21 July 2009

Movie Review: “Z” is for Zulu

I realized that I haven’t reviewed a movie that starts with the letter “Z” yet. Every movie reviewer has to have at least one Z-movie. So here’s mine. And no, I never at any point considered reviewing Zardoz.

Zulu (1964)
Directed by Cy Endfield. Starring Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson, James Booth, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee.

The year 1964 was a good one for England’s film biz. At least four movies from the U.K. that year have gone on to eternal cinematic fame (and three to the BFI Top British Films List): Goldfinger (#70), A Hard Day’s Night (#88), Dr. Strangelove (a U.S. co-production, otherwise BFI might have made it #1), and Zulu (#31). While the first three are forward-looking films, creating “The New Look” and still imitated endlessly today, Zulu belongs to that special group of movies “that they just don’t make anymore.” Because, in today’s political climate, you simply could not make a film where the colonial power is the hero.

But Zulu stands up incredibly well today, with the exception of its pacing, despite the “British Empire vs. Justifiably Angry Natives” theme that would otherwise doom it to the subject of graduate thesis papers. The reasons for this are that Zulu manages to avoid overt racism or colonial preachiness, instead focusing on people making a last stand just to stay alive; and that it’s really, really, really good. It not only influenced later filmmakers in the war genre, but also sparked “isolated last stand” movies like Night of the Living Dead and Assault on Precinct 13.

Zulu is the tale of one of the British Empire’s most famous military engagements, the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. It came in the wake of one of its greatest military disasters, the Battle of Isandlwana. Narrator Richard Burton opens the film with a description of this fiasco, where thirteen hundred British soldiers died in an engagement with Zulu warriors of King Cetshwayo on 22 January 1879. This was the opening battle of the Anglo-Zulu War. The effect of this defeat on British self-image must have been crushing at the time. It was the worst the Empire ever fared against a native force; the most powerful military machinery the world had ever seen had gotten wiped out by people armed with spears and oxhide shields.

The celebration of 139 soldiers, some of them Royal Engineers working on building a bridge, who withstood a following Zulu attack at the Swedish mission station at Rorke’s Drift is therefore a palliative for the catastrophic loss at Isandlwana. A heroic stand and success, but almost a psychological necessity for the British Empire.

Regardless of the tactical importance or the true history of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, it sure makes for a great story about men trapped in an apparently hopeless battle and struggling through it against unbelievable odds (139 vs. 4,000). Zulu isn’t strictly historically accurate, but I don’t care much that it isn’t. Its portrayal of men in combat, and the even-handed treatment of the Zulus, rings true to the voice of the storyteller.

Part of the reason that Zulu seems to have scant interest in any sort of colonial imperative can be attributed to director and co-writer Cy Endfield. Endfield wasn’t British but American, and a victim of the blacklist of the ‘50s. Endfield directed two other classic films, The Underworld Story and the Ray Harryhausen science-fiction adventure Mysterious Island. Here he helms with an eye toward action, landscape, and the determination of the men at Rorke’s drift; all shrewd choices since it moves the film out of the Victorian political sphere, a requirement for it to work at all.

Endfield also brings a very American genre with him: the Western. You might call Zulu a “British Imperial Western,” with John Ford’s Cavalry swapped for Redcoats, and the Indians for Zulu warriors. I would wager that Endfield took some inspiration from Ford’s classic Fort Apache. The landscape photography also invokes the American West at many points; the land around Rorke’s Drift, with towering buttes and an endless sky, looks like a greener version of the American Southwest.

Zulu’s big claim to fame for Trivial Pursuit players is that it’s the first major role for Maurice Micklewhite Jr., acting under his stage name of Michael Caine. Although the credits read “Introducing Michael Caine,” the actor had already appeared in a handful of other British film in small parts, often without credit. Although Endfield cast Caine hastily, the actor pulled in accolades and next landed a starring role in The Ipcress File, beginning his march toward winning multiple golden statues at various awards ceremonies. And appearing in Jaws: The Revenge and The Swarm, but we all make mistakes, don’t we?

