There must be very few movie titles that can be referred to in the same sentence as the words 'epic' and 'classic', that do not dilute the meaning of either accolade. The 1964 production 'Zulu' has to be somewhere near the top of that exclusive list.
It was the movie that brought international stardom to Michael Caine and, arguably, provided a career high for its star and co-producer, Stanley Baker.
I remember first seeing this movie in glorious monochrome on a 20 inch TV screen and wishing I'd had the chance to see it in the Cinema. I recall how even the small (by today's standards) screen and tinny mono sound failed to diminish the impact of, apparently, 4000 Zulus descending upon the tiny Mission station in Rorke's Drift.
Such is the memory of this real life event, that there's a street named after it in Aldershot, Home of the British Army. Not a lot of people know that (apologies to Sir Mike).
We now have the chance to see this engrossing movie in High Definition Technicolor and widescreen, thanks to its release on Blu-ray. It's almost like having your very own 35mm print of the film - but more on the quality later. It's the kind of movie that, if you turn the TV on and it's showing, you might think 'I'll just watch a few minutes' but you wind up watching it to the last of the end credits. It's that good and a film about human courage faced with insurmountable odds on one level, while it also speaks out against Imperialism and inter-racial war on another.
To think it was made in the 1960's when apartheid ruled in South Africa (where the location footage was shot) makes you realise that it was putting out a message to the cinema going public for the future.
Directed by Cy Endfield - an American Producer/Director working in the UK sponsored by the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950's - and scripted by John Prebble, 'Zulu' takes its time to introduce us to its main characters and they're all well drawn - so you care what happens to them. Michael Caine's upper class Lieutenant Bromhead vies for command with Stanley Baker's gritty Lieutenant of Engineers Chard, who's only there to build a bridge. Chard wins as his commission began 2 months prior to Bromhead. James Booth's malingerer, Private Hook, Nigel Green's solid Colour Sergeant Bourne - are all characters you remember for the rest of your life.
Many modern Directors would throw you straight into the action, so the characters might as well be cardboard cut-outs. This, however, is a movie made by people who knew how to tell a story well. There's no 'wibbly wobbly' camerawork or pop video style editing here to ruin a perfectly good story - thank goodness it wasn't in vogue in 1964.
After the waiting comes the constant wave after wave attack by the Zulu's, pitting their military tactics against the best that Sandhurst instilled in its officers.
Throughout the movie, John Barry's stirring music score helps move things on with its persistent rhythm and its strong use of the brass section. The tension is kept up throughout the attacks and we don't need to be shown gore to know that killing is a messy business, so Cy Endfield doesn't show us it. It's left to our imaginations, which are more powerful than anything that Make-up can produce.
Just when we think it's all over, the Zulus appear on the hill above the Hospital. We know the Soldiers are exhausted and that they must most certainly die this time.
“What are you waiting for? Come on!” shouts Bromhead
The Zulu's begin chanting.
“Don't you realise,” says the Boer, Adendorf , “They're saluting you. They're saluting fellow braves”.
As the Zulus turn to leave, the tension is replaced by relief as Richard Burton's Narrator tells us that 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to the survivors.
Any kind of glorification of the killing is destroyed when Bromhead asks Chard how he felt after his first battle.
“Do you think I could stand this butchers field more than once” is a magnificent line and a revelation that neither Bromhead nor the audience was expecting.
In short, a very memorable film indeed.
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