Why I love... Zulu

It’s 50 years since the premiere of the classic historical adventure that launched the career of Michael Caine and has remained a TV perennial ever since.

John Oliver
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Zulu (1964)

Zulu (1964)

On 22 January 1964, a British film received its world premiere at the Plaza cinema in London’s Lower Regent Street. While this film would not go on to win any awards (it would not even be nominated for any, other than a BAFTA for best colour art direction) nor become a recurring title to feature on any serious critical polls, it would become a huge box office hit (at least in Britain) and quickly garner a loyal fan base; one that has, if anything, grown over the ensuing 50 years.

That film is Zulu.

While Zulu would benefit from a number of official rereleases in subsequent years, it was a film that never really went away, at least for this writer, with my local ABC cinema seemingly showing it every summer without fail throughout the 1960s during the school summer holidays. And it never failed to exert its mesmerising pull.

It’s not just a matter of the exciting story and battle sequences, but of its radiant colour scheme. The location shoot deliberately took place during the South African winter, in order to offset the saturated reds of the British soldiers’ uniforms against the parched brown landscape. And while shooting was often interrupted by heavy rain storms, the skies seen in the film are brilliantly blue and clear. The large negative area of the Technirama format brings out every small detail.

In recounting the heroic defence of the Rorke’s Drift mission station by a small force of British soldiers against 4,000 Zulu warriors on 22 and 23 January 1879, the film can be counted among the last in a long line of cinematic adventure stories set in the far flung corners of the British Empire.

But, by the time that Zulu was produced, Britain’s position as a colonial power was a thing of the past, and the film has been criticised as being little more than an expression of remorse over the loss of that empire, the film’s action serving to symbolically demonstrate the superiority of a white minority over a majority black population. And it was filmed in apartheid South Africa, which damned it all the more.

But if such sentiments can be discerned, they were undoubtedly introduced unconsciously. Director Cy Endfield had fled McCarthyite America in 1952 owing to his left-wing political views and clearly held no love for the glories of lost empire. And for star and producer Stanley Baker (a life-long staunch socialist), the film would be a particular labour of love, attracted as he was by the Welsh dimension to the story, not by any notions of empire.

The 24th Regiment of Foot, a contingent of which was based at Rorke’s Drift, had recruited primarily from south Wales. With Welsh soldiers having fought with distinction in the battle, here was a story that the Wales-born Baker, venturing forth as a producer for the first time, could use to pay homage, not to the Empire, but to his own countrymen and homeland.

Zulu (1964)

Zulu (1964)

Consequently, the Welsh theme would be stressed throughout the film, even if that meant being somewhat economical with historical fact. While the regiment had indeed been based in Brecon since 1873, and Welsh recruits figured highly, English soldiers were actually in the majority at Rorke’s Drift, but the film gives the impression that the battle was a predominantly Welsh engagement (even the character played by Baker himself, John Chard, was actually English).

The film is in fact replete with small historical inaccuracies of this nature. The Reverend Witt (Jack Hawkins) was not a drunkard. Colour Sergeant Bourne (portrayed unforgettably by Nigel Green) was actually only 24 years of age and not the imposing, experienced soldier as portrayed in the film. Private Hook (James Booth) was not a malingerer with a two fingers to authority attitude. This last characterisation seems to have been influenced more by recent trends in British cinema rather than having any historical basis, as if Alan Sillitoe’s creation, Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, had been transposed to 19th-century South Africa. And there are more.

But does any of these inaccuracies really matter? Although numerous websites can be found that list further such instances in the film, whether in the characterisations, the truthfulness of depicted events or mistakes in uniform design, none of this detracts from the overall dramatic impact of the film. Zulu is first and foremost a work of popular cinema, not a historical document, and as such it works very effectively indeed, hence its continued popularity.

While it is the well realised (even if modified) characters and their situation that initial grab the viewer’s attention, it is, above all, the brilliantly choreographed and staged battle sequences that render the film so memorable: the impressive low-angle tracking shots of charging Zulus; the scenes of close combat on the ramparts; the attack on the hospital and its eventual destruction by fire (and where Hook shows his true colours); Corporal Schiess facing down Zulus with bayonet and crutch; the rendition of ‘Men of Harlech’ by the mission defenders to counter the singing of the Zulu warriors. I could go on.

Zulu (1964)

Zulu (1964)

Unfortunately, neither Stanley Baker nor Cy Endfield would enjoy success on this scale again, though Endfield would co-write a sequel, Zulu Dawn, in 1979. But for Michael Caine the success of Zulu would serve as the launch pad for a long and successful career. Likewise with composer John Barry. While having worked on a number of productions prior to this, it was his powerful score for Zulu, his stirring music helping to make the film as memorable aurally as it was visually, that would help to propel him to Bond and beyond, with his music becoming the indelible sound of 60s British cinema.

Is it too fanciful to consider Zulu one of British cinema’s best loved films? Certainly few British films have such an avid following. And while it may never make it on to one of those lists of greatest films ever made, it simply never loses its ability to thrill and excite, no matter how many times one may view it. Which reminds me, I haven’t watched it for at least two years. Now where’s that DVD?

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