Zulu (1964)

Zulu (1964), directed by Cy Endfield.

The 1879 Battle of Rorke's Drift, the desperate defense of a mission station by a terrifically outnumbered British Army unit during the Anglo-Zulu War.

The first hour is a slow buildup as we meet the characters, including the typically colorful privates. Impressive, very moving singing, dancing and battle formations by the thousands (?) of Zulu extras. The long battle segment itself is exciting and meant to be realistic, although the ample shooting, hacking and slashing produces almost no blood. It's not at all clear how this siege story is going to end: Alamo or The Seven Samurai (1954)?

Stanley Baker is the bridge-building engineer who takes command. Jack Hawkins is the stock cowardly, alcoholic and raving Christian minister. In his first prominent film role, Michael Caine plays a posh but ultimately sturdy officer. His face is featured on later cover art.

John Barry score.

The Zulu extras treated this as an historical reenactment and brought all their own gear from home. In his entertaining autobiography, What's It All About?, Michael Caine writes:


The man who played the chief of the Zulus in the film is the real-life chief today, Chief Buthelezi, the present day leader of the Incatha movement. A woman who I think was his sister -- a princess of the tribe anyway -- was the tribal historian. The Zulus have no written history; everything is passed down verbally and this woman seemed to know every detail of the battle that we were filming. Cy said that she drew in the sand with a stick the movement of the Zulu armies and their battle formations in such detail that he used them in the film, exactly as she said, to great effect. They are some of the best battle scenes I have ever seen in a film.

He also points out that "modesty is a matter of geography" and describes the challenge of filming a traditional tribal dance. To prevent censor meltdown, the country girls had to be persuaded to wear little black panties under their bead skirts. Conversely, the city girls had to be coaxed into removing their tops.

The wikipedia article has a list of historical inaccuracies, many of which seem pretty minor, as well as influences on other films such as Gladiator and The Two Towers.

George Macdonald Fraser, in The Hollywood History of the World: "...in its way the best African historical, and one of the best in the imperial canon... meticulous recreation... Nigel Greene outstanding as the Colour-Sergeant; he was the old British army..."

My "West Lake" DVD from Netflix was 4:3 letterboxed and they shoved 2h17m of video into 3GB of space. A good test of player zoom and deinterlacing. It ranges from "not bad" to "kind of poor". I see there is a region 1 anamorphic edition also, probably much better.

And now, too late, I see it is available on UK Blu-ray.

Later: also available as a limited-edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time.