‘Zulu’ at 60

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the release of one of the most iconic British films, Zulu. The film deals with events in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, principally the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in which 150 British soldiers faced off against 4,000 Zulus and won. 

Last year, Britain´s Daily Mail newspaper reported that Zulu, along with many other works, had been flagged by the government’s “Prevent” counterterrorism strategy as a “key text” for “white nationalists/supremacists.” Like much else in traditional Western culture, films that portray masculine heroism are anathema to our rulers. But before discussing any political ramifications of the film, it is right to discuss the film itself, its plot, characters, and much else.

Zulu begins with a shot of a letter from the British commander in South Africa, Lord Chelmsford, to the Secretary of State for War informing him of the slaughter of 1,500 British troops by the Zulus at Isandlwana. We then cut to the battlefield strewn with bodies of red-coated soldiers and burning wagons. A group of Zulus walks through the carnage and one of them triumphantly lifts a British rifle in the air, after which the film’s title blasts onto the screen.

We then move to a Zulu kraal (homestead), where a mass marriage ceremony is taking place. Zulu men and women dance with spears. Observing this spectacle and seated next to the Zulu king, Cetewayo, are a Swedish Christian missionary, Reverend Witt (Jack Hawkins) and his daughter Margareta (Ulla Jacobson). In this scene we become aware of the massive contrast and clash of cultures between the Europeans and the Zulus. As the pastor looks on somewhat indulgently, Margareta begins to question why young Zulu women are being married off to much older men. “Splendid but horrible,” is how Margareta describes the ceremony.

The camera effectively cuts between the almost ecstatic and near-naked dancing bodies of the Zulus, and then zeros in with a close-up of Margareta’s increasingly horrified face. This scene is broken by the arrival of a Zulu messenger announcing that war has begun with the British and that the Zulus will next be attacking the Witt’s mission at Rorke’s Drift because there are British soldiers stationed there. The Witts are forced to depart quickly.

The rest of the film takes place at Rorke’s Drift itself, where the Royal Engineers led by Lt. John Chard (Stanley Baker) are attempting to build a bridge. Chard is presently joined by Lt. Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine). There is some dispute between the two men over who has seniority. There is also a class conflict, with Bromhead portrayed as an arrogant, upper-class snob while Chard is clearly from a lower social background. News arrives that thousands of Zulus are planning to attack. Since the British have only 150 men, Chard orders that the sick men in the hospital must be given guns to fight. The Witts, who have arrived with the intention of evacuating the sick, object. Reverend Witt, a pacifist, attempts to get the soldiers to lay down their guns but he and his daughter are subsequently evacuated. In the meantime, a group of South African cavalry has refused to help the British and the native African troops have fled, leaving the British alone. This is followed by a powerful long shot of the small group of British soldiers now completely alone, uncertain of their fate.

Finally, the Zulus arrive and proceed to attack. The battle, which consumes the rest of the film, goes on for a day and a night with multiple Zulu attacks, including on the British hospital, which is burned to the ground. Eventually the British triumph, the Zulus retreat and the defenders receive Victoria Crosses, the highest British military honor..

Zulu is filled with memorable scenes. Consider the first appearance of thousands of Zulus lining the vast hill above Rorke’s Drift—their slow advance, often almost blending into the African bush. They stop and bang their shields, not caring that the British are taking out dozens of them and finally going in for the attack. The Zulus then charge the British lines, and in fierce hand-to-hand combat Zulu spears confront British bayonets, as two men traverse the British lines with a large box of bullets to resupply the soldiers. The Swiss corporal Ferdinand Schiess limping on a bandaged leg lays into the Zulus with his crutch in one hand and a bayonet in the other.

Particularly memorable is the Zulu attack on the hospital with British soldiers and Zulus fighting on the rooftop, the sick soldiers using their bunk beds to block the door as the Zulu spears gradually penetrate it, and the soldiers escaping by digging through the wall with their bayonets and trying desperately to escape the burning building. The Welsh soldiers respond to the Zulu war songs by singing “Men of Harlech,” a famous Welsh military song. These scenes are greatly enhanced by John Barry’s music, perhaps the best of his many film scores. They rank among the most memorable scenes in any war film. 

The characters in Zulu strike one as true to life, even if historical liberties have been taken with some of them. The film focuses almost exclusively on the soldiers. There is no romance in this film and only one female character. Chard is a man of duty, determined to defend his post at all costs. He is something of a harsh commander but he gets the job done. His fellow commander, Bromhead), is a stark contrast. He is snobbish, arrogant, and apparently living a rather relaxed life. We first see him out leopard-hunting with native servants attired in an extravagant cloak. Their clashes over seniority and class-consciousness may not, in fact, be historically accurate but they make for good drama. Chard comments of Bromhead that he had probably been given a commission “before he learned to shave.” Nonetheless, Bromhead’s arrogance diminishes as the film goes on and he ultimately distinguishes himself in battle, winning the Victoria Cross. Michael Caine, from a working-class South London background, is cast against type and gives what is still perhaps his greatest performance. 

