Sunday, December 7, 2008


1964's Zulu stands up today as one of the finest wartime stories told on film.

It chronicles the true story of the British Army's historic 1879 stand at Rorke's Drift in South Africa during the Anglo-Zulu War. At a remote hospital/supply station 140 soldiers discover that they will soon be descended upon by 4000 Zulu warriors. 1,500 British soldiers had recently been massacred by Zulu forces at a nearby station, so the idea of a brigade charging to the rescue did not seem likely.

While it's a colorful spectacle set in an exotic locale -- always irresistible -- it's also an epic story of men finding what they are made of ... of reaching deep down and finding strength they didn't know they had; it's about discipline, heroism, cowardism and conflict. The film keens with suspense as the Zulu march closer and two young lieutenants fight each other to map out a winning battle plan.

Rather than building a war movie on sheer blood and guts, British director Cy Endfield built it on tension, good storytelling and realistic characters. Of course, the film has a level of violence (it's war!), but it lacks the kind of graphic gore you see so much today in both film and video games. It's also surprisingly lacking in the harsh language department.... you pretty much expect guys in the trenches to cuss!
Maybe it was a British thing. These soldiers are, for the most part, darn gentlemanly as they fight for their lives.

Without being a spoiler, I'll just say the ending is one of the more distinct war-story endings seen in film.
Zulu is a must-see classic. It stars a young Michael Caine (his first starring role), has brief narration by Richard Burton, and won a British Film Award for Best Art Direction.

(Parental Duty Note: there is an early scene of a Zulu wedding taking place, and bare-chested women are naturally part of the landscape.)

Interesting footnotes, courtesy Internet Movie Database:

- Because the Zulus who were playing the extras in the film had never seen a movie, one of the actors, Stanley Baker, held an outdoor screening of a Gene Autry movie for them so they would have an idea of what movies were all about.

- Because of the apartheid laws in South Africa at the time, none of the actors who portrayed the Zulu warriors were allowed to attend the premiere of the movie.

- Because of those same apartheid laws, the Zulu extras could not be paid equivalent rates to their white counterparts. To get around this, director Endfield gifted all of the animals bought for this film (particularly cows) to the tribes - a gift far more valuable to them than the money that had been denied them.

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