The production of the film was obviously geared toward the epically astounding. Shot in 70 mm and mostly on location in South Africa, Zulu was trying to leave behind the stage-bound appearance of earlier films set in Africa, where a combination of grainy stock-footage and interior jungle sets about ten feet by ten feet square required plenty of audience suspension of disbelief. But Zulu is huge. The landscape captured by the cinematographer across the celluloid canvas is sometimes jaw-dropping in its beauty, even on a TV screen. The movie never skimps on letting viewers know that this was actually shot in Africa.

All the performances in the film are good, with Caine getting most of the attention today, but my personal favorite among the actors is Nigel Green as Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne. Greene is the perfect “Good Soldier” of the British Army; he might have walked right out of the Victorian Era and onto the location filming. It doesn’t seem as if Green is acting at all.

The film was also a turning point for another name on the credits: composer John Barry. Barry had just established himself as player in the film music scene with From Russia with Love and his arrangement of the James Bond Theme, and would end the year with the quintessential “cool” spy score for Goldfinger. He already had a background in pop-music and pop scores, but with Zulu he showed that he could take on a sweeping musical assignment without a trace of popular music anywhere in it. The score to Zulu was the start of the rise of “the other” John Barry, the one who would win Oscars for The Lion in Winter, Born Free, Out of Africa, and Dances with Wolves.

Barry’s score here is a model of restraint. There’s only about twenty-one minutes of music in a film over two hours long—but you won’t forget a note of it. When Barry’s music appears, you can’t help but sit up and perk your ears. His central theme is a powerful, raging motif that seems more akin to the Zulus than the men of Rorke’s Drift. Barry doesn’t trot out British patriotic music, but an angry declaration from the land itself that plays unforgettably over the open credits. The other moments where Barry appears are all memorable: Swedish missionary Witt receiving the first news of the Battle of Insandlwana, Lt. John Chard ordering wagons overturned in a declaration of resistance, the enormous Zulu first assault (this cue is one of Barry’s masterpieces), and the final appearance of the Zulus on the hillside before they salute “fellow braves.”

An interesting bit of Barry trivia: the composer would, more than three decades later, write music for another film about South African history, Cry, The Beloved Country. He would use the theme from Zulu as a key piece in this film, adapting from its fury into a slow, sad, and resentful cue. I’ve always thought this was an ingenious move, and a nod to people who love film music.

The film’s most famous scene involves music, but not an original Barry composition. In a key moment of tension, as the Zulus chant a war-cry before making what might be their last swarm over Rorke’s Drift, the soldiers start to sing the Welsh fighting song “March of the Men of Harlech,” using newly penned lyrics for the film. This develops into an amazing litany between the Zulus and their opponents, and a great presage to the “warrior-to-warrior” finale. Welsh football games across the world re-inact this scene all the time, and we can mostly thank Zulu for this. Welshmen will not yield!

Zulu has aged in the pacing department. After the opening of the Zulus crossing the remains of the battlefield of Isandlwana, the movie falls into a long sequence showing a Zulu mass-marriage ritual. For a 1964 audience, watching this sort of anthropological spectacle unfold on 70 mm must have been gripping. Today, you really wish the movie would get on with it. It takes approximately an hour before the Zulus arrive at Rorke’s Drift and the central action gets underway, and a modern audience wouldn’t have much tolerance for this. But I can’t imagine anyone would think of leaving their seats during the last forty minutes, which is almost continual tension and mayhem, climaxing in a electric sequence where the Zulus attack the mission house. It’s at this point that you can really appreciate the bravery of the Zulu warriors—they seem to know no fear, throwing themselves without hesitation into suicide frontal attacks.

Some of the battle sequences and their preludes might remind people of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. This is intentional: Zulu is one of Peter Jackson’s favorite films, and he visually quotes it extensively in the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Good for him; know your tradition, I say.

Zulu was a huge success in 1964, and spawned a prequel in 1979 later about the Battle of Islandlwana, Zulu Dawn starring Burt Lancaster. But how could a 1979 film ever recapture the glory of 1964? Welshmen will not yield!

Zulu is on OnlyGoodMovies’ list of 75 War Films to See before You Die. If you click on their link for Zulu, you will mysteriously find yourself right back here.

Someone nicely made a montage to Barry’s theme music on YouTube. Listen to one of the greatest opening themes in all of film music history:

Now you tell me that isn’t just awesome beyond belief. John Barry forever! (And that’s Nigel Green at 0:45 and Barry himself at 0:14 and 2:13.)