Another character who undergoes a transformation in the course of the film is Private Hook (James Booth). Hook is a petty crook and a man who has feigned illness in order to escape work. His commanding officer calls him “a thief, a coward, and an insubordinate barrack-room lawyer.” By the end of the film however, Hook has become a hero. When the Zulus attack the hospital Hook bravely puts his life at risk to save the other men and even vainly attempts to rescue his hated commanding officer, being the last to leave the burning building. It ought to be noted that real Hook was a model soldier and teetotaller. His daughters were so offended by his depiction as a thief that they walked out of the film´s premiere. 

Another memorable soldier is Colour-Sergeant Bourne (Nigel Green), a stoic duty-bound officer with muttonchops. Bourne´s sense of duty is encapsulated in one scene when a nervous young soldier on seeing the crowds of Zulus massing on the hill asks “Why us?” In answer to this Bourne answers, “Because we are here, lad, and nobody else. Just us.” After the battle, Bourne dutifully takes the register of the troops, pausing unemotionally to take note when a soldier fails to reply. 

Something ought to be said about the Zulus themselves. Though we do not know them as individuals, they are clearly extremely brave people. They are a warrior culture with no apparent fear of death. At the start of the battle, they stand in front of the British banging their spears on their shields but not advancing, apparently impervious to the fact that huge numbers of them are being mown down. The purpose of this is to count the British guns and test their firing power. Following their defeat, the Zulus assemble on the hill above Rorke’s Drift to salute the bravery of the British. This is a film about honorable warriors who respect one another. King Cetewayo was played by Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Cetewayo´s great-grandson, who considered the film a fitting tribute to his people.

The characters of Reverend Witt and his daughter, Margareta, are those who most closely resemble modern liberals. They are pious, well-intentioned and undoubtedly sincere in their beliefs but out of touch with reality. We can already see in these Victorian missionaries something of the fetishization of non-European cultures now so prevalent in the modern West. Reverend Witt describes the Zulus as his “parishioners” but the reality is that they have nothing in common with him. They are a warrior people. He is a utopian pacifist wedded to abstract notions of brotherly love that have no application in this war zone. Witt ultimately acts in a subversive and treacherous manner, convincing  the native African soldiers assisting the British to desert and others to waver and lose heart. His daughter, Margareta, is equally ill-suited to the harsh environment. She is a woman completely out of place in a man’s world. Nonetheless, one can understand the Witts’ objections to making sick men fight and can sympathize with their dismay as their chapel is transformed into a military hospital. 

The cinematography, scenery and soundtrack are all outstanding. Produced on a budget of less than $2 million, Zulu is a stunning example of what a filmmaker can achieve with limited resources.

That Zulu has now been identified as a film to inspire the “far-right” is interesting, since those who made the film were almost entirely on the left. The American director Cy Endfield was a Communist who had emigrated to Britain after being blacklisted in Hollywood. An additional feature included on the Zulu DVD is a discussion of the film by Robert Porter, the second unit director, with film historian Sheldon Hall. Here Porter describes how the filmmakers envisioned the film politically. Porter states that, like All Quiet on the Western Front, the film aimed to show the futility of war. Filming in South Africa at the height of the apartheid era, Porter stated that:

We wanted to make a film about the black and white situation. It’s nonsense and that war is obscene and a waste of energy and time.

Porter further stated of those who made the film:

They were very left-wing, Labour…Cy was a Communist…So the social aspect of the picture meant a lot to them. 

Sheldon Hall described the film as expressing “a 1960s point of view on a Victorian adventure.” Occasionally, the 1960s leftism does come through with Bromhead saying after the battle that he feels “ashamed,” an unlikely sentiment from a Victorian soldier. 

More recently the guardians of political correctness and wokery have denounced the film as “far-right,” “racist,” and “imperialist.” If we are to trust Porter’s words, then the intentions of the filmmakers were the opposite. But whatever their intentions, the film was made in the pre-woke age of the early 1960s when such leftist content in films was less obvious or blatant. 

In a sense, however, the modern woke denouncers of the film are correct. Zulu is a film in which all the protagonists are white men, committed to doing their duty, showing immense bravery and courage in the face of an onslaught by primitive black men. To show such things is unacceptable to the 21st century left who are monolithically anti-Western and anti-white.

That stories like the one told in Zulu continue to be popular tells us something about the enduring appeal of stories about European heroism in far off, exotic lands. The fact that the story Zulu tells happens to be true, makes it even more appealing. In the year 2024, a film like Zulu stands out as an outstanding recreation of a heroic and adventurous past.

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