Wednesday, 16 April 2014

50th Article


Alright, so I've hyped this up a lot. Hopefully, you've all got your bets in on the subject matter of my fiftieth article. I promised you a movie that meant a lot to me and I'm going to deliver. You're probably excited to hear what movie I've decided to talk about. It is a story of courage, determination, and survival in the face of impossible odds. This is Cy Endfield's 1964 movie war film Zulu.


I was first introduced to this film near the end of middle school. I never was quite like the other kids in my class. They lived in the present, keeping up with the latest sporting events and quoting lines from Family GuyRobot Chicken, and South Park. Meanwhile here I was living in the past, studying military history in my spare time and even reading my textbook for fun, watching old movies, and getting huge laughs out of the Marx Brothers and Monty Python, who I was excited to find out touched on the same time period as Zulu in one of their sketches featured in The Meaning of Life.


It was more specifically near the end of Grade 8, shortly before I was to make the transition into high school that my parents acquired a copy of this film. Having an interest in military history as I did it quickly caught my imagination, and I must have watched it a thousand times throughout the following summer. It sparked an interest in a period of history I never even knew existed beforehand (even if it's depiction of that time isn't perfectly accurate). It also got me exposed to a few older actors, particularly Jack Hawkins, who I would later see a lot more of in movies like The Bridge On the River Kwai, Ben-Hur, and Lawrence of Arabia.

The film's story is inspired by the real-life battle of Rorke's Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, in which a handful of British soldiers managed to successfully defend a small mission station from an army of Zulu warriors despite being hopelessly outnumbered... after a much larger and seemingly more formidable group of soldiers was massacred by the Zulus earlier that same day.


Michael Caine (who you may know better now as that guy who keeps popping up in Christopher Nolan movies) appears in his first starring role as Lt. Bromhead, the professional veteran from a long line of soldiers, who is initially in charge but finds himself subordinated to the inexperienced engineer Lt. Chard. Together these two men must put aside their differences to figure out the tactics necessary to succeed against all odds. 


There's a number of other characters, and that is one area where this film works surprisingly well. There are a lot of characters, but none ever takes too much focus and they're even fairly easy to tell apart despite most wearing similar uniforms. In fact, there's so many characters it takes about 45 minutes to introduce all of them, but even with the later introductions, when we suddenly meet another soldier they don't seem to come out of nowhere and their presence never appears forced.


Nigel Green co-stars as Color Sergeant Bourne, the stern officer who likes to remind his soldiers that nobody told them to stop working. Gert Van Den Bergh plays the Boer Adendorff, an expert in Zulu tactics who serves as a consultant for the officers and may have a strange admiration for the Zulus' skills in combat. Jack Hawkins plays the role of Otto Witt, a Swedish missionary who wants to help the sick and wounded, convinced that the soldiers have no chance if they stay and fight. Ulla Jacobson plays Otto's daughter Margareta, who is every bit as determined to help the sick as her father.


Meanwhile, in the hospital we have a whole other group of characters. James Booth plays the role of Private Hook, a scoundrel "malingering under arrest" who tries to get out of work and wants some brandy, but ultimately manages to prove a capable soldier and a hero. Peter Gill appears as his partner Private 612 John Williams (it's explained that numbers are used as a way of distinguishing soldiers who share a name), a Welsh soldier who also plays a major role in the climax. There are plenty of other soldiers with names and personalities, perhaps too many for me to go any further in detailing all of them.


The story itself is presented in a fairly straight forward manner. Essentially, the first half of the film is the preparation for the battle, and the second half is the battle itself. The first half takes its time but it never really seems to drag on the same way I felt a movie like Solaris did. In fact it is very compelling on some level because it sets up everything for the second half, giving us time to get to know as many characters as possible (even if it takes a full 45 minutes to introduce all of them) as well as to learn about the tactics of the Zulus and how the soldiers plan to counter those methods. As I mentioned before, I also like how you can actually tell the soldiers apart, averting a common problem with even some of the best war movies.

Once we do get to the battle scenes, they get appropriately tense and chaotic. The violence is a bit tame by modern standards, as there isn't a lot of gore (barring one medium close-up of a soldier taking a spear to the chest), probably because this was being made when the film industry was just coming out of the strict regulations enforced during the "Golden Age" between the 1930's and 1950's (though movies like this may have helped pave the way for more daring films like Bonnie and Clyde and A Clockwork Orange a few years later). Still, the action is solid and does keep the viewer going.


