While this blog is all about old films—and the bulk of my film-watching is old films—that doesn’t mean I don’t watch new films. I do; lots of them. But the odd thing is that invariably, new films that I watch end up having some connection (even if in a roundabout way) to an old film.
Last weekend, I watched two new films. One, of course, was the latest big release: The Dark Knight Rises. The other was the 2011 Michael Fassbender-starrer, Centurion. Both films reminded me of one old film, Zulu. Like The Dark Knight Rises, Zulu has Michael Caine in its cast (it was one of his first major film roles). And, like Centurion, Zulu too is about conquered versus conquerors.
Zulu is a British film (directed by Cy Endfield, who produced it along with Stanley Baker), about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. This battle, fought over the 22nd and 23rd of January, 1879, may not have made it into the realms of the legendary to the extent that the Battle of Balaklava has, or even Leonidas’s stand against Xerxes—but unfairly, perhaps. Because, at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, just over a hundred men of the 24th Foot Regiment were attacked by an army of 4,000 Zulu warriors.
What resulted was—instead of a wholesale massacre—a near-miracle. Not only did the 24th hold its post, the Battle of Rorke’s Drift set a record as being the event that earned its participants the largest number (eleven) of Victoria Crosses awarded at one time.
This is the story of that seemingly impossible battle.
The film begins on 22nd January, 1879. The Battle of Isandlwana has been fought that very morning between the Zulus and the British Army, at the mountain of Isandlwana. The Zulus have been victorious, and the tattered remnants of the British forces under Lord Chelmsford have been forced to retreat as best as they can. Behind them, the Zulus gather up the weapons of the fallen British.
Six miles from Isandlwana is the mission station of Rorke’s Drift. This is a small, fairly sleepy place dominated by a chapel, a tiny hospital adjacent to it, and an enclosure for the station’s cattle. The 24th Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine), holds the station.
The ‘mission’ and the chapel are within the ambit of a Swedish missionary, Mr Witt (Jack Hawkins). Mr Witt’s daughter Margareta (Ulla Jacobsson) has recently arrived at Rorke’s Drift and finds this all very strange and new.
In fact, it is through the interactions of Margareta, her father and his ‘parishioners’ (as he condescendingly refers to the Zulus) that we first see the aftermath of the Battle of Isandlwana. A vast mass wedding ceremony is being held at a Zulu village, where hundreds of warriors and girls are getting married. Presiding over this celebration is the Zulu chief Cetewayo (played by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the great-grandson of Cetewayo himself).
Margareta and her father are attending the celebrations, and Mr Witt has to occasionally answer Margareta’s questions—some of them rather embarrassing, because Margareta knows nothing of the Zulus, their cultural beliefs, and their traditions. Her father is more aware, but his awareness doesn’t stop him from being patronising towards the Zulus.
In the midst of this, a messenger arrives with news for Cetewayo—and suddenly, from a wedding party, the crowd changes to a war party. A bewildered Margareta turns to her father, and he manages to find out what has happened. The British have been defeated at Isandlwana, and Cetewayo and his warriors, intoxicated by this victory, have decided to attack the mission station at Rorke’s Drift.
…and, meanwhile, the scene shifts to Rorke’s Drift. The mission station is quiet. Lieutenant Bromhead, elegantly caped, not a hair out of place, and with fly whisk in hand, is out hunting in the hills around.
Unknown to him, another officer—a Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers (Stanley Baker, who also produced the film) —is also in the vicinity. Chard has been sent just that morning to build a bridge across the nearby Buffalo River, and is busy supervising the work.
Bromhead, on his way back to the station, runs into Chard, and the two immediately don’t hit it off.
Bromhead is the archetypal foppish upper class gentleman officer, all polite contempt for Chard, whom he addresses as “old boy,” throughout. Even when he asks, with not a trace of apparent anger on his face, “Who said you could use my men?” (since Chard has commandeered some men of the 24th to help in the construction of the bridge).
…while Chard is a practical, hard-headed, hands-on soldier (when Bromhead first sees him, Chard is in the river up to his waist, helping build the bridge). Chard obviously dislikes Bromhead as much as Bromhead dislikes him.
And, shortly after, Chard is alerted to the arrival of two men, riding swiftly towards the mission from the direction of the Isandlwana battlefield. Chard gathers his men and takes them back to the station, where they are met by the two arrivals. One of these is Adendorff (Gert Van Den Bergh) of the Natal Native Contingent. He’s been sent with orders for the 24th: to hold their ground.
This sparks off an argument between Bromhead and Chard, because while both are lieutenants, Chard has been in the army three months longer. Who will be in command?
But Chard is technically senior, and seems to know more about handling the threat that is looming. Bromhead gives in, though with ill grace.
… and Mr Witt breaks the awful news: that 4,000 Zulu warriors are headed to the station, to wipe it out. He scurries about, gathering up his belongings and asking Bromhead to have wagons prepared so that the men in the hospital can be evacuated. In Mr Witt’s mind there is no possible room for doubt: the 24th Regiment have to leave, and at once.
[Interesting bit of trivia: when the film was being made, a Zulu princess was the technical adviser. The diagram she drew on the sand to explain how the Zulus attacked, is the one that was used here].
