Historical war films aren't usually my cup of tea, unless they cover events that haven't been done to death already. Cy Endfield's Zulu (1964) fits the bill by dropping us smack in the beginning of the Anglo-Zulu War circa January 1879, as we see a conflict between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom develops in south-eastern Africa. In particular, Zulu recounts the Battle of Rorke's Drift, in which approximately 150 British soldiers attempted to defend a missionary outpost from several thousand Zulu warriors. While a number of war films have featured a similar "David vs. Goliath" scenario, Zulu does it particularly well through excellent production values, terrific action and strong performances.
The British soldiers are led by Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker), a member of the Royal Engineers who is placed in command when the difficult defense mission is received. Michael Caine also co-stars in his first major supporting role as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, Chard's reluctant second-in-command. Only a small contingent of battle-ready British soldiers remains, as many were wounded in recent attacks, along with missionary Reverend Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins) and his daughter Margareta (Ulla Jacobsson). Their slim chances of a successful defense are strengthened by strategy and firepower, but the numbers are most certainly not in their favor. So, from a purely story-driven perspective, Zulu is prime movie material, bolstered by an epic scope, a deliberate pace, visceral action and more than a one-sided "us vs. them" perspective. Though Chard, Bromhead and company are undoubtedly given the lion's share of screen time, the comparisons and contrasts between soldiers on both sides makes Zulu feel like more than purely sensationalized action.
From a technical standpoint, Zulu also shines. The detailed production design and unique, sun-drenched setting bolster a number of impressive battle sequences, while John Barry's excellent score doesn't call attention to itself unless the situation demands it. Though several of historical inaccuracies have been debated over the years, the resounding majority of Zulu's 138-minute lifespan feels genuine and accessible. It's definitely in the top tier of classic war dramas, especially when paired with the excellent 1979 prequel Zulu Dawn, also written (but not directed) by Cy Endfield.
Available previously as a Criterion laserdisc, public domain DVDs from Goodtimes and The Roan Group, an "official" MGM DVD in 20003, a region-free Blu-ray edition (available for import the UK) and more, Zulu makes its domestic high-definition debut courtesy of Twilight Time. Pairing a solid A/V presentation with a handful of interesting supplements, it's an acceptable but expensive package that fans will enjoy...and limited to 3,000 copies, so get 'em while they're hot.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer is a fairly solid effort that easily eclipses both DVD releases. Image detail is striking at times, color reproduction is good (if not slightly yellowed) and a steady, satisfying layer of light grain is on display from start to finish. There's a mild amount of edge enhancement and image flickering which can be easily spotted along the way; it's a little distracting at times but hardly a deal-breaker. Black levels and contrast are fairly consistent, textures can be strong and, overall, contributes to a pleasing image that showcases the cinematography quite well. Sadly, I don't have a copy of the UK Blu-ray for direct comparison, but I can't imagine it being substantially better than this. Zulu can undoubtedly look stronger on Blu-ray, but not by leaps and bounds.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.
From an audio standpoint, Zulu is also quite pleasing at times. Viewers have the option of DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 or DTS-HD MA 2.0; the former preserves Zulu's original mix, while the latter offers a more modern but tasteful remix that fans should enjoy. Either way, Zulu is 50 years old and certainly not a sonic tour de force but still has moments of depth, crisp dialogue, and---if you choose the stereo option---a fair amount of channel separation. John Barry's score also benefits from the wider mix, though for some reason the MGM "lion roar" that precedes the film sounds notably weaker with this option (possibly a defect?). Optional English SDH subtitles are offered during the film...but they read more like straight subtitles than genuine captions, meaning noises, character names are not consistently identified.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen below, the menu designs are plain but perfectly functional, plus they load pretty quickly. This one-disc release is housed in a standard keepcase (no holes!), adorned with colorful artwork and a nice little Booklet
adorned with production stills, vintage promotional artwork and notes by TT regular Julie Kirgo. Simple, effective and appropriate.
The main supplement is a new Audio Commentary
with film historians (and TT regulars) Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman, who do a fine job of filling the 138-minute session with plenty of production tidbits, personal reflections and other insights. They have no qualms about naming Zulu
as one of their favorite films, but this is anything but your average love-fest; more often than not, they focus on the history behind Zulu
's story and how the film shares---and departs from---what actually took place. Again, a solid audio commentary that die-hard fans will enjoy from start to finish.
The remaining extras are less substantial but still worth a mention. These include a feature-length Isolated Score Track (smartly presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0), as well as the film's original Theatrical Trailer and a non-related Promo Trailer for MGM's 90th anniversary. The aforementioned UK Blu-ray package also includes an alternate audio commentary and a multi-part production documentary, but those bonus features have not been carried over to this release.
Cy Endfield's Zulu remains a massive, engaging and accessible film 50 years after its original release. Featuring strong performances (including the first major role for Michael Caine), excellent production values, an enjoyable score by John Barry and a handful of memorable characters, anyone with a soft spot for historical war dramas should definitely give it a shot. Other versions of Zulu are available (including a well-regarded region-free UK Blu-ray), but this Twilight Time release features a solid A/V presentation and a small collection of informative supplements. It's an expensive purchase, to be sure...but, as with all Twilight Time packages, Zulu is only up for grabs while supplies last. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.