Tuesday, 9 June 2015

How Zulu Deconstructs British Imperialism

Cy Endfield's 1964 film Zulu depicts a historical event which, at the time, might have been seen as a triumph of British Imperial might. This was the Battle of Rorke's Drift, fought on 1879 during the Anglo-Zulu War in South Africa. One cannot deny the military genius of the men who orchestrated this action, during which 100 British soldiers stationed in a single post managed to survive against thousands of attacking Zulu warriors with very few casualties. Endfield's film depicts the events of the battle, but also took liberties in his depictions of what happened. There is in fact a good reason for this, since Zulu is not so much a dramatizing of what historically occurred, but using the story of Rorke's Drift as a springboard to criticize the entire foundation of the British Empire.

Perhaps the most obvious component of this deconstruction is in the treatment of the Zulus themselves. While it is true that the film is primarily shown through the perspective of the British soldiers and no particular individuals among the Zulus are given specific characterization there is a concerted effort to develop them as an interesting collective antagonist. To do this, the movie goes out of its way to subvert the obvious stereotypes that would come from this situation. To put it into perspective, let's look at how Natives were treated in many westerns of the era.

Though it was starting to become less common with movies like The Searchers (a film which still cast the Native Americans as villains but allows them some depth) laying the groundwork for change, the typical image of Native Americans was to cast them as nothing more than savages. These characters would be stripped of any shred of humanity and instead would be nothing more than an obstacle or a pest that needs to be eradicated. Many old westerns, Stagecoach and to a lesser extent Red River being famous examples of this practice. Often they were not the primary antagonist and usually served the purpose of fulfilling one or two action scenes, usually a chase that would often end when the Calvalry came in to save the brave heroes.

Zulu  makes a point of thoroughly deconstructing this view in its treatment of the African Natives. Many of the characters, the majority of them English or Welsh men born into the notoriously repressive and bigoted Victorian era, hold such views of the Zulu tribe. However, the opening reveals that the Zulus are in fact a force to be reckoned with, as is shown with a report (narrated by Richard Burton) which provides some simple facts: a garrison of British soldiers at Isandlwana (a hill in South Africa) has been attacked by Zulus and "in spite of gallant resistance" were overpowered and annihilated.

Only the gruesome aftermath of the battle is shown (though it would later be dramatized in a prequel film, Zulu Dawn) but it is clear that the British army is hardly superior in any way, much as they may like to make themselves look like they are. It is likely that many of these soldiers were confident in their abilities, believing that 1200 men trained to handle rifles and some artillery would be sufficient to keep an army of men with hide shields and spears at bay. In reality, it turned out not to be enough. The Zulus' seemingly primitive weapons turned out to be quite effective, and there is a good reason: they are brilliant tacticians.

At first glance, it is not hard to see why the close-minded soldiers of the British empire might have assumed the Zulus to be an easy threat to deal with. From what is seen, however, the Zulus are very good at handling their spears (it is later also shown that they can handle firearms when necessary). They are very clever when it comes to devising a battle plan. They have one other strength the British do not: a thorough understanding of the environment. Most of the British soldiers seen later in the film simply complain about the heat and dry weather of South Africa, but the Zulus are able to turn it to their advantage and use it to make themselves harder targets.

This shot of Isandlwana is immediately followed by a scene which offers a glimpse into a Zulu village during a wedding ritual. The Zulus are observed outside of a wartime situation (if only briefly) and it is shown that they have a culture. It may not be a culture that a typical member of the film's intended audience can fully understand, but nonetheless it is a culture with rules, social standards, and customs. They may not conform to European standards, but there is no way the Zulus can truly be seen as "uncivilized". This sequence may be brief, but it is the first step in deconstructing any notion of the Zulus as "savages" by showing that they are in fact people.

The same scene also makes a point of highlighting a less favorable aspect of Victorian society, its treatment of women. The only two Caucasian individuals present in this scene are a missionary named Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins) and his daughter Margaretta (Ulla Jacobson). Otto is posed a question by King Catewayo which he translates as whether he is "happy to see so many brides married to so many women at one time." This leads to a short discussion with Margaretta in which Otto points out a custom in Europe at the time: "Young woman accept arranged marriages with rich men."

