Monday, August 3, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Zulu"

"Zulu" is not the Zulu movie I thought it was.

When I was quite young, I saw a movie on TV about a battle between British soldiers and a Zulu army that stuck with me. There are two things I remember most about it. The first is the end credits, in which a seemingly endless line of Zulu warriors walk past in single file, demonstrating their vast number. The other thing was the incompetent portrayal of the British commanders -- I seem to recall there was some bit where a sergeant was refusing to dispense ammunition to the soldiers without proper authorization, even as they were being slaughtered to a man.

Turns out that movie is 1979's "Zulu Dawn," starring Burt Lancaster. "Zulu" was made in 1964 and produced by Joseph E. Levine, the fiercely independent producer who also made "The Lion in Winter," "A Bridge Too Far" and many other fine films.

It's a rip-roaring war film in the grand tradition, with an ensemble cast of officers and soldiers bonding and dying in battle. It's most notable now for being the first film role of Michael Caine. Well, the credits give him the "...and introducing..." treatment. He had bit parts in other films during the 1950s. But he was primarily a television actor prior to "Zulu."

While "Zulu Dawn" depicts the Battle of Isandlwana of 1879, in which more than 1,300 British soldiers were defeated and slaughtered by the Zulu, the earlier film actually depicts a later event in the same war. This was the Battle of Rorke's Drift, in which a contingent of 4,000 Zulu unsuccessfully attacked a tiny mission post defended by a little more than 100 British soldiers.

I've always been a history buff, and after watching this movie I decided to do a little research. As the movie points out in the epilogue, 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to soldiers who fought at Rorke's Drift. This award, the highest in the English military, is roughly equivalent to the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. It's also given out with the same infrequency, so you get an idea of how valorous the British defense was considered.

Interestingly, though, is the omission of Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton from a pivotal role in the movie. The main characters are Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, played by Caine, and Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker). Bromhead is the second-in-command of the post, left in charge while the major went out scouting, and Chard was an army engineer who was building a bridge nearby when word of the invading Zulu comes. Chard had a few months' seniority over Bromhead, and took command. Rivals, they eventually come to respect each in the heat of battle. Astonishingly, it's revealed at the end of the film that this was the first battle for both officers.

But according to accounts of the time, it was actually Dalton who directed much of the defense, including the decision to line the mission with two lines of biscuit bags. Dalton was not among those originally awarded the Victoria's Cross, but after his role was made clear he was so honored a year later.

As far as the movie is concerned, though, Dalton is just another background player -- certainly less important than a color sergeant played by Nigel Green, who keeps a hard tamp on the emotions of the besieged soldiers.

The battle scenes are quite thrilling, though fairly bloodless as one might expect of a 1964 film. The Zulu are treated respectfully, not as savage brutes but cunning warriors who use clever attack formations and tactics.

The Zulu fought mostly with spears, though not flimsy ones designed for throwing but thick, sharp weapons intended for close-up stabbing. They were also armed with a fair number of guns, though not the modern breech-loading rifles the British used. It's suggested in the movie that the Zulu attacking Rorke's Drift picked these weapons up from the Brits defeated a few days earlier at Isandlwana, but according to historical accounts the contingent attacking there were fresh troops who hadn't fought at the previous battle. Their guns were most likely older flintlock rifles they'd scavenged here and there.

The first half of the film drags a bit due to the focus on the character of Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins), the missionary assigned to the post, and his daughter. Witt can't believe the soldiers are intending to make a stand against such an overwhelming force, and urges Chard to let him take the wounded away. When he is refused, Witt becomes increasingly agitated and desperate, right up to ordering the small force of native African soldiers to abandon the post. This is downright treasonous behavior, even for a man of the cloth, and he is eventually forcibly put in a carriage with his daughter and sent on his way. As near as I can determine, this whole episode with Witt is purely the imagination of screenwriters John Prebble and Cy Endfield. Endfield also directed, and later wrote the screenplay for "Zulu Dawn."

"Zulu" is a worthwhile film, for introducing one of the truly great movie actors, Michael Caine, to audiences, and for making a forgotten bit of history come thrillingly alive.

3 stars

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