This is also an interesting film to examine from a sociological perspective. It was shot on location in South Africa (we do get several impressive landscape shots) with actual Zulus being cast. In fact, the historical figure of King Cetawayo was portrayed by his own descendant. There are stories of the relationships between the filmmakers and the Zulus they worked with that are quite inspiring. One account is that the filmmakers weren't able to pay the Zulu extras equally to the actors due to the apartheid laws prevalent in South Africa at the time, so the former party got around the law by letting the Zulus keep the cattle used for filming in order to ensure they got some sort of reward for their work.


This is reflected a bit in the movie itself. As the film is told from the perspective of the British, the Zulus are naturally cast as the antagonists. Some of the characters utter some... period appropriate remarks, but in the end, there seems to be a mutual admiration between both sides. Chard and Bromhead manage to emerge victorious, but aren't necessarily proud of their victory. and the Zulus are seen to salute them as "fellow braves".


Compare the way they are treated here to say... the depictions of Native Americans in westerns of the 1930's. While Zulus are antagonists, it is made clear that they are human beings. Whereas the Native Americans were often seen as bloodthirsty savages who needed to be eradicated, the Zulus here are treated more as a worthy opponent to the protagonists. They are a complicated and intelligent people capable of posing a great challenge even for the might of the British army. Not bad for a film shot in a country with a racist government at a time when civil rights were just starting to be recognized.

Overall, Zulu is a great addition to the war genre and an example of British cinema at its finest. It might not be the most accurate rendition of the Battle of Rorke's Drift (though as I have argued previously, to depict any historical event precisely as it happened is impossible), but it is still a compelling story of bravery, ingenuity, and determination in the face of impossible odds, with solid acting and great action.

10 comments:

  1. John - This is one of my favorite films - and I think it's one of the best films about war. I've loved it since I saw it when it first came out in theaters. My friends and I reenacted it in the backyard. Later, I would read books about the Zulu Wars. I identify with your comment about living in the past - unlike your peers. That describes me as well!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You must have had some pretty cool friends. There weren't very many people I got to share this with. Of course, the part that I failed to mention in the article itself was that one time I got involved with a futuristic text-based roleplaying game and half my characters were explicitly descended from people involved with the Battle of Rorke's Drift and drew from how they were described in Zulu. Once I ran out of people from Rorke's Drift I moved onto including characters descended from participants of the Battle at the Alamo and other historical battles that interested me.

      Blimey, I never thought I'd see someone else who was so inspired by this movie.

      Delete
  2. Ah, and I see you are interested in the Alamo, another all-time favorite topic of mine, with books, movies, and playing it out as kids in the backyard. Now if you say that you also love Westerns, we will have a LOT in common.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's funny you should mention that because I do like a good western, even if I haven't written very many articles on the genre at the moment.

      Delete
  3. Great post! Incidentally, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the film's release, there's an interesting post about it here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10586562/Zulu-10-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-film.html
    In my opinion, this is the quintessential British war movie. It's a true epic, a story of real-life heroism seen through the lenses of Victorian propaganda.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Is it really the 50th anniversary? Wow, if I'd known that it would have given this article a whole knew meaning.

      Delete
  4. I saw Zulu about 5 years ago and knew nothing of what it was about. The ending really surprised me and delighted me, too! I've encouraged my kids to see it. Great film, one of my favorites,and really enjoyed your review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for commenting. I've tried to share this movie with people I know and it's never done much good, so it's nice to know other people are seeing this.

      Delete
  5. Michael Caine originally auditioned for the role of Private Hook, but the producer said he didn't look like a cockney ! Then he said "Can you do a posh accent?" and the rest is history. Incidentally, Hook's descendants were outraged by his portrayal in the movie; they say he was a pious teatotaller who used to hold prayer meetings in the barracks.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Michael Caine originally auditioned for the role of Private Hook, but the producer said he didn't look like a cockney ! Then he said "Can you do a posh accent?" and the rest is history. Incidentally, Hook's descendants were outraged by his portrayal in the movie; they say he was a pious teatotaller who used to hold prayer meetings in the barracks.

    ReplyDelete