This brings about the subject of women's rights, not a central focus but it addressing it here does highlight the fact that the British Empire was flawed in many ways. It brings up the prejudices of society at the time, opening the door for exploration of two other major forms of discrimination: classism and racism. In fact, the entire empire was in many ways built on bigotries and a belief in superiority. To provide a better known example, there are plenty of stories of how the British treated citizens of India when it fell under their rule. Many Englishmen genuinely believed themselves to be superior to the Indian population, and yet despite all its might it lost its influence there to an Indian man who relied exclusively on peaceful protest.

Even once the focus shifts to Rorke's Drift and the British soldiers stationed there, there is still an emphasis on making it clear that the Zulus are not "savages". There are several conversations dedicated to precisely this. Upon hearing about the massacre at Isandlwana and the number of levies who died, Bromhead dismisses them as "cowardly blacks". He is immediately called out on it by the man who informed him, Adendorff (Gert van den Bergh), who points out not only that those levies died on his side but also that it is the Zulus who are the main threat. Later on, Swiss mercenary Christian Ferdinand Schiess (Dickie Owen) calls out two Welsh soldiers both named Jones (Richard Davies and Denys Graham) for dismissing the Zulus as "a bunch of savages" pointing out how much more maneuverable the Zulus are than either of the two soldiers.

Early in the film, Adendorff demonstrates a common war tactic used by the Zulus, which is simple but remarkably effective at surrounding and trapping their enemies. When the Zulus arrive at Rorke's Drift and begin their attack, they prove a formidable danger which the British soldiers struggle to hold back. Their tactics prove to be in many ways a force to be reckoned with, and in a way it earns their respect. In one short but notable clip, a group of Zulus are signaled to stand down when the wagon carrying Otto and Margaretta passes them, showing that while the Zulus may be warriors, they do have a moral code (even if it is not necessarily clear what that code is).

In many ways, Bromhead serves as the embodiment of Victorian social ideas. When he is introduced he is a typical upper-class Victorian gentleman, and he makes a point of showing it. His introductory scene shows him taking an expedition to hunt animals for fresh meat while the soldiers under his command are given what is described as "horse meat in axle grease." He then proceeds to ride his horse while a group of black servants carry his dinner on foot behind him. He even goes as far as to put on a fancy cape, even though nobody else is around to see him. It soon starts to become clear that there is a clear hierarchy in the regiment. There are different levels and in general the officers are seen as separate to the enlisted men who are simply expected to do as they are told. There also seems to be a clear separation between the Welsh men and the English men, neither of whom are particularly fond of each other. Finally, there is a divide between the walking soldiers and the sick in the hospital.

Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard (Stanley Baker) serves as a disruption to the established hierarchy. Unlike the other men, Chard is not a soldier but an engineer, making him an outsider. He has never been combat before and only ends up taking command on a technicality, as he has seniority to Bromhead. When Chard is first seen working on the bridge, he is shown organizing a diverse team of men which includes people of different ranks as well as black workers. Chard even engages in some social discussion with a Welsh private and allows him to look through his binoculars for a moment. Through Chard everyone is to be put on equal footing.

Chard first interrupts the established structure when he takes command over Bromhead, presumably a more experienced officer who has prior to now been in charge. In order to keep the regiment organized, Chard and Bromhead have to work together, as equals, with neither one being superior to the other. Furthermore, Chard also enlists the help of Adendorff, a Boer (meaning his is likely of Dutch heritage) who is once again an outsider who also knows far more about the Zulus than any of the British soldiers.

When Otto and Margareta show up, they both become problematic for Chard's command. This is because Otto represents another major aspect of Victorian society: religion. His aim is to warn the camp of a threat they already know about. Furthermore, his efforts to help only make things worse, as he hinders any effort to unify the base. In a way, Otto can be seen as trying to reinforce the established norms since his efforts create divides in the men who would be united under Chard's command. While he may be well-intentioned (trying to help the wounded) he proves unreliable, which is demonstrated when he is revealed to have hidden a bottle and eventually gets drunk. In the end, the only way to break free is to get Otto off the post.

Tying back to the conversation between Otto and Margareta at the beginning, her experience at Rorke's Drift proves to be a difficult one. That discussion makes it clear that most Englishmen have little expectations for their women beyond getting married and offering children (preferably sons). When she arrives at the camp the soldiers immediately begin to display these same views. Most of them are either indifferent or actively desiring her sexual affection. One or two even talk about trying to marry her. However, from what is seen she does appear to be capable of more than just having children. From what is shown she has some medical knowledge and she also knows something about what is going on.

