Zulu (1964)

Film Review

ZULU

Release Date: 17 June, 1964

Studio: Diamond Films

Director: Cy Endfield

Starring: Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson, James Booth, Nigel Green, Ivor Emmanuel

Screenplay: John Prebble, Cy Endfield

Cinematographer: Stephen Dade

Special Notes: TCM Classic Film Festival, 2014

Zulu was shown as part of the Discoveries theme at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. The guest speaker was Alex Trebek host of the television game show Jeopardy.

Synopsis

Wednesday to Thursday, January 22 to 23, 1879, a regiment of some 150 British soldiers, South Wales Borderers, posted at the mission station Rorke's Drift, Natal (a province of South Africa) successfully defend themselves against some 4000 Zulu warriors. Lieutenant John Rouse Chard R.E. (Baker) is the regiment's commanding officer, with Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Caine) his second in command. Eleven of the real-life defenders were awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry in the action.

Opening with a short scene of hundreds of dead British soldiers after the battle of Isandlwana, the location shifts to a Zulu village where a marriage ceremony is uniting hundreds of couples. Missionary Otto Witt (Hawkins) and his daughter (Jacobsson) witness the ceremony and observe a messenger bringing news of the British defeat. The Zulus prepare to attack the mission station. The reverend and his daughter rush off to warn the soldiers. Chard sends the Witts away as the fighting starts, saying the Zulu will not harm the clergyman.

The initial scenes at the Mission Station establish the setting, introduce Chard and Bromhead, and acquaint the audience with the soldiers who will be highlighted during the battle.

After an hour of preliminaries, the action commences. The Zulu are heard before they are seen, and the first view is daunting. Thousands of warriors line the bluffs above the station. Soon the Zulu, armed with spears, are attacking in waves. The soldiers line the walls firing their rifles into the attacking lines of warriors.

Soldiers hospitalized in the medical clinic fight Zulu warriors attempting to enter through the walls and roof. In the midst of the fighting, the doctor and his orderlies care for the wounded.

In-between attacks, the Zulu fall back, regroup and charge again. Chard employs various tactical formations to meet each new wave. Finally, after numerous repulses and many deaths, the Zulu withdraw.

Discussion

This rousing, but controversial, film commemorates imperialistic British troops fighting to establish colonial rule. In 1958, John Prebble, co-author of the screenplay, wrote a story about the battle at Rorke’s Drift from which 11 Victoria Crosses had been awarded. Cy Endfield (Try and Get Me (1950), Mysterious Island (1960)) was attracted to the story as the basis for a film.

Stanley Baker, star and producer, and Endfield, director and producer, had wanted to make the film for some years before production began. Friends, Endfield and Baker had already worked together on four previous projects. Baker, proud of his Welsh heritage, was particularly concerned with emphasizing the bravery and skill of the Welshmen of the South Wales Borderers regiment.

The Zulu, although presented realistically and as courageous warriors, are not individualized. Only Chief Buthelezi, playing the Zulu King, Cetewayo, has any lines.

Filmed in Natal Province, South Africa, near where the battle occurred, the setting provides for some impressive scenes. The Zulu are heard before they are seen, their chant while marching sounding like the chugging of a giant train. Looking up, the soldiers see thousands of warriors slowly forming a line along the ridge tops. The Zulus, rising out of gullies, charge across a treeless terrain.

Apartheid was in effect in 1964 and presented difficulties during production. The racist policies imposed by the South African government affected the employment of the Zulus; they had to be paid at lower rates than whites, and "fraternization" between the races had to be kept to a minimum. At its release, the South African censors designated the movie as "not fit for African consumption".

To save money, scenes of fighting inside the medical clinic's wards were filmed in a studio in England. James Booth (1927–2005), despite a major role as Private Henry Hook, one of the recipients of the Victoria Cross, never traveled to South Africa. The role of Hook had been intended for Caine before Endfield offered him the more important role of Bromhead. The film is the most significant credit in the filmography of Booth, who appeared in British and American movies and television series for forty years.

Ivor Emmanuel (1927-2007), Welsh singer and actor, has a substantial supporting role. His most memmorable scene occurs near the end of the film. As the thousands of Zulus prepare for another charge, they chant rhythmically and beat their shields. The waiting soldiers listen uneasily; Baker wants them to respond. He asks Emmanuel, whose character is a member of the regiment’s choir, if "the Welsh can't do better than that". Emmanuel responds that the Zulu have "a very good bass section…but no top tenors" and begins to sing "Men of Harlech" (with lyrics written for the film). Baker commands all the soldiers to sing, and they are singing as the Zulu charge. Emmanuel appeared frequently on television and made only this one film, but the role overshadowed everything else in his career.

Composer John Barry (1933-2011) wrote a stirring musical score, adding the power of his music to the film's surges of battle. Barry, the winner of five Academy Awards, was at the beginning of his highly successful career when commissioned by producer Baker to write the score for the film.

Guest Introduction

Trebek discussed the career of Michael Caine, billed fifth in the film playing a gentleman-officer of the regiment:

• In his youth, Caine enjoyed going to the movies, his favorite actors included Hollywood stars Robert Taylor, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power and Humphrey Bogart.

• He began acting after joining a youth center. At a basketball practice, he saw a girl named Amy Wood go into a room, he looked in and joined the drama class meeting there.

• He started acting and directing.

• At age 19, he was conscripted to Korea. After his return his first credited film role was Hell in Korea (1956), co-starring with Harry Andrews, Stephen Boyd, and Stanley Baker.

• In 1963, Caine, appearing in a play, was visited in his dressing room by Stanley Baker and Cy Endfield who offered the role of the Cockney soldier, Hook.

• Enfield asked Caine get up and walk away and later called back to offer the role of the posh English gentleman Bromhead.

• The film brought Caine to the attention of producers and audiences.

Trebek traced the history of wars in South Africa:

• The Dutch had arrived in the 17th century, and the Boers, descendants of the Dutch colonists, set up a republic.

• The Zulu had their own kingdom.

• The British, although later arrivals, were determined to create a federation out of the Boer republics, the Kingdom of Zululand, and various independent tribes.

• The Boers rebelled against British annexation, and two Anglo-Boer wars followed, 1877-1902, until British sovereignty was established.

• The British wanted to bring the Zulu Kingdom into the federation.

• British troops entered Zululand in January 1879, and several particularly bloody battles occurred.

• The opening Zulu victory at Isandlwana resulted in the deaths of 1400 troopers.

• in the aftermath of the battle 4000 Zulus raided the border post of Rorke's Drift. The post was successfully defended after 10 hours of ferocious fighting.

• A second invasion of Zululand in June 1879 produced British victory and ended Zulu independence.

Alex Trebek

References

Ivor Emmanuel, Welsh Singer and Actor Best Known for Role in Zulu. Patrick Hannan. The Guardian, August 16, 2007.

Stanley Baker, A Life in Film. Robert Shail. University of Wales Press, 2008.