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.