Zulu: Michael Caine and Stanley Baker stars in this most beloved of British war epics that celebrates valor but does not become a celebration of imperialism

Zulu(1964), directed by Cy Endfield and starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine in lead roles, is an epic war film depicting the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British Army and the Zulu impi in January 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War.

“In the hundred years since the Victoria Cross was created for valor and extreme courage beyond that normally expected of a British soldier in the face of the enemy, only 1,344 have been awarded, 11 of these were won by the defenders of the mission station at Rorke’s Drift, Natal, January 22nd to the 23rd 1879”

Narrated by Richard Burton

The battle of Rorke’s drift, in which a company of the British Army’s 24th Regiment of Foot, made up of approximately 150 soldiers, fended off 4000 Zulu warriors in a 12 hr. long continuous battle, is the kind of extraordinary real-life story of courage, determination, sacrifice and military tact that, at first glance, deserves all our attention and admiration, but which, on closer examination ,creates mixed feelings in anybody who isn’t British or Zulu. For one, it’s the classic underdog story, where a ‘few’ take on the collective might of so ‘many’ and emerge triumphant; but things become a little complex when we realize that: a) the ‘few’ represented in the film is actually a company of the most organized, technologically advanced fighting force of the most powerful nation in the world at the time; and b) the fact that these ‘few’ had no business being there in the first place, and what they were doing was mainly advancing Britain’s imperialist agenda for the invasion of Zululand, and ultimately the conquest of Africa- in which Britain would eventually succeed. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was the second direct engagement between British forces in South Africa and the Zulus. The day before this event took place, a much larger force of British troops, with South African and native troops and several hundred civilians, was attacked by 20,000 Zulus and soundly defeated in the Battle of Isandlwana. Of the 1,800 men in the British force, some 1,300 were killed. That included most of the Europeans, 400 of a Natal Native contingent and some 240 African auxiliaries. Historians estimate that the Zulus lost 1,000 to 2,000 men. But the British army’s victory at Rorke’s Drift set the foundation for eventually pacifying Africa for the European settles- who would go on to form their own system of governance and force their culture on the angry natives. So how does one go about making a movie out of this subject matter, which, on a micro level, is as stirring and emotionally walloping ‘made for the movies’ a tale as there ever been, but is pretty problematic and irksome on a macro level; if it is even possible to make a movie that would satisfy on both these levels, especially if it’s an all-British cast and crew behind such a project?. Well the answer, as provided in the 1964 film “Zulu”, directed by Cy Endfield and based on this Rorke’s Drift battle, is a resounding “Yes”. Agreed, that the film narrates the Battle of Rorke’s Drift from the British point of view; but what Endfield and film’s co-producer & lead actor Stanley baker has done is to make a film that concentrates totally on the soldiers fighting this battle on both sides- to delve deeply into the minutiae of their battle strategies, their emotional responses, their everyday life; and literally ignoring (or sometimes wryly commenting about) the bigger picture that’s driving these events. The film takes on more of the dimensions of an epic survival thriller; winning the battle is of paramount importance to the survival for both sides: while the Zulus are fighting to prevent an invasion of their native land; the ordinary British soldier, faraway from his native land, unaware of, or unconcerned with, the larger political forces driving him, finds himself lost in an alien, hostile territory. His only means of survival depends upon fighting off the vast Zulu army.

For what’s expected to be a rousing war film, “Zulu” begins on a most pessimistic note: scenes depicting the aftermath of the “Battle of Isandlwana”, where Zulus routed a much superior British army. As the camera sweeps through the battlefield- with burning wagons and corpses strewed all over, a Zulu warrior strides in, picks up a rifle and raises it high, as a sign of victory. So, the film begins with the worst defeat the British Army had suffered against an indigenous enemy- equipped with vastly inferior military technology. The film then cuts to Zulu King, Cetewayo’s Krall, where a mass marriage ceremony is taking place. The ceremony is witnessed by missionary Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins) and his daughter (Ulla Jacobsson)- who are there to talk peace with the Zulu King. The sequence goes on for about 7 minutes, showing each and every stage of the ceremony, with Witt commenting about the greatness of Zulu culture and the importance of each ritual for the benefit of his sexually inexperienced daughter- who is getting increasingly uncomfortable with the proceedings. Soon, news arrives of Zulus victory at Isandlwana; and an overjoyed King Cetewayo decides that the their next mission is to capture the mission-station at Rorke’s Drift. Though the missionary station of Rorke’s Drift in Natal is used as a supply depot and hospital for British forces, the station belongs to Witt; and realizing that his mission is in danger of being wiped out by Zulus, Witt hurries back with his daughter. The film spends it opening 10 minutes exclusively with the Zulus- giving the audience a clear insight into this great civilization. This is important to set the context for the movie (and the battle) that’s about to unfold, because from now on the film will more or less deal with British experience, with Zulus being visible only as a kind of force of nature that keeps descending on the hapless Brits from the horizon.

