A magnificent epic battle film of a famous seige of only a couple of hundred British soldiers by thousands of Zulu warriors, Zulu has long been a favorite 'boys own' true adventure tale. Released in 70mm in 1964, and directed by the expatriate blacklisted American director Cy Endfield (Try and Get Me, Mysterious Island), Zulu leaned a bit toward an all-out glorification of the colonial forces, and military gallantry in general, but the bare facts of the battle are impressive on their own.
In 1964, nobody expected an expensive epic to be critical of British military history. Endfield saved that for 1979's completely different political climate. His Zulu Dawn was a prequel that explained the fighting that occurred the day before Zulu's battle at Rorke's Drift. In Zulu, the previous encounter at Isandlwanda is described as solely a massacre of 1200 troops at the hands of an overwhelming number of Zulus, and audiences assumed that the events were some sort of massive native uprising. As Zulu Dawn later clarified, what actually happened was an unprovoked invasion of Zululand by the governer of the pre-South African Natal province. Thanks to the incompetence and arrogance of Lord Chelmsford, the majority of his forces were lost.
Before Vietnam, such disastrous folly wasn't considered a subject for good entertainment. The desperate siege at Rorke's drift, with its obvious bravery and gallantry, was perfect. With an intelligent script and complete historical accuracy, the battle was restaged on a massive scale. Thousands of Zulu tribesmen served as extras, and their chief played his ancestor, Czetsuayo.
The battles are breathtaking, even if it's hard to undestand why the Zulu commanders only send a few hundred footsoldiers against Rorke's drift in any one assault, allowing the defenders to cut them down one after another. At Isandlwanda, armed only with spears and asagai knives, they took the heavily armed British the only way they could, overwhelming them with sheer numbers. Perhaps Czetsuwayo wasn't prepared to lose large numbers of fighters again; or maybe there were tribal or religious factors at play.
The internal story of the British defenders is much more openly critical and incisive. The two acting lieutenants, played by Michael Caine and co-producer Stanley Baker, squabble over seniority issues to determine who's in command. The discipline among the ranks is astounding, with 200 surely-miserable men quietly following orders and standing in rigid formations in silence awaiting battle commands. With almost eerie calm, the color sergeant played by Nigel Green keeps the men in line and focused, and has time to deal with skittish privates (some as young as 17) and the troublesome missionaries played by Jack Hawkins and Ulla Jacobsen. The corps doctor, Patrick Magee, is a standout, as is sick-house malingerer James Booth.
The picture does a fine job of contrasting the British military system with that of the Zulu army, which follows a similar command structure, and itself is composed of 'traditions': tribal chants that help gear them up for their withering attacks. At one point the enemies trade songs across the battlefield. The final minutes have a stirring evocation of the mutual respect of warriors & military traditions, British and Zulu, that places both outside political considerations. However, what we mostly remember is the old Colonial story: we identify with a small number of white fighters as they annihilate many hundreds of non-white opponents, about whom we learn very little.
The Roan Group's DVD of Zulu, a public domain film, is only marginally acceptable. Far better than earlier budget releases that spat out the same ugly pan'n scan print, Roan's letterboxed, flat picture is reasonably good-looking but lacking in fine color and detail. The encoding also barely makes the grade, as the picture details break down into lines and digital patterning at any monitor size over 26 inches or so. There are hardly any damage or blemishes on the print used, but occasional flaws look like old tape dropouts and hits ... as if this were mastered from an old 1" tape of better-than-average quality. A special logo claims that the show was remastered from 'original film elements', and perhaps it was, but the results are more in line with the quality we were used to with laserdiscs, not DVD.
The audio is strong and clear, but I don't think I heard any stereo separation. There are no subtitles, closed-captions, or audio choices. The only extra is a text section that repeats the cast and credits, and offers several pages of interesting, well-chosen production facts.
MGM, which holds actual pre-print film elements for Zulu, has announced that it is working on a disc of this title, and it will possibly arrive in 2003.
Review date 10.25.2002