There is also a scene in which a wounded man tries to rape Margareta. He likely expected her to passively accept it, but she does not take it so easily. Instead, she shows that she has the capacity to be stronger by fighting back and breaking free of his control. The same scene also brings up another challenge to Victorian ideas of how women should behave, when Schiess tells the two Jones soldiers that King Cetswayo has a regiment of female warriors called "Ripen at Noon". This regiment is never seen, but the idea of a competent female soldier, let alone an entire platoon of them, would have been radical for the era (and even for 1964 when Zulu was first released). This idea barely seems to phase the two soldiers, one of whom simply replies with "That's pretty," helping to emphasize the fact that the entire British Empire is structured on backwards thinking and the only people who see the world clearly are the non-conformists.

Otto's alcoholism allows an oppurtunity for Margereta to finally begin to stand on equal ground with the men. The general attitude of the time would have said that a father was expected to protect his daughter, but now those roles have been reversed. When it becomes clear that the soldiers have to get Otto away from Rorke's Drift, Chard could have enlisted any of his men to do the job. Instead, he entrusts Margareta to get take him away. He not only trusts her to protect her father, but also that she knows precisely where she is going and that she can make it safely. Chard might not be ready just yet to give her a rifle and let her take part in the battle, but he is starting to realize that being a woman does not automatically make Margareta inferior to him on an intellectual level. By entrusting her to take care of her father and sending the two of them alone, Chard also forces Margareta to become more self-reliant, and realize that she too can be strong. Once again, the British values of supremacy are challenged.

When the actual battle starts, the tone quickly shifts. While at the beginning the men may have had some sense of imperial might, the feeling changes from British strength to a simple desire to survive. The soldiers know they are outnumbered and their odds of surviving are next to impossible, and the film makes no secret of their fear. As the Zulus first march upon the surrounding hills, the soldiers are forced to realize that they are not up against any savages, but a powerful military force (if perhaps one structured differently from theirs). The image of English supremacy can no longer be enforced, and it is simply a question of how not to die.

This adjustment in tone is reflected in the uniforms of the soldiers. When they are first seen the men at Rorke's Drift proudly display bright colors of red and white (a typical combination for English uniforms of the era). Their tunics are clean and their helmets are shining. As the battle progresses, the impression of their clothes begins to fade. The uniforms of Chard and Bromhead both begin to accumulate dust. Towards the end of the film it starts to become more common to see men wearing torn uniforms or only being partially dressed. In the cases of Chard and Hitch (David Kernan) their uniforms are stained with injuries sustained in battle. Others, like Corporal Allen (Glynn Edwards), lose any identification of their national background entirely.

Hitch and Allen are an especially notable case, as they perform a task which proves essential to keeping the soldiers going: handing out ammunition. However, both have been injured and display it very clearly. Allen loses his tunic and instead spends the rest of the film wearing nothing more than medical bandages over his chest (while being unable to use one arm). Hitch meanwhile is shot in the leg and has to crawl. In other words, the one force giving the soldiers any chance of surviving is controlled by two wounded men who are clearly in pain as they struggle to drag the box of ammunition around, hardly fitting to the imperialistic image of the British Empire as unstoppable.

The final scene, set the morning after the battle, serves to complete the deconstruction. By this point, the British soldiers are faced with one last attack by the Zulus and just barely manage to hold them back. This final action is preceded by a confrontation between the British and the Zulu warriors during which the latter performs what is likely a war chant. Throughout the film, there has been talk of a choir within the regiment, and one of its most prominent members, Owen (Ivor Emmanuel) admits that they are talented.

This leads to a "battlefield singing contest" wherein the soldiers begin to sing their own war chant, a modified version of Men of Harlech. The two war chants are juxtaposed together and serve as counterparts to one another. This one moment is brief, but it shows that ultimately the soldiers are not so different from what they have prior to now viewed as savages. The Zulus are people too, and an intelligent civilization. Once again, it is Chard to orders the men to begin singing, and just has he has challenged Victorian attitudes toward class and gender, he is now finally putting the Zulus on the same level, acknowledging them not as savages but as a worthy opponent. It is only this final recognition of the Zulus as skilled warriors rather than dismissing them as incompetent savages (as was likely the mistake made by the men at Isandlwana) that allows any form of Victory to take place.

