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An Early Victory in the Culture War


Historical films face a peculiar dilemma. They are expected to bear competing burdens: presenting compelling stories on one hand, and respectfully navigating the difficult issues of history on the other. Given the parochial attitudes of past generations of Western filmmakers, it is rare to find a film which succeeds in both goals.

Yet there is one such film, dating all the way back to 1964, which performs both tasks admirably: ZULU. A historical war epic, Zulu depicts the famous Battle of Rorke’s Drift, an early engagement of the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War. Directed by the American Cy Enfield and starring the prolific Welsh actor Stanley Baker, Zulu came to be one of the most popular British films of all time. Released on the 85th anniversary of the battle, Zulu portrays a brief moment of aggressive expansion by the British Empire.

My dad and his classmates eagerly watched Zulu on school camp back in the 1970s. It’s no wonder the film was beloved by Australian schoolboys: a disciplined force of 150 gallant British soldiers staunchly defends an isolated field hospital against an overwhelming force of 4,000 Zulu warriors. Zulu surges with rifle fire and vicious bayonet combat, bolstered by a crescendoing soundtrack and the stark vistas of South Africa. It is a war film, first and foremost - yet it is not reducible to that. Zulu was far ahead of its time in how it portrayed colonial history.

The men who wrote Zulu were clearly not typical citizens. John Prebble was a former Communist who had volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and Endfield, Zulu’s director, had been forced to move to the UK from his native USA after being named as a Communist in the McCarthyite witch-hunts. Zulu’s star actor Stanley Baker, who plays the main character John Chard, was a Welshman and ardent supporter of the British Labour Party. Though they had largely left their more radical associations behind them, it is reasonable to suppose that their beliefs influenced the shape of the film.

"...the Zulu are neither reduced to lawless barbarians, nor insincerely presented as ‘noble savages’—like anyone else, they are an imperfect people nonetheless deserving of respect."

Zulu’s opening scene challenges old-fashioned notions of British supremacy from its first shot. As the camera pans over the bloody aftermath of the disastrous Battle of Isandlwana, victorious Zulu warriors collect rifles from the corpses of a massacred British force. Richard Burton’s narration provides a brief explanation of the historical context: the government of the colony of Natal, having agitated for war against the Zulu Kingdom for years, has launched an unauthorised invasion of the Zulu Kingdom. Commanded by the infamous Lord Chelmsford, the overzealous initial offensive has been caught unawares and massacred at Isandlwana, leaving the meagre garrison at the nearby field hospital at Rorke’s Drift in the path of the victorious Zulu army. This scene introduces the setting - but more importantly, the audience is immediately forced to reevaluate the dominance of the British Empire. The visual of hundreds of dead British soldiers in their iconic red coats is a striking inversion of what one might expect from a fifty-year old British film.

Zulu is just as quick to characterise the tribe from which it takes its name. The following scene introduces Swedish missionary Otto Witt and his daughter Margareta, who attend a mass wedding of Zulu maidens and warriors under the protection of the Zulu king Cetshwayo. Zulu culture is centralised: young Zulu dance and sing in organised ranks, and an errant warrior is swiftly executed on Cetshwayo’s orders when he inappropriately touches Margareta. This moment is crucial to how the film portrays the eponymous tribe: the Zulu are neither reduced to lawless barbarians, nor insincerely presented as ‘noble savages’ - like anyone else, they are an imperfect people nonetheless deserving of respect.

Another notable feature of the film is evident in this scene: its commitment to cultural authenticity. The extras playing Zulu warriors were actual Zulu tribesmen (with Cetshwayo played by his own great-grandson) and the wedding dance routines were traditional dances choreographed by a Zulu tribeswoman. Despite being filmed in apartheid South Africa, the Zulu extras were paid wages - though it must be noted that their pay rates were probably not commensurate with those paid to white actors. Given the setting it was filmed in, Endfield’s screenplay is commendable for portraying the Zulu not merely as unsophisticated natives to be hewn down by British gunfire, but as a cultured and regimented society.

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The Zulu leaders, played by actual Zulu tribesmen, command their warriors from the heights surrounding the battlefield.

A certain irony emerges from the behaviour of the British as the Zulu approach. Baker’s dutiful Lieutenant Chard, carrying out his order to bridge the nearby river, comes into immediate friction with the ostentatious Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead - portrayed by one Michael Caine in his first starring film role. Bromhead is the epitome of aristocratic British officer, boasting refined descent and affected accent. It is Bromhead who is subject to Zulu’s most direct challenge of racist attitudes.