At Rorke’s Drift, there’s a small tug of war going on between Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker) and Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine) as to who will command the small British detachment. Chard has never seen military action- he belongs to the British Royal Engineers, and is sent to built a bridge across the Buffalo River, but he assumes command of the detachment, as he has seniority over Bromhead- who’s of aristocratic birth and a professional soldier. Bromhead does not like it, and neither does the soldiers, but they go along with it. They’re soon joined by Lieutenant Gert Adendorff(Gert van den Bergh), an Afrikaner officer serving with the Natal Native Contingent and a survivor of the battle at Isandlwana, with the news that Four-thousand Zulus are on their way to Rorke’s Drift. Since the British has about 36 wounded in the hospital, they realize that they cannot outrun the Zulus; only chance of survival is to battle it out, but the question is how?. Bromhead, ever the soldier, decides on an offensive strategy- to lead the army into the mountains and cutoff the Zulu at the pass, but Chard overturns it with his own defensive strategy- deciding to make a stand right there, by barricading themselves with wagons, sacks of mealie, and crates of ship’s biscuit. A contingent of Boer horsemen arrives. They advise Chard that defending the station is hopeless. They retreat in haste, despite Chard’s desperate pleas for them to stay. Witt arrives with his daughter as well, and he does his best to put the fear of god into the soldiers with his passionate sermons. It has its effect, as the terrified Natal Native Contingent desert the station. Chard has no the option, but to to dismiss Witt and his daughter from Rorke’s Drift. And just as Chard and his men has finished barricading the place, the Zulus starts arriving in hordes.

The final hour of this 2 hrs. and 18 minutes movie is fully dedicated to the decisive battle between the Zulus and the Brits. We get to see that Zulus are an advanced tribe when it comes to military tactics- they attack in a ‘bull’ formation, with soldiers arranged in the form of the head of a bull, which allows them to quickly envelope and destroy their foe. Apart from their traditional weapon of spear and shield, Zulus are now also armed with rifles that they have taken from the battlefield of Isandlwana , and even though they lack accuracy with the new weapon, they still manages to inflict damage to the British army. The battle goes on for about 12 hrs.; Throughout the day and night, wave after wave of Zulu attackers are repelled. Chard gets very nearly killed in an ambush by Zulus; injured and ashamed, Chard wants to hand over command to Bromhead, but Bromhead assures him that they need him and he should continue in command. The Zulus succeed in setting fire to the hospital, leading to intense fighting between British patients and Zulu warriors as the former try to escape the flames. Private Henry Hook (James Booth)- a lazy, malingering officer, springs into action to take charge and leads the patients to safety. The final attack comes at dawn, the next morning, when, first, the Zulus attempt to intimidate the foe with loud war chants (British respond by singing the Welsh song “Men of Harlech”), and then mount an all-out assault to capture the post, but by then, Chard had recovered and made a new strategy to defend the station: using his ingenuity as an engineer, he has a ‘redoubt’ created with mealie bags into which he lures the Zulu warriors. Unknown to Zulus, two ranks of soldiers are hidden inside the redoubt, and with the fighting soldiers too retreating into the redoubt, the three ranks of soldiers becomes a formidable force. They fire volley after volley of bullets, inflicting heavy casualties on the Zulus. Not wanting to suffer anymore losses, the Zulus retreat; and they are not to be seen for another three hours. Believing that the worst is over, Chard and Bromhead survey the battlefield strewn with corpses of Zulus. Both admit to feeling a little sick and ashamed of the carnage and the needless loss of lives. But then they watch with horror as the Zulu army regroup on the hills; fearing another impending attack that would most definitely wipe them out, Chard and the rest are surprised to see the Zulu salute them for their valor and then retreat for good. The film ends, as it begins, with a narration by Richard Burton, this time listing the eleven defenders who received the Victoria Cross for the defense of Rorke’s Drift, the most awarded to a regiment in a single action up to that time.

