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DEATH AND DEFIANCE
Member Name: Mauri
Date: 13/08/12, updated on 15/08/12 (71 review reads)
Advantages: Great action movie based on historical fact
Disadvantages: Michael Caine's 'posh' accent
Was this going to be another British military rout in the Anglo/Zulu war? Was it a noble but ultimately heroic defeat or an unlikely victory for the outnumbered British forces?