After this confrontation, the Zulus make one last charge but are repelled. It seems that the British soldiers have won, but upon seeing the massive pile of Zulu corpses in front of them, there is little satisfaction to be gained from this aparent victory. There is no glory to be found, only relief found in any of the soldiers making it out alive. Even that is not wholly worthwhile with the fact that there were numerous casualties sustained in the battle, even if it was less than would be expected from these particular circumstances. Bromhead, who began the film embracing the values of an upper-class Englishman, admits to feeling sick and ashamed. Chard also admits that he would not want to go through this experience again.

When the Zulus finally return, it is a moment that at first seems completely hopeless. For the soldiers, it is remarkable that they have managed to keep going as long as they have and put up any kind of resistance against impossible odds. Much of the camp is in ruins with only a smoldering wreck left from the hospital. Most of the soldiers that remain are too tired or injured and in no condition to keep fighting. Bromhead, subverting any imperialistic ideology, is ready to accept his demise at the hands of the Zulus. The only reason anyone is left in the end is because the Zulus decide to spare them (again, subverting the view of them as savages) considering them worthy opponents.

The montage sequence which ends Zulu concludes the idea through the use of irony. Richard Burton's narration returns to identify the participants of the Battle of Rorke's Drift who won the Victoria Cross. In any other film, this would have been seen as a great achievement. Perhaps there could have been a scene in which the soldiers are congratulated for their efforts and honorably receive the award to illustrate the significance of their accomplishments. It would be a grand moment, but the way it is presented in Zulu, these awards are anything but a great accomplishment. Instead, Burton's narration is played over shots displaying the immediate aftermath of the battle.

The narration is first heard over a shot of soldiers trying to bury the bodies of fallen Zulu warriors (of which there are many). Burton then begins to name the individual men who won the Victoria Cross, all of whom are stressed and tired. Schiess is still struggling to recover from the leg injury he had before the battle started. Of the five privates identified: Hitch, Hook, the two Joneses, and Williams; one is still wounded and the others are clearly tired, stressed, and could not care less whether they get any recognition for what happened here. The same can be said for Corporal Allen, who is clearly in pain from his injuries. It is likely that many of the wounded soldiers have suffered permanent damage (which was the case for the real-life Frederick Hitch), and those that have not would have a good chance of developing PTSD (a condition not recognized at the time).

Likewise, Surgeon James Henry Reynolds (Patrick McGee) also has his hands full as he is busy trying to look after the large number of injured men. As the only doctor present, Reynolds has to look after everyone himself, adding even more stress to his situation. When the name of James Langley Dalton is mentioned, he is shown placing a sheet over the face of a dead man. He may be alive and uninjured, but he seems more concerned about the people who have been lost over the previous day than what he personally may have contributed to this particular action. Bromhead is seen approaching a small cavalry division, but much like the others he seems to be more relieved to be alive than proud of his victory. In contrast to his entrance at the beginning, Bromhead approaches the men on foot, but barely seems to notice them. He is more interested in sharing affection toward their horses.

The final name that is mentioned is John Rouse Merriott Chard, the man responsible for devising the strategies that allowed them to hold as long as they did. Chard is far from proud of his victory, however. Unlike the others mentioned, he is seen alone, far from anyone else. He stands over the graveyard where the Zulus' bodies have been buried, and proceeds to plant a shield as a gravestone, presumably an act he views as a sign of respect. Much like Bromhead, there is no pride in his success. In fact, Chard seems to lack even the relief of making it through in one piece. He finishes the deconstruction of British Imperialism, by recognizing and visually acknowledging the Zulus as intelligent human beings and that the Empire he fought for is not all perfect.

In the end, Zulu could not be a more fitting title for this film. The focus may be on the British soldiers, and depict what at the time might have been considered a triumph by the English military, but underneath it is more about the Zulus. It is a film that exposes the darker side of British colonialism not as an unstoppable force bringing order to the world but a flawed system of government constructed on backwards thinking, hatred, and bigotry. It is only when these elements are finally recognized and cast out of society that any progress or hope can emerge.


  1. This sounds like a movie I want to watch. I'll come back and read this essay after I see it. :-)

    1. It is certainly a worthwhile experience, if only to see a young Michael Caine in his first starring role. You would not believe how long I have tried to introduce this classic to someone else, and I think realizing what I've written here I may have come to appreciate it even more.