“Zulu” epitomizes the classy, epic-style filmmaking of the late 1950s and early 1960s, where films were shot on ultra widescreen processes- here Technirama 70- and meant to be shown first as Roadshow presentations in grand theaters before it went into general release. One of the great pleasure of watching these films is luxuriating in the craft of filmmaking and old-fashioned storytelling- where enough time is given for the plot and the characters to develop. This film follows the three-act structure diligently: the first twenty minutes sets up the plot with clarity and economy- we get a good understanding of the two sides about to engage in a valiant and violent battle; the second act is the slow and tense buildup to the battle- we see the British officers strategizing, the panic and the fear engulfing the ordinary soldiers, as the Zulus start surrounding them on the hills; and the final act is given over completely to the battle- the battle sequences are some of the most realistically, intricately and coherently choreographed war sequences ever put on screen. Endfield, his cinematographer, Stephen Dade, Editor, John Jympson, and the stunt coordinators should be given a special award for the picturisation of the battle scenes alone- for a scene that last a full hour, and includes fighting that’s taking place simultaneously at so many places: in open grounds, in the hills, inside the hospital, rooftop of the thatched buildings; and on so many levels: fighting with pistols, rifles, hand- to-hand combat with bayonets & spears etc., the filmmakers never lose sight of continuity or clarity in geography or action. Every bit of action staged is crystal clear as to where and how it’s taking place and how it progresses at each step. So without characters having to explain much, we get a very good idea as to what’s going on at all times. Dade’s lensing is particularly brilliant, not just in capturing those breathtaking African Vistas in all its color, foreboding splendor and majestic isolation, but especially for those sweeping crane shots that enhances the drama and gives the film a truly epic feel- my favorite shot from the film is at the end of the final battle in which the camera sweeps through a pile of Zulu corpses and ends up on the nervous, smoke-smeared faces of Caine and Baker surrounded by soldiers wielding rifles with bayonets; it’s a terrific shot encompassing in one grand sweep the themes of the film: the shameful and pitiful destruction of human lives (or a great civilization) and the bravery of solders in the face of insurmountable odds that engineers it.

As the film takes us through the strategies and maneuvers of the British army in action, we realize why the British Empire became the unbeatable, dominant world power of its time- managing to create an empire in which the sun never set. British army was undoubtedly the most organized and disciplined army in the world at the time. Of course, one huge advantages they always had was that they were going up against quite primitive armies with even more primitive weapons, which lacked their unity and organization. But the drill and the discipline inculcated in them, of staying smart, obeying orders and keeping in line was also a big factor, along with their superior technology, as this film proves. In set piece after action set piece, this point is driven home, as we see the British soldiers escaping, retaliating and overcoming the enemy from near impossible situations. Zulus are not found lacking in either valor or military tactics; they are not portrayed as savages, but a very brave and advanced culture with specific battle strategies and organization- Zulus uses (or sacrifices) their weak soldiers to test the mettle of their enemies and find their weakness; they do not flinch from sending in wave after wave of soldier, even as they’re ruthlessly cut down by the enemy rifles; but in the end, it’s no match for the technological and organizational superiority of the British. Still, they could have won in the end, if they had regrouped one last time and attacked from all sides, but instead they nobly salute their foe’s bravery and walk away- (in reality this did not happen, and the Zulus were forced to turn away because a British relief column arrived from the south).

