Dir. Cy Endfield. Starring Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Nigel Green
Just about everything has contradictions at its heart if you dig enough, but Zulu wears that contradiction at its most surface level. In 2017, it’s a movie fraught with the complications we attach to the burgeoning postcolonial period which also bears strong and obvious similarities to two of the most popular war movies of the past decade: 300 and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Zulu is in much the same mold as the other movies about badly outnumbered military forces standing alone against incredible odds with no serious hope of survival outside themselves; it’s easy to see Zulu as a significantly more sanitized forerunner to both films, an influence in style more than content. After all, one takes place in fictional Middle-Earth and the other is a Zack Snyder movie, which means both are divorced from reality. Yet what they share in content happens to be important: all three movies focus on their white small forces against some variant of brown or black bodies intending to destroy the civilized world. 300 faced significant protests in Iran because of it how it depicted the ancient Persians as a mindless horde. The Uruk-hai of The Two Towers, subhuman and ugly, are meaningfully juxtaposed against blonde men but also as the potential killers and defilers of blonde women and children.
Funnily enough, Zulu is less concerned with the actual clash of cultures than either 300 or The Two Towers even though it was released during the early stages of the postcolonial era. The Mau Mau Rebellion, which of course involved British troops in Africa, had ended less than five years before the premiere of Zulu. Two years later, The Battle of Algiers would debut like a thunderbolt and take quite the opposite approach; in Gillo Pontecorvo’s movie, the focus is securely on the Africans, and they are its undisputed heroes; they are the ones with names in opposition to the omnipresent and anonymous French soldiers. Yet Zulu hardly notes that the British are fighting an invasive war on someone else’s homeland, nor does it remember that the Zulu War was a war of explicit British aggression, for the Europeans made the first attacks, not the Africans. The film, where it is inclined to be generous, works on the old “noble savage” angle. (At times one gets the sense that this is a transplanted western, although that might say more about my way of turning everything into a western.) The Zulu soldiers come back at the very end en masse not to make the overwhelming assault which might still have obliterated the redoubts, but to salute their enemy. Most insults or digs at the Zulu are rebuffed by a soldier who knows better. A Swiss soldier named Schiess (Dickie Owen) asks a Brit how far he and his fellows can march in a day. Fifteen to twenty miles, the Brit says cockily. The Zulu, Schiess says, can run fifty miles in a day and then fight a battle. For Rorke’s Drift to be fought, it must be preceded with some knowledge of a battle which occurred earlier that same day; at Isandlwana, we are told, a British force of about 1,500 was decimated by the Zulu, and we see the evidence in the redcoated corpses lying in great number. For all of these compliments, we still only know the name of a single Zulu – Cetshwayo, the king – by the end of the movie. Like scenes in westerns which praise Indians for their physical hardiness or their collective cleverness but never give them the benefit of actual personhood, we see the fearlessness of the Zulu over and over again in making frontal assaults on entrenched positions against superior weaponry. In the first stage of the battle, some Zulu warriors even stand still as the British play target practice. It turns out that the leader is judging how many British troops are at the station. It seems callous, but in its own way it’s an obviously useful form of reconnaissance.
No scene is absent its white interpreters. Either Adendorff (Gert van den Bergh), a knowledgeable Afrikaner, or the missionary Witt (Jack Hawkins, with a positively alarming amount of hair) is there to explain why the Zulu are doing whatever it is they’re up to. Aside from tutoring the inexperienced commanding officer, Lieutenant Chard (Baker), in Zulu tactics, it is Adendorff who explains that the Zulu are saluting the British. (I don’t know that I can adequately put into words what a weird choice I think that is. Not that Zulu is non-fiction or anything, but there’s a reason the actual Zulu didn’t have a moment like that at the end of the battle.) Witt and his daughter, Margareta (Ulla Jacobsson) witness a mass wedding in a scene that the movie really didn’t need. Indeed, there’s a strong case to be made that all of the scenes with the Swedish missionaries should never have made the final cut. It’s hard to know what Witt brings to the movie; Hawkins plays out of type as a slightly wild-eyed, mostly inebriated screecher. I’m blessed if I know what Margareta brought to the table at all. Simply put, Zulu isn’t interested in her. It’s interested in the knowledge Witt has of the Zulu as well as the tension he brings to the station, and it might even be interested in the comic relief of a drunk missionary yelling that many waters cannot quench love from his impromptu prison cell. Yet it gives Margareta no unusual or dangerous task, much less peer into her motivation. In any event, all three of them are absent for long stretches of the movie as the focus returns to the men building their Victoria Cross resumes. Adendorff goes his own way for so long during the battle that I thought he must have been killed. The Witts are evicted from the fort well before then, before the Zulu fire a shot, which is sort of a relief as a viewer. It also raises the question of what value they have from a narrative perspective.
The saving grace of the movie is in its two leads, who, regardless of how imperialism makes you feel, have perfectly solid performances. Michael Caine drops as much Cockney as he can for his role as the scion of a military family with history fighting Napoleon and Montcalm; the effect is curious, almost effeminate. With his blonde curly hair and soft voice, Lieutenant Bromhead makes a clear contrast with Lieutenant Chard; Baker has a stern visage and dark sideburns. Bromhead is superseded by Chard, who got his lieutenant’s commission just a couple of months before Bromhead took his. It turns out that neither man has any fighting experience. Rorke’s Drift is the first combat that either man has ever been a part of; in fact, Chard is an engineer by trade who came to this part of Natal to build a bridge, not fight the Zulu. (He meets Bromhead for the first time when Bromhead discovers that Chard has appropriated his men for the bridge-building. Bromhead was off trying to shoot a cheetah.) Chard is decisive, but Baker adds real uncertainty to the man as well. The only thing that Chard seems sure of is that he intends to stay and fight at Rorke’s Drift rather than run. How he intends to stand against the Zulu is a work in progress. He relies heavily on Adendorff’s tactics, Bromhead’s familiarity with the men, and Sergeant Bourne’s (Green) authoritarian bearing; for some part of the battle, he is wounded and out of the fight entirely. Baker narrows his eyes and barks orders convincingly enough to give us a sense of a man with iron will. Even in his first encounter with Bromhead, he gives off the air of a man who cannot be content sitting still. He must have action, progress, and he certainly makes choices throughout the movie which reinforce those tendencies.
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[…] racism pretty frequently, and those charges certainly do have reason to stick. If you think that Zulu was sort of problematic, wait until you get to Black Hawk Down, which recreates the waves of Black […]