Adendorff explains that the central section—the ‘head’ of the buffalo—attacks first, but it’s just a feint. The actual attack comes from the vast sweeping ‘horns’ that swing into action, pushing in on the enemy from either side.
There seems no possible chance. The British may be better trained and better armed (the Zulus fight mainly with their assagai spears, no match for the British bayonets), but the sheer inequality in the numbers—100 against 4,000—is mind-boggling.
But both Chard and Bromhead know that they have no option. They have to hold the post.
Fortunately, Chard and Bromhead have Colour Sergeant Bourne (Nigel Green, in a fabulous performance) as their main bulwark. Bourne is the sort of man who can as easily quote scripture to Witt…
…as he can shore up flagging spirits and keep his men going, even when there seems to be no possible hope of survival. He is a hard task master, he will tolerate no nonsense—and yet, he is as tough on himself as he is on his men. If the 24th Regiment are to come through this encounter alive, Bourne will have a big hand in it. And he begins at once, following Chard’s orders to build redoubts, deploy sentries, and set up whatever defences they can.
On the other hand, there is Witt. Witt, who is a pacifist (naturally, perhaps, considering he’s a priest) and who begins raving at the soldiers to not kill. He is also, it emerges, an alcoholic, who downs so much liquor in his panic that Chard is forced to have him locked up.
There are men like Private Hook (James Booth), a malingerer who’s in hospital with nothing worse than a boil. Hook scoffs at his colleagues-cum-fellow patients who agree to take up rifles and offer what support they can. To Hook, that’s stupidity. A useless waste of time.
How long will it be before Hook’s cynicism transfers itself to the others? Or before Witt’s repeated quoting of the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill! Thou shalt not kill!” interspersed with his warning that the odds are impossibly stacked against the Brits—take effect? How long will Chard and Bromhead’s tiny group of men hold out against their own growing fear of what comes?
I am a sucker for films based on real life. And I am a sucker for historicals—so the chances of me liking this film were pretty high to begin with. What made me love it was the fact that it wasn’t just one scene after another of a long-ago battle. It was well scripted, well-acted, well presented; and it transported me to a time and place like few other films have been able to do.
As would be apparent from the last sentence, just about everything. The scale of Zulu is massive (the number of Zulus, crowning the mountainside and stretching far into the horizon, in itself is very impressive); the direction, the scripting, the acting—all is excellent. Zulu, in fact, has been listed as one of the best British films ever made. But if I were to name what I liked best about Zulu, it would be:
(a) Nigel Green as Colour Sergeant Bourne. Bourne is a beautifully developed character, and Green’s acting is superb.
(b) The scripting. This is, by Western standards, a long film, clocking in at 138 minutes—but at no point did I find myself yawning and looking to see how much time was left. The story moves at just the right pace: slowly in the beginning, when we’re just getting to know the characters, and then, as the panic mounts, faster and faster.
The second half is all battle, but that too switches scenes: from Chard’s attempts to spread his meagre forces out as effectively as possible, to the hospital, where the patients are creating loopholes so that they can shoot too—to the makeshift hospital Surgeon Reynolds (Patrick Magee) sets up in the chapel, using the altar as an operating table…
The music, first. The background score is good, but what I really loved was the sound of those Zulu singers—and the Welsh voices (the 24th Regiment is depicted as being a Welsh regiment, with—of course, since the Welsh are renowned for their singing—a choir of its own).
Then, the silences. In a war film (in a lot of action films, actually), I’ve seen too many directors fall prey to the temptation to crowd each scene with lots of heart-pounding music. Thankfully, not here. Cy Endfield uses silences beautifully. For instance, the overwhelmingly still, eerie silence of the countryside when the 24th Regiment is waiting for the Zulus to attack. They know thousands of Zulus are coming, just minutes away, but it’s so quiet, it’s almost as if the land itself is holding its breath.
My initial viewing had spotted what I thought was a flaw: the Witt character, who seemed to be scripted in a somewhat clichéd way. A hypocritical missionary who preaches pacifism, but mainly as a means to cover his own lack of courage?
But I wouldn’t stand by that initial opinion of mine, either. After all, is lack of courage—especially in a man not a soldier, not required to obey orders to stay and fight—a fault? It’s human to be terrified when you’re facing death. And depicting that terror is not bad scripting; it’s just scripting life the way it is.
Yes, the peace-loving, anti-imperialist side of me, on first watching Zulu, had whispered to me: “You mustn’t like this film. It’s about bloodshed, about the British colonisation of Africa.”
True, it is. And it is.
But it is also a film that ultimately (and I mean ultimately—watch the last couple of scenes) does not preach war; quite the opposite. And while it is about the story of imperialism, it is also, after all, about history. And about a historical event that makes for a damn good story.
Watch. If you at all like historical films, this is one you mustn’t miss.
Little bit of trivia:
Thanks to the apartheid laws in place at the time Zulu was made, Cy Endfield and Stanley Baker were not allowed to pay the Zulu extras the same amount of money they paid the white extras. So the producers got around it by (in addition to the pay) gifting the Zulus all the cattle that were shown in the film (which, considering the value of cattle in Africa, appears to have made up in good part for what the Zulu actors would have otherwise lost out).