It’s clear that the filmmakers did not intend this film to be an apologia for imperialism, but it’s no celebration of it either- it rejects any form of jingoism and presents the battle as bloody, painful, exhausting, and something akin to murder. The most remarkable feature of the film, and this is something very difficult to achieve for a war film or an anti-war film, is that it successfully manages to condemn war without alienating the audience- there are no “Saving Private Ryan” style explicit scenes of blood and guts hanging out, obviously the censorship laws of the time wouldn’t have permitted it anyway, no big speeches on pacifism or anything. It’s done very classily and subtly. It ensures that the film remains, first foremost, a thrilling and even rousing piece of entertainment- which undoubtedly helped its box office prospects. Director, Cy Endfield- an American, who was blacklisted during HUAC years and fled to England to restart his career- knows one or two things about being an underdog in the face of overwhelming odds; while his left-leaning politics makes it sure that the native peoples get a fair shake. This makes him the perfect director for this film. Throughout the film, he emphasizes the physical exhaustion of nonstop killing, and the effect it has on men. And as i mentioned in the beginning, by avoiding any explanation about the racial nature of the conflict, and disengaging it from politics and history, he makes sure that the event is judged on its own merits. I particularly liked the way he blocked the actors in a frame, especially Baker’s Chard and Cain’s Bromhead- in the initial portions each is seen moving in front of the other in the middle of conversations or talking with other soldiers- emphasizing their power struggle; The scene of their first meeting itself sets the stage for their conflict and visually addresses their contrast: Chard, the Engineer Officer, in his shirt-sleeves, is up to his waist in water; Bromhead, the aristocrat, in his helmet and fine cloak, is on horseback, having just returned from hunting. However, as the battle progresses, this rivalry is forgotten as their prime concern is survival. As the final conflict inside the redoubt succeeds, we see Chard towering over, not only Bromhead, but the entire regiment. By the end of the film, as they stand together in the burnt-out ruins of the hospital, they are framed as equals. Endfield ends the film with Chard hoisting a Zulu shield on the ground in front of the corpses of the Zulus who died in the battle. Thus, a film that began with a Zulu victory ends with a British officer giving the Zulus the deserved respect in their defeat. You cannot get a better bookend for a film made with such noble intentions.

Enfield’s other great achievement might be creating such a handsome looking film out of such meagre resources. One has to remember that the film was made on a very tight budget- less than $2 million. That’s one-seventh the budget of David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia“, who’s success definitely inspired the production of this film. The film also didn’t have the sweep or the scale of those great David Lean epics- being a film that takes place on one single location over a course of just two days, but it definitely has the scope- thanks mainly to the fact that the filmmakers made it sure that every Penny is right up there on the screen. This was a ‘Labor of Love’ for Welsh actor Stanley Baker, who turned producer for this film. He definitely gets a role of a lifetime, and gives a solid performance to boot. He had previously made the terrific “Hell Drivers” with Endfield, and was more known to the international film audience for his portrayal of ‘Butcher’ Brown in the evergreen WWII Adventure “Guns of Navarone“. Baker was instrumental in getting his friend, Ricard Burton, to do the narration. Michael Caine – who had been acting in bit parts close to a decade- gets an “Introducing” credit- pretty much like Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence”. The film shot Caine to international stardom, and he would go on to become one of the most beloved of British actors. Caine toned down his cockney accent to play an aristocrat, and he plays Bromhead as a Blonde, effete fop- a perfect ‘yin’ to the butch and macho Baker’s ‘Yang’. The film boasts a fine group of supporting actors like Nigel Green, James Booth and Jack Hawkins. Apart from the great technicians already mentioned, a big shout out also goes to the great Music composer John Barry, who’s score- as good as it is throughout the film- is particularly effective in the battle scenes. It forms a restless, swirling, and sometimes majestic backdrop to what is happening on screen. Barry took authentic Zulu songs and chants and added the dramatic score around them to make an original and haunting theme which still ranks as one of his greatest.


2 thoughts on “Zulu: Michael Caine and Stanley Baker stars in this most beloved of British war epics that celebrates valor but does not become a celebration of imperialism

  1. An interesting observation I’ve had while watching this film (initially saw it when it first premiered about 200 years ago!) and now sharing with my students in a class on British Imperialism, is its general lack of blood. Although there is some slight use of blood, the film is essentially bloodless. Perhaps a genial symptom of the times. The film is full an intimate episodic scenes of various characters and their interactions. I did find Jack Hawkins character distracting and overbearing, but perhaps that was the point. Another fine essay! Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome and thanks. Yes Hawkins was distracting. But I think the character was necessary. Also his dialogue delivery had begun to deteriorate on account of throat cancer- to which he would soon loose his voice


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