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The all-time favorite battle epic Zulu was one of the original late- 1980s Criterion laserdiscs formatted in the then- revolutionary "Letterbox" format. I remember loading several large lasers to see the movie, which was recorded in half-hour bursts. Some DVDs followed from legit and sub-legit sources, all of which were eventually eclipsed a few years back by a highly regarded Brit import Blu-ray with a razor-sharp picture and dazzling color. I didn't think that disc could be improved upon, but am happy to report that I prefer the transfer on the new Twilight Time limited edition release. More on that below.
A magnificent depiction of a famous military engagement in which a couple of hundred British soldiers were stormed by thousands of Zulu warriors, the 1964 release has long been a favorite 'boys own' true adventure tale. Originally released in 70mm, Zulu it's an all-out glorification of the Queen's colonial forces and military gallantry in general. It is fairly accurate about the bare facts of the battle, which are impressive on their own.
The movie was released just before the Vietnam War kicked into high gear, at a time when expensive epics were unlikely to be critical of a colonial war. Zulu's relative politically neutrality is interesting, considering that its makers were socially committed artists decidedly left of center. Director and co-writer Cy Endfield was a refugee from political persecution in the U.S.. The director of the savagely critical, highly recommended Try and Get Me! and The Underworld Story, Endfield lost the better part of a decade restarting his career in England. Always a practical fellow, he was considering playing along with the blacklisters when the chance came to partner with actor-producer Stanley Baker. Their 1957 Hell Drivers is a tough-minded tale of corruption in the British trucking industry, easily interpreted as a leftist indictment of free-market capitalism.
Easily the most accomplished and successful of Baker and Endfield's efforts, Zulu does not ask why Great Britain is warring against South Africa's Zulu nation in 1879. Although the indigenous Zulus are treated with respect, the movie still regards them as tribal forces on the attack, not a righteous nation repelling an Anglo invasion. When the troops manning the isolated camp at Rorke's Drift are forced to make a stand, two ranking officers (Stanley Baker and the fresh new star Michael Caine) squabble over seniority issues to determine who will command, and then repeatedly critique each other's performance. An alcoholic doctor (Jack Hawkins) and his seriously repressed daughter (Ulla Jacobson) interfere with the defense preparations, spreading defeatism among the Drift's relatively tiny complement of soldiers. The strong, unflappable Colour-Sgt. Bourne (Nigel Green) shows how Brit Army discipline pays off, repeatedly averting panic in the ranks. Doctor Reynolds (Patrick Magee) deals with the horrendous injuries sustained in the battle. Having gone to a lot of trouble to get himself into the infirmary, the malingering Pvt. Hook (a delightful James Booth) resists taking part in the fighting until given no choice.
Stanley Baker's idea of a righteous message is to champion the role of Welshmen in the army. This sets up a classic sequence in which the Zulus' fearsome war chants are answered with mighty Welsh choral singing. A superb director for both actors and camera, Cy Endfield seemingly sets politics aside to concentrate on making every shot a perfectly-judged marvel. So many moving mastershots interweave the action and drama that we're soon caught up in the escalating jeopardy. The action is crystal clear: when the Zulu chieftain coordinates attacks from multiple directions, we have no problem keeping our bearings and understanding what's going on.
I can imagine that Cy Endfield was more fully engaged by the far more overtly political prequel to Zulu made fifteen years later, Zulu Dawn. 1 With its comparatively uncomplicated bravery, smaller 'scope and positive outcome, the two-day assault on Rorke's Drift is a far more commercial choice for a film subject. The battle sees fewer than two hundred men holding off thousands of enemy warriors. It's like The Alamo, except that "the Anglos win." Although we're told that the film employed only 250 Zulu tribesmen, clever filmmaking multiplied them into thousands, giving an impression of combat on a massive scale. The present-day Zulu chief played his ancestor, Cetshwayo.
The battles are breathtaking, even if it's hard to understand why the Zulu commander commits only a few hundred foot soldiers to any one assault. The defenders manage to cut down wave after wave of charging warriors. Black bodies pile up like cordwood, while the tally of Redcoats shot seems too high to account for the large number still standing after the major attacks. We're given scores of scenes in which masses of Zulus are knocked down like tenpins, as well as the iconic "racist adventure" image of a gallant Anglo blasting a black warrior full in the face with his revolver. We cannot help but respond positively to impressive bits of valor, as when Private Hook abandons his cynical stance to join the fray, or when disaster is averted because a wounded, crippled soldier rushes out of sick bay to fight back using his crutch as a weapon. This kind of 'combat charisma' will appeal to any boy in the audience.
The picture neatly contrasts the British military system with that of the Zulu army, which uses a similar command structure and follows equally rigid traditions, as depicted through the fearsome tribal chants that gear them up for their withering attacks. When the enemies trade songs across the battlefield, it is a stirring evocation of the nobility of warriors & military traditions, British and Zulu. Yet we're told that this entire 'warrior salute' idea was an invention -- it never actually happened. The scene allows us to feel good about identifying with a small number of white fighters as they annihilate many hundreds of non-white opponents, about whom we learn very little. It's the old Colonial story.
