Second Breakfast: Zulu


Yeah, so as I mentioned last week, I’m now writing from London, England. To commemorate my change of scenery, I chose to review an American movie that takes place in Rome. Well, this week I’m going to review and English movie about English people! How apt, I know.

Zulu (1964)


Hello, young Michael Caine. How are you doing?
Ed note: Zulu on Amazon

The Plot: You’ve heard of Rorke’s Drift, yeah? No? Ok… what about the Zulu War? Seriously? Have you heard of Zulus? Africa? The British Empire? War in general? Any of that ring a bell? Guys, brush up your history, please. Alright… so, Zulu is a historical film, depicting the FAMOUS Battle of Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. Perhaps instead of giving a plot summary I should give a historical summary…

The History: At its height, the British Empire was the largest in the history of the world. So Rome, Napoleon, Alexander, Hitler, and Genghis Khan can all suck it. It ruled over approximately one fifth of the entire population of the world, and covered almost a quarter of the earth’s total land mass. The sun literally never set on the British Empire. It is also worth mentioning here that the Brits are the only ones to ever hold territory on every single continent. That having been said, empires are absolute bitches to run… er, so I’m told.


Because how would you know I’m lecturing if I didn’t have a map?

So, when an island smaller than California owns a quarter of the land in the world, you’re bound to have a few armed conflicts. One such conflict erupted between the native Zulus of Africa and the Imperial British in 1879. The Zulus were, at the time, a fierce warrior culture, and not one to be conquered easily. The Brits tried the peaceful route, politely asking over a cup of tea if the Zulus were interested in becoming British subjects, and the Zulus chuckled a bit and said, “no,” then they launched a surprise attack, massacring about 1300 British soldiers at Isandlwana. Actually, the film opens with Richard Burton telling us this. Following that, the Zulus turned on Rorke’s Drift, a British military hospital. Under the command of an engineering officer who had never seen combat, roughly 140 British troops defended against a whopping 4,000 Zulus, resulting in one of the most logistically impressive military defenses in history.


Photo by Emily Cleaver
Above is famously one of the most accurate and brutal reenactments of Rorke’s Drift.

 Great, now you’re up to speed. So, like all historical films, Zulu had a few distinct challenges from the get-go. Writer/director Cy Endfield and writer John Prebble had to consider three things inherent to making a historical film: 1) Obligation to the truth; 2) Obligation to the producers (e.g. money); 3) Obligation to the modern audience. Imagine that the year is 1964 and you want to make a movie about a glorious moment in imperial history, and you also want the movie to be successful. Yeah, that’s a challenge. The ultimate goal of any historian should be, when examining history, to abandon his contemporary perspectives and values and, though not adapt, at least understand those of the people he’s studying. For example, don’t read Merchant of Venice and then say that Shakespeare was racist, because racism as a concept, as we understand it, didn’t even exist until the early twentieth century. Anything after 1907, though, and you’re in the clear. Birth of a Nation, for example. That’s super racist. That having been said, when you’re making something for the masses, if you do abandon your contemporary values and try to be even-handed and frank, people will call you racist. Ah, it’s a tough world.

 Endfield and Prebble manage to strike a very careful balance between an honest depiction of what happened at Rorke’s Drift and the aggressively anti-war sentiments of the 1960s. No one in the film comes across as some sort of magnificent hero, but all heroic deeds are included. Endfield invites the audience to marvel at the sheer military genius and gumption of the British, while simultaneously reminding us of the horrors of war, without being too heavy handed in either direction.


The scene at Isandlwana. Yeah, war sucks.

The British Empire is no longer very popular, neither is imperialism in general. Endfield devotes quite a lot of time to making sure that the audience respects the Zulus. They’re the enemy, yeah, but they’re a noble enemy and they have a right to rebel against the British Empire. Obviously, we kind of get where they’re coming from in that respect. In the fight against the British Empire, the Zulus are the noble underdogs, and everyone loves noble underdogs. In the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, however, the British are the underdogs. Because there’s about an hour of build-up spent developing characters, we never feel that the British at Rorke’s Drift are fighting for imperialism or even for the Empire at large, they’re fighting to survive. I mean, it’s a hospital for God’s sake. The commanding officer, Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker), was an engineer who was only down there to build a bridge. He had no combat experience whatsoever. His second-in-command, the man who normally ran the base, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine in his first role), outranked by Chard by a mere three months, had also never seen combat. So these two guys, leading a paltry force, are defending a hospital against a massive army of purebred professional warriors. So yeah, in this case, we’re probably going to root for the British.


Besides, how many Zulus had such respectable muttonchops?

It’s clear that the British are the protagonists, but as I mentioned, Endfield doesn’t skimp on the panoramic shots of carnage. Thanks to ingenuity and superior technology, the British suffered only 23 fatalities during the battle. I’m not going to even tell you how many Zulus died. Again, though, there’s no glorification. There is no celebration at the end of the battle, just fields of bodies to clean up. People are grateful to be alive, but no one is happy. The ending is very poignant, with Colour Sergeant Frank Edward Bourne (Nigel Green) taking role and crossing off names, whilst Richard Burton’s voice tells us the names of the eleven Victoria Cross recipients from the battle, and the camera pans over to Lt. Chard, surrounded by dead Zulus, holding one of their cattle skin shields. Also, none of what I have said so far can count as a spoiler because it happened in real life and y’all should be aware of the history.



All in all, Zulu is a powerful, but honest and relatively unbiased depiction of war; it is also a great film. The screenplay is strong, the performances are excellent all around, the cinematography is often breathtaking, and the soundtrack is superb. This is, in my opinion, one of the best war movies ever made, and a textbook example of how to make a balanced historical film.

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