This is Help! We are Surrounded week. Zulu is currently available on instant Netflix.
WATCH: Zulu (1964) – NR – Not rated.
“Based on a real-life battle, Zulu follows a group of British soldiers (led by Michael Caine, in his first starring role) stationed in South Africa who must defend their tiny outpost against an attack by an overwhelming force of Zulu warriors. Outnumbered 40 to 1, the stoic British soldiers are still ready to fight to the finish. Richard Burton narrates this epic war film shot on location in Natal.”
“The army does not like more than one disaster in a day.” – “Looks bad in the newspapers and upsets civilians at their breakfast.”
“If 1200 people could not hold a defensive position this morning, what chance have we with a hundred?”
Okay I have written before of my hatred for the phrase “Inspired by a true story” but actually telling a true story can be riveting. Zulu is a prime example about an incident that is tailor-made for a movie.
Zulu opens with a wonderful narration. Richard Burton (who does not appear in the film) reading a dispatch account of the massacre at Isandhlwana where the main British force was almost completely wiped out. The film then segues to the camp of Cetewayo, chieftain of the Zulus, leading a mass marriage ceremony.
A father and daughter missionary couple (Jack Hawkins and Ulla Jacobsson) observing the ceremony flee the kraal when word of the massacre arrives and that the next target is Rorkes Drift, the sparsely populated aid station. This allows us a glimpse at Zulu life before we settle in to the main portion of the story, the incredible defense of Rorke’s Drift.
Cy Endfield directed, co-wrote and co-produced this epic but this was as much Stanley Bakers film as Endfields. Stanley Baker produced and starred in Zulu as well as obtaining the financing for it. He also maintained a lot of creative control throughout.
Baker plays Lt. John Chard, the commanding officer and does so brilliantly. This is probably his best role. Stanley Baker did a great job of playing rough and tumble characters with his rather severe looks. In what was perhaps a teeny tiny error, he turned down the part of James Bond in Dr. No though his grit and no-nonsense attitude would have worked well as witnessed by Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.
Michael Caine puts in an incredible performance as the second-in-command Lt. Gonville Bromhead. Zulu is often mentioned as the debut of Michael Caine but he had been in bit parts in many films before this – this is just his first big role. After Zulu and Alfie (1966), he rocketed to stardom and to this day, at age 77, still puts in brilliant performances (Harry Brown) and is a favorite of director Christopher Nolan.
While Caine and Baker put in career-worthy performances in Zulu, they are blown away by Nigel Green as Colour-Sergeant Bourne. After Zulu and his role as Hercules in Jason and the Argonauts, Green got much better, often quite juicy roles. Ironically Green was born in South Africa.
The score by John Barry is very rousing, quite epic in scope. There are also actual Zulu chants featured on the soundtrack.
The details in Zulu are amazing. Most of the more than 700 Zulu extras were descendants of those in the original battle. Although it seems cliche now, Baker had to show them a Gene Autry film to explain what a movie was.
Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Chief of the Zulus played Cetewayo, an ancestor of his. A princess and historian of the Zulu tribe drew the battle in the sand – this sequence is used in the film with Ardendorff drawing the formation.
Zulu was filmed in Royal Natal National Park.
Zulu and Apartheid: Because Baker was prevented from paying the Zulus as much as whites, he gifted the Zulu tribe with all the animals that had been purchased for the film (horses and cattle). When Baker passed away in 1976, Chief Buthelezi sent flowers with a note naming Baker as “the most decent white man I have ever met”.
I highly recommend Zulu as a wonderful siege film that does not demonize the other side. If you want to see more on the Zulu wars, Zulu Dawn details the massacre at Isandhlwana and stars Bob Hoskins, Peter Otoole, and Burt Lancaster.
Shaka Zulu is an excellent miniseries about the rise of the Zulu nation. This is not to be confused with Shaka Zulu: The Last Great Warrior which stars David Hasselhof. I am not dissing the Hof – I just have not seen The Last Great Warrior.
If you have the time to read books, The Washing of the Spears is a fascinating account of the Zulu wars.
People Watch: Look for veteran genre actor Patrick Magee as Surgeon Reynolds. He appears in The Skull, The Masque of the Red Death, Dementia 13, A Clockwork Orange, Asylum and Tales from the Crypt.