The entire cast is terrific -- Zulu is one of the better sagas about men in violent situations, under intolerable stress. Stanley Baker is warmer and less brutal than in his other roles for Robert Aldrich (The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah), Cy Endfield (Sands of the Kalahari) and (another blacklisted Yank) Joseph Losey (The Criminal, Accident). Michael Caine's stunning leading performance surely won him his first million female admirers. Caine doesn't overstress his character's aristocratic superiority, which lends credibility to his competition with Baker's working class engineer. The performances and direction mesh so nicely that Zulu freshens the oldest cliché's of war movies. When all seems lost, Baker and Caine's exhausted characters become giddy. Impending annihilation will at least relieve them of the unbearable pressure.
Like all of Twilight Time's releases, Zulu is limited to a 3000-unit run. It's a highly desirable disc and I have no doubt that it will be a quick sellout.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Zulu is among the label's first titles licensed from MGM. The transfer is, well, gorgeous, the equal or better than that on the coveted UK disc. It was licensed from Paramount, which holds rights to everything but U.S. home video. MGM acquired those through the Polygram/Epic library. The HD transfer is from a 65mm IP made from the original camera neg (in Paramount's possession.
I kept my copy of the UK release handy as a "show off the big TV" selection. After comparing the two transfers directly, I prefer Twilight Time's. The UK has a heavier contrast and a slightly overstated chroma -- the uniforms are a harsh scarlet that obscures detail. Twilight Time's disc is smoother without sacrificing any impact. The heightened resolution on both releases allows us to judge production details, right down to the stitching on the uniforms. The movie uses old-fashioned makeup techniques, I'm told, and it's interesting to see how Michael Caine's fair eyes and eyebrows have been 'sharpened' up with added color and eyeliner.
I've been scratching my head about the film's soundtrack for some time now. Ten years ago I was intrigued to hear that a Paramount encoding had a stereo track, when MGM's earlier DVD was monaural. As confirmed in the new issue of Cinema Retro (which has a lengthy article on the movie), Twilight's disc carries a 2.0 stereo track. Has it been reprocessed from mono? According to more than one source, the 1964 Super Technirama 70 release of Zulu was in Westrex 6-track stereo.
Twilight Time's disc offers an Isolated Score Track billboarding John Barry's powerful and bombastic themes, that are in much the same vein as his 'heavier' music for some of the Bond films. In the disc's commentary we hear that the best scoring comes in a scene where the camp is being prepared for battle. Barry simply 'Mickey Mouses' his music to the action, making the overturning of three wagons into a major dramatic event. Just the same, the marvelous Zulu chants and unnerving battle marches 'played' by hitting spears against shields are even more memorable. The battle songs of the Welsh tenors come off as a beautiful counterpoint.
An original trailer is also present. The major extra is the commentary track by Twilight Time principal Nick Redman and Lem Dobbs, a noted screenwriter billed as a film historian. The length of the movie allows Redman to offer reams of fascinating background material on the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. The record number of Victoria Crosses awarded to the surviving troops was actually a political maneuver meant to draw attention away from the debacle of the previous defeat at Isandlwana. A few comments seem a bit on the flip side, as when we're told that, "Yes, maybe the movie does have Commie messages, because the preacher is portrayed as a drunk." But I was amused to be informed that several major cast members were never on location in South Africa -- Patrick Magee and James Booth are never seen outside the hospital and infirmary buildings.
Julie Kirgo's insert liner notes are as well written as always. Being that they must first be promotional pieces, it's quite impressive how much thoughtful information and insight she communicates. Ms. Kirgo defends the factual liberties in this movie and Raoul Walsh's vintage Errol Flynn epic They Died With Their Boots On with the observation that they "never meant to be historically accurate." Well, all movies are skewed by the prevailing attitudes of their time, whether the bias is intentional or not. Zulu fudges some facts about Rorke's Drift to generate its feel-good finale, but it must be admitted that its overall mindset is quite advanced. In 1964 most movies about African tribes hadn't progressed past the Tarzan stage. It was a big step for Zuluto depict native troops as worthy opponents and not mindless savages.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Zulu Blu-ray rates:
1. Viewers seem to prefer the clear-cut heroism and valor of the original Zulu over Cy Endfield's less forgiving account of the more relevant battle that preceded it. I confess to being a devoted fan of 1979's Zulu Dawn and named Severin's Blu-ray of it my favorite disc of 2013. Zulu makes one feel as if the battles were glorious conflicts between armies that shared a mutual respect. Zulu Dawn is an agonizing parade of colonial racism, military arrogance and tragic slaughter on a colossal scale. Most audiences and critics clearly prefer the former!
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T'was Ever Thus.