Learning that hundreds of native soldiers were among those killed on the British side at Isandlwana, Bromhead dismisses them as ‘cowardly blacks’. The Boer guide Adendorff swiftly rebukes Bromhead, pointedly retorting ‘they died on your side, didn’t they?’ It is clearly purposeful that this comment is followed by the arrival of a company of white colonial police passing Rorke’s Drift, who flee despite Chard’s pleas for assistance. 

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Stanley Baker and Michael Caine as the lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead, the heroes of Rorke’s Drift.

The myth of European eminence is further deconstructed: unlike the elegant Bromhead, many of the patients of Rorke’s Drift are loutish drunkards who disrespect their superiors and harass Margareta. The Welsh members of the company wryly express their alienation from their English comrades, and the missionary Witt drinks himself into a nervous breakdown before the Zulu arrive. In contrast to the favourable representation of the Zulu, the film disparages antiquated attitudes of European moral superiority before the battle even begins.

Yet Zulu is not a diatribe against the British. Both sides distinguish themselves in combat, and it is here that the nuance of the film emerges. The Zulu are cunning and dauntless, firing on the British with stolen rifles and charging boldly into gunfire carrying only short spears and cowhide shields. The British are indefatigable, resisting endless waves of Zulu with coordinated rifle fire. Chard stalwartly leads the defence, and the previously arrogant Bromhead distinguishes himself by skilfully commanding his riflemen. On the other side of the fortifications, the Zulu commanders coordinate their attacks via signal from the surrounding hilltops. As the British demonstrate their discipline, the Zulu demonstrate their daring.

The courage of both sides in the face of the enemy is the conduit through which Zulu impresses their common humanity upon the audience. As the Zulu break through the first layer of fortifications, British are forced into hand-to-hand combat. In the hazardous dance of spear combat, the camera zooms to reveal the mutual fear in the eyes of Briton and Zulu alike. One of Zulu’s most visceral lessons is illustrated here: for all the technological advancement of the British, the warriors of each nation are no less fearful - or brave - than each other when faced with a jagged spear or polished bayonet.

"Instead of glorifying the battle which resulted in the awarding of eleven Victoria Crosses, Zulu remonstrates against the violence as the exhausted lieutenants contemplate the ‘butcher’s yard’ they have created."

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Much of the violence at Rorke’s Drift, strikingly portrayed in Zulu, occurred in desperate hand-to-hand combat.

As in the historical battle of Rorke’s Drift, the British ultimately prevail through a combination of fortitude and technological superiority. Zulu pays respect to the valour of both sides, without glamourising the violence. Following the interlude of a restless night, the British repel a final assault by the Zulu with a stunning barrage of volley fire. As the dust settles, Chard drolly observes to his sergeant that their victory was attributable merely to a ‘short chamber Boxer Henry .45 calibre miracle;’ the sergeant replies ‘and a bayonet sir - with some guts behind it.’ As the sergeant ticks off the names of the dead in a roll call, Chard and Bromhead reflect grimly on their first experience of combat. Instead of glorifying the battle which resulted in the awarding of eleven Victoria Crosses, Zulu remonstrates against the violence as the exhausted lieutenants contemplate the ‘butcher’s yard’ they have created. 

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A shaken Lieutenant Chard forlornly surveys the “butcher’s yard” of Rorke’s Drift.

In the final scene, Zulu makes its most pointed departure from the historical record: following their withdrawal from the battlefield, the Zulu sing to the British from the surrounding hilltops. As Adendorff tearfully realises, the Zulu are not preparing for a final attack, but ‘saluting fellow braves’. This event is fictional, but illustrates a key concept of the film: through the crucible of violence, the warriors of two staggeringly different societies come to realise. and respect each other’s bravery.

In a time in which the West is undergoing an introspection of how popular culture should handle the difficult realities of its colonial past, Zulu presents an early example of how we can depict colonial violence in a dignified and graceful manner. Despite being more than fifty years old, Endfield’s smash hit treats Britain’s former subjects with respect and analyses Britain’s martial strengths and moral flaws. Zulu is an invigorating film which conscientiously depicts the bloodshed of Rorke’s Drift in the guise of an unadulterated war film. It does so without supplicating itself to politically correct ideals, nor neglecting the painful lessons of history. If you are interested in history, watch the film yourself.  You will hopefully find inspiration in the example it sets.

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