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Zulu

****
1964

‘…a study of heroism under fire that narrowcasts towards those seeking the detail of valour in combat…’

Let’s get our wires crossed in terms of race; sure, we’re all against racism, right? But as the Avenue Q song goes, ‘everyone’s a little bit racist…’ and one film that messes with the heads of those who watch it in 2021 is Cy Enfield’s classic tale of British derring-do Zulu. An epic tale of heroism that was never off the UK council telly for five decades, Zulu is now a problematic film that, like it or not, is utterly ingrained in the British sense of self. Nostalgia for the cinematic past is understandable, but how can we celebrate a film that finds triumph in the massacre of so many?

It’s 1879, and the British have just been defeated at the battle of Isandlwana, so we’ll keep that one off-screen and focus instead on the battle of Roarke’s Drift, in which Michael Caine, Stanley Baker, James Booth, Nigel Green and a raft of red-jacketed, Pith-helmeted soldiers learn that several thousand Zulu warriors are on their way to sweep their little field hospital away. The Brits dig in, despite wayward advice from a crazy religious missionary (Jack Hawkins, turned up to eleven), and soon a gallant last-stand takes place, with a tiny amount of soldiers manfully holding off the huge army of Zulus and sending them home to think again about dislodging the British army from their natural home in south-eastern Africa.

So there’s quite a bit to unpick in Zulu; Enfield goes to some lengths to balance his film, spending some time admiring the Zulus and putting a strong accent on their skills and strategies. The Zulus are seen singing and dancing, and are so moved by the Brits singing Men of Harlech that they sing a special admiring song to them at the end, acclaiming the bravery of those they fought against. That’s all well and good, but the whole concept of the film is to admire the ratio of native African tribesmen that the infantry manage to kill, and that idea in itself reeks of racial superiority. Richard Burton contributes a steely voice-over, somehow predating the even grander one he did for The War of the Worlds musical.

Zulu is a beloved film in the UK, still one of the 100 most popular British films in 2017, despite racial undertones that often become overtones. But Zulu is also a predecessor of modern films like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a study of heroism under fire that narrowcasts towards those seeking the detail of valour in combat; historical detail takes second place to flag-waving. It probably helps that Caine, in his debut, is riveting to watch, and Baker, Booth and Green were never better; the colors pop in this Amazon Prime re-issue, and the spectacle is jaw-dropping. Zulu’s continued success for nearly sixty years may be based on unpleasant racial assumptions by some viewers, but it’s also hard to argue that it’s anything but an intense, historical slice of downbeat jingoism, albeit one that poses tricky questions to today’s woke viewer.

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  1. What’s this? A film review that considers nuance, historical context and artistic merit? Comments that are thoughtful, polite and informed? Dash it all, I must have stumbled into the wrong part of the Internet. Sorry. I’ll get back to my crude corner at once.

    I would like to see you tackle “Zulu Dawn” some time. Yes, it is the inferior film and it doesn’t have the grandiose John Barry score, but it has some moments and images, not to mention a stellar cast (although I’ve never been able to figure out Burt Lancaster’s accent).

    • Normal service will be resumed soon! Had some trepidation publishing this after some previous stramashes. But calm heads saved the day.

      I looked at Zulu Dawn in Prime a couple of years ago, and still found it a tricky text, but worth a review, as you say.

  2. Can’t see how this can possibly not be five-star. If the Brits had been massacred as in the previous battle, would that have made it a better film? Obviously not, as seen in Zulu Dawn. There’s obviously some stiff upper lip and imperialism but that doesn’t make it racist. It is a major addition to an admittedly small canon of films in the sub-genre of amazing-they-survived. I’ve no idea why the Zulus stopped attacking. Their superior numbers would soon have told. This is one instance where truth is definitely stranger than fiction.

    • I may relent on my four/five star quandary, because this was a stone cold classic of my youth. I’m keen to rescue this film from cancel culture, which would have an easy job finding things to object to. Totally agree that Zulu Dawn is inferior, despite having a more balanced worldview. But I returned to Zulu with some trepidation, and it was not warranted; everyone should have the right to tell their own stories.

  3. ‘the whole concept of the film is to admire the ratio of native African tribesmen that the infantry manage to kill’ – I think I’d take issue with that, though I’m sure that was part of it. Showing heroism under adversity must have been a big part of the concept too. Not sure it’s racist when it is a true story being shown, most war movies trying to depict historical events I’ve seen have one side ‘winning’ no matter what colour or race the ‘enemy’ are. Anyway good stuff, liked the movie, liked the review, and will leave you with this as I went to Wiki to see how historically correct it was, and found the following – In 2018 Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi defended the film’s cultural and historical merits, stating that there’s a “…deep respect that develops between the warring armies, and the nobility of King Cetshwayo’s warriors as they salute the enemy, demanded a different way of thinking from the average viewer at the time of the film’s release. Indeed, it remains a film that demands a thoughtful response.’ Which is what just happened to me!

    • Thank you for YOUR thoughtful response. That’s a great quote as well, very helpful in understanding how this film is seen. I guess the way we see so many individuals in the Brotish side, and almost none elsewhere, leaves the film open to negative interpretations, and I don’t have much argument against that. But I gew up with this film, and there’s lots of vanilla films elsewhere. I’d like to think that rather than being claimed by racists as a rallying point, this powerful film could and should be seen as Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi did. Thanks for your contribution to the big debate!

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