You have your underdog stories, and you have the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. In January 1879, a very, very small contingent of British Army regulars defended a mission station from an exponentially larger force from the hostile Zulu army in Natal Province, South Africa. The Zulus had just annihilated a much larger component of the British main column at Isandlwana, despite being faced with heavier and more advanced war technology. In light of their accomplishment, doing away with Rorke’s Drift should have been like running full speed through a small pile of leaves. Should have, but wasn’t, as the men at Rorke’s Drift, warned of the imminent attack and advised by the Boers (better known now as Dutch Afrikaaners), retrenched, creating dense lines of defense within the encampment, and repelled the Zulus for almost a full day, suffering around 10% casualties. The attack concluded when the Zulu column withdrew, fleeing the advance of a British relief force.
The ensuing Anglo-Zulu war did not go well for the native Africans (well-armed and organized reprisals eventually won out over spears and hardened animal-hide shields), but that’s not the story of Cy Endfield’s Zulu. The film, from a script by Endfield and historian and journalist John Prebble, dispenses almost entirely with prologue and aftermath, each handled with a few lines of voiceover by Richard Burton. Most of its 138 minutes are spent at the Rorke’s Drift outpost, a large part of it leading up to the assault, and almost nothing afterward. The lead-up establishes the officers and men (plus a handful of non-combatants: hospitalized men, commissary workers, and a Boer assigned to the post but not under English authority) in broad strokes in accordance with British cinema and theater trends at the time, i.e. some John Osborne-Tony Richardson-Basil Dearden vibes to give the big-budget gloss a little rough texture. The fort’s commander, Lieutenant Bromhead (Michael Caine), is established as slightly effeminate, with a weakness for the mythical and superficial aspects of army life like spotless uniforms and big-game hunts. He’s also “proper army” compared to Lieutenant Chard (Stanley Baker), of the Royal Engineers, sent to the area to build a bridge, and when Chard narrowly pulls rank, beating Bromhead’s commission date by only a few months, a none-too-subtle bout of dick-measuring follows as the Zulus quickly approach and Chard begins facing nearly impossible decisions from every angle.
Endfield and Prebble’s script also sets up character conflicts in the hospital ward, populated as much by bitter malingerers as actual sick and wounded. The Osborne-esque character types, far removed from the English Midlands and urban blight, are planted here, in particular the long-faced and mildly craven Private Hook (James Booth). The church is converted into a field hospital; in the pulpit is surgeon James Reynolds (Patrick Magee), who only looks up from stitching up punctured skin and organs long enough to spit invective at the “butchers” outside, British and Zulu alike. This dark joke, a secular man of medicine swearing at the pews, from the pulpit, is such that you may not notice it until after the film is over.
As waves of Zulu fighters descend on the outpost, character development is scrambled and usually obliterated. A handful of convenient fabrications are given cursory notice: the rascal Hook, who in real life was a model soldier and teetotaler, redeems himself; there’s a contest of music between the chanting Zulus and the hymn-singing English; and the priest Witt’s misguided attempts to sabotage the English defense. But Endfield’s primary focus is conflict physics. His camera frequently panning left, right, and diagonally in detached, Ernie Gehr-esque glides, Zulu reinvents the Black Narcissus paradox—that a company of homesick occupiers can experience rank claustrophobia in a place that can hardly be said to have a shortage of elbow room.
For years, Zulu was charged with racism, essentially using the same blunted logic that dismisses all Hollywood westerns as racist against Native Americans. The Zulu warriors are denied the “fundamentals of screenwriting” approach that gives an inside look at the Rorke’s Drift defenders, who are 100% white. They aren’t even given dialogue—or, at least, nothing that can be subtitled, just a lot of shouting, calling, and chanting. As substantial as these objections might be, Zulu is far more interested in geometry than context, in viscera than politics. Taken this way, it becomes clear that the film sees the Zulus—not the English—through a prism of unqualified admiration, beginning with a mass wedding, and continuing with frequent, Busby Berkeley-esque sequences of their mobilized militias. While their fighters aren’t singled out for distinct character traits, they are on the whole portrayed as fearless, indefatigable, and energized, as opposed to an unthinking, zombie horde. Almost itself a half-musical, Zulu will pause to take in the invigorating spectacle of their pre-battle, psych-out songs, drumming their spears against their shields with a clatter that resounds across the valley.
As the movie tells it, the action concluded when the Zulus, who had made it clear that they could wipe out Rorke’s Drift in the next surge, opted to spare the English, saluted them, and split the scene. There’s no evidence to support this as anything other than fiction, but it’s good fiction, and it affirms Endfield’s great esteem for both belligerents. Hardly any time is spent revisiting the key figures on the British side, sparing the viewer the usual baloney that the trauma has “changed” them. Burton’s voice names each recipient of the Victoria Cross, an echo of a similar scene at the end of Anthony Mann’s Men in War. What came next for the Zulus is too sad and too inevitable to be accommodated by Endfield’s telling, which isn’t a history lesson, but a study in compression and explosion, told in severe angles and deep, layered spaces.
Employing British cinematographer Stephen Dade, Endfield shot Zulu using the short-lived but astounding Super Technirama 70 process, which, simply put, all but reproduced the benefits of 70mm using 35mm stock. Even to eyes acclimated to large-format spectacles produced during the same period may plotz when they get a good look at Zulu’s Technirama, beginning with the wordless opening shot; the format had a knack for reproducing the refined detail of VistaVision, the expansive width of CinemaScope, and the dizzying depth of Cinerama. Twilight Time’s reproduction is impeccable, using almost totally pristine materials. The robust soundtrack is presented in a mono track and a 2.0 stereo track; the latter gives some directionality to the effects, but not obtrusively. For those who already feel like they’re getting vertigo from the stunning panorama shots may just go for the mono.
Disappointingly light, though there’s a commentary track featuring Twilight Time honcho Nick Redman and screenwriter Lem Dobbs. Obviously there isn’t the one-of-a-kind cattiness Dobbs brought to his legendary commentary with Steven Soderbergh on the 2000 DVD of The Limey, but the he and Redman make good use of their time, mixing film appreciation with important historical knowledge. The music/effects track is available for those who want to appreciate one of John Barry’s best scores, and focus more easily on Cy Endfield’s visual strategies.
A good platter for a great, underappreciated classic of British cinema (under the direction of American expatriate Cy Endfield)—light on supplements but strong in presentation.