (Colour Sergeant Fred Bourne), Ivor Emmanuel (Private Owen), Paul Daneman (Sergeant Robert Maxfield), Glynn Edwards (Cpl. William Allen), David Kernan (Private Fred Hitch), Patrick Magee (Surgeon Reynolds); Runtime: 135; Paramount; 1964-UK)
“Caine was just splendid, it is still one of his finest hours in film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Cy Endfield (“Try and Get Me!”), the overlooked but very talented blacklisted American director who emigrated to England in the 1950s, has created a no-nonsense epic masterpiece, though one where the filmmaker has fudged a lot of the details about a real heroic battle in British history. Yet this fictionalized account is visually the best of such films made, a classic study in heroism and in military planning that stays with the men in battle as they fight for survival and doesn’t go off into the politics of why they are there.
Richard Burton is the narrator who describes on that infamous day in January 22, 1897 how 40,000 Zulus in Natal, South Africa, attacked a British regiment for no apparent reason and killed all 1,500 men. What followed was another attack on 105 British troops, a company of mostly Welshmen, stationed nearby at Rorke’s Drift. The ensuing battle that lasted all day and night is told from the British viewpoint.
“Zulu” opens with Swedish missionaries, Reverend Otto Witt (Hawkins) and his daughter Margareta (Ulla), at a mass wedding of warriors as the guests of a Zulu chieftain, who is a parishioner of Witt’s church. A Zulu messenger arrives to tell of the massacre of British troops and the taking of their rifles. The Witts flee in their carriage to warn the men stationed at the Rorke’s Drift outpost of the impending danger, urging them to flee in the name of a peaceful God.
Lieutenant John Chad (Baker) is an engineer from the decimated regiment who has been assigned to build a bridge at Rorke’s Drift, and thereby misses getting killed. The aristocratic company commander at Rorke’s Drift, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Caine-his first major role in a film), returns from hunting when news of the impending attack reaches the camp. Chad, by a matter of a few months seniority, takes charge of the operation, to the chagrin of Bromhead who comes from a long line of British officers. Chad, after consulting with a knowledgeable Boer adviser who knows the war methods of the Zulus, decides not to flee to the hills as Bromhead wanted but forms a barricade to ward off the frontal attack. As he understands it, the Zulus will try to lure them out in their initial attack and then will attack them from their vulnerable sides. The aim will be to hold the outside perimeter at all times and reinforce any side that is being attacked.
The side dramas that develop, at first, center around the annoying missionary figure and his self-righteous daughter, as they try to stop the men from fighting. The missionary becomes such a disruptive influence, getting all the black levee soldiers from the company to flee in the name of God, that he has to be locked up. Later on while in confinement he finds a bottle of liquor and gets drunk, ranting at the men that they will all die. Chad puts him and his daughter in their carriage and sends them away, ironically saying that his parishioners won’t kill them.
The other side story centers around a thief who had to join the army or he would have gone to jail — the rogue Henry Hook (James Booth) — who is a lighthearted malingerer not giving one darn about soldiering. He is in the hospital with a number of other men who are not fit for battle duty due to wounds or sickness, but are not malingerers like Hook. Hook will in battle emerge from his selfish ways and prove to be a brave soldier.
Endfield shows the wide differences of opinion held by the men about why they are fighting: the duty bound Colour Sergeant Fred Bourne (Nigel Green) says he is prepared to do whatever it takes and is pictured as a tower of strength; a Welshman who enjoys singing, Private Owen (Ivor Emmanuel), wonders what he is doing here; the mass of the rank and file soldiers are frightened young men, who wonder why it is them who must fight; and, the dedicated surgeon (Magee) who works selflessly to tend to the wounded, just does what he has to do because of his professional obligations.
The Zulus are first heard coming as the ground shakes and it feels like a train is chugging along, which presented a magnificent sight to behold as they first appear on the hilltops and go through their ritual war dance and chants. The Zulus sent their first wave out to get killed, just so they can count the enemies firepower. They will then attack in wave after wave, as the film becomes a masterfully done re-creation of battle scene after battle scene. The tension is constantly being built up and the men show how they handle themselves in battle, even when exhausted and feeling that their situation might be hopeless.
The battle scenes were memorable, the acting was first-class, the director correctly offers no explanation for the WHY of the battle as the action itself seems to explain the absurdity of their situation. The professional soldiers say, “We fight because we are here, there is no one else who will fight for us.” It is difficult to get it out of one’s mind the power of the Zulu attack scenes and the courage shown by the badly outnumbered men to hold fast and fight. What is hinted at, is the insanity of colonialism and of the missionaries who came to Africa to force their culture down the natives’ throats. The film offers no explanation about the racial nature of the conflict, as it is played mostly as a story of courage on both sides. The film does not display a racist attitude.
By the film’s final battle the Zulu warriors return to the hilltops and salute the British soldiers as fellow warriors before they return to their villages acknowledging defeat, with most of their men killed. As a result of this battle eleven Brits were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest number of men to receive that honor since Britain first gave it out. Burton announces that there have been 1,344 such medals given out overall.
Chad and Bromhead worked well together despite their class differences, with Chad showing a natural ability to think fast and act without indecision. There is a certain fascination about this movie, especially in watching the Zulus perform under Endfield’s direction. The Zulus never even saw a movie before and it wasn’t until Endfield showed them a Gene Autry oater that they knew what he was talking about and were able to go along with his directing. “Zulu” is presented in a tough-minded and matter-of-fact way. It was also an interesting bit of casting by the co-producers Endfield and Baker, of having the cockney Caine play a stuffy upper-class Englishman. But it worked; Caine was just splendid, it is still one of his finest hours in film.
REVIEWED ON 5/20/99 GRADE: A