When I was a kid, my father introduced me to a lot of things I still love to this day. They include Johnny Cash, “Dr. Who”, and the classic British war film, Zulu. And that movie is still one of my all-time favorite war films.
The film is about a small garrison of British soldiers in Africa who face off against thousands of Zulu warriors at a lonely outpost in the middle of nowhere called Rorke’s Drift. Armed with rifles, they struggle through a day of battle as wave after wave of warriors descend upon them.
Made in 1964, it lacks much of the gritty realism seen nowadays. But the heart of this movie doesn’t rest in the style of the battles — which feature little blood — but in the heart of the characters. Through the writing, and their performances, this film truly comes alive and gains most of its power.
The main character is Lieutenant John Chard, played by Stanley Baker — who was also one of the producers of the film. An engineer thrust into command when the Zulu attack, Chard is unsure of himself since he has never actually led in battle before. He must also stand firm against the arrogance of Michael Caine’s brash Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (This film was Caine’s first starring role in a feature film). Bromhead thinks little of Chard at first, believing that he should be the one to take command. However, Chard outranks him — largely on a technically more than rank itself.
Chard, the working class officer; Bromhead, the pompous nobleman. The relationship between these two men works beautifully, as the performances are brought to life with strength and realism.
Then there’s Private Henry Hook, the corrupt anti-hero, disillusioned with the war who milks his questionable injury to remain out of the fight and in the infirmary. His conscience, however, is heckled by another soldier who has descended into madness.
The characters are highlighted against the beautiful African background. Surrounded by speckled green mountains, the lone fort should be an easy target for the Zulu. And while it may be easy to assume that the ultimate success of the British soldiers is mostly movie magic than real world resolutions, what makes this movie all the more powerful is that it is based on a true story.
Zulu takes place in January of 1879. The Zulu who attack the fort had, the day before, slaughtered 1,500 British soldiers in a massive battle. Marching onward, they target the small outpost at Rorke’s Drift. With less than 100 soldiers to its credit, along with a dozen or so wounded men, the fort struggles desperately to beat back the Zulu.
The movie is 2″ hours long, but doesn’t feel like it. And the DVD transfer is the most beautiful version of the film I’d ever seen. In fact, when I first watched the DVD, it was the first time I’d ever had the pleasure of seeing this movie in widescreen format. The stunning vistas are made even more beautiful by the bright colors. The blue sky and bright red coats of the British solders are vivid.
The musical score by John Barry — one of the industry’s best composers — is given Dolby treatment and sounds incredible. Sadly, this film warranted only a single special feature, the original theatrical trailer. And, regardless of what’s stated in our recent DVD article, this is one of those rare occasions where the trailer does prove interesting.
Zulu was made in 1964, and the concept of how trailers looked was completely different. Today we have fast cuts, slick music. They try to sell you the film in about 30 seconds in MTV style. But, in the 1960s, trailers were much longer and hosted cheesy voice overs and titles that literally jumped out at you to get your attention. I always find it interesting to see these old trailers because they are so dramatically different than what we see today.
In closing, let me just say that Zulu is, without a doubt, one of the all time greatest war films ever made. Great characters, great story, terrific action. It’s what all war movies to aspire to be. Yet, this film is often ignored or forgotten, which is a great tragedy.