ZULU (1964) was a later entry in the Widescreen Epic historical adventure genre, a British film of Colonialism that, while it tempered the standard “White Man’s Burden” approach seen in previous movies that glorified the Empire, nevertheless has since fallen somewhat to the wayside thanks to moviegoers’ growing distaste for screen entertainment that glorified the former Empire. It is now justly recognized as a superior example of its genre, boasting terrific action scenes on a grand scale, stunning location photography in South Africa, well-drawn performances from the able cast and one of the finest music scores from the great John Barry.
The historical incident in question was the defense of a garrison at Rorke’s Drift which took place on January 22, 1879. There, four thousand Zulu warriors wildly outnumbered the small British regiment of 139. Earlier, the Zulus had successfully attacked and killed more than 1300 British soldiers at another outpost. The Zulu populace was provoked into the attacks after British forces had tried to confederate the KwaZulu territory in South Africa. The defense of Rorke’s Drift became a legendary chapter in British military history, with nine men from the regiment (which was mostly made up of Welsh soldiers) later awarded the Victoria Cross for their bravery.
Actor Stanley Baker, a Welshman himself, had formed his own production company and with the backing of prolific producer/distributor Joseph E. Levine he brought the story to the screen. By all accounts the historical accuracy of the piece was meticulously researched, to the point of seeking input from Zulu tribesmen on their precise military tactics, by way of stories that had been handed down through oral tradition. Key to the production was the skill and taste of director, co-writer and co-producer Cy Endfield; the blacklisted American filmmaker had been working in Europe for more than a decade.
Notices were generally good, but not necessarily effusive with praise. For example, Variety noted, “One of the more obvious cliches in this type of yarn is apt to be the malingerer who displays great heroism in a moment of crisis. There is such a situation in ZULU, but the cliche is avoided, largely because of the excellent performance by James Booth. Indeed, the high allround standard of acting is one of the notable plus features. Stanley Baker, a solid and reliable performer, turns in a thoroughly convincing portrayal as the resolute Royal Engineers officer, with an effective contrasting study by Michael Caine as a supercilious lieutenant…”
ZULU was a distinct career-booster for Michael Caine, who had been knocking around since 1956 in small roles in British TV productions and mostly uncredited bit parts in films. Here he was given a “introducing” billing and makes a great impression playing upper-class Lieutenant Bromhead, distinctly different from the Cockney-types Caine would later be known for. Reportedly, Caine convinced Endfield and Baker to let him shade his character, having him evolve from an arrogant twit into a more sympathetic, feeling officer.
Today’s screening (a perfect digital presentation) was introduced by longtime Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, who rattled off several interesting facts about the film with the same knowing eff1ciency we are used to witnessing on his syndicated program. At one point, he told the familiar story of Caine taking his stage name from a movie marquee in Lester Square, which was showing the latest film starring his hero Humphrey Bogart. The movie was The Caine Mutiny and Trebek gravely intoned that the young actor said to himself, “I’m going to become Michael Mutiny!” Trebek, who can seemingly impart facts—with no written notes, mind you—faster than most other mortals, proved that he was a “student of African history” as he called himself; he perfectly set up the film ZULU by covering decades of Dutch and English conflict with African tribes in the region in the years before 1879. Trebek said that Enfield’s picture was “pretty accurate in terms of history,” but that the opening scene of a Zulu tribal wedding probably never happened, but was just an excuse for Enfield to get dozens of bare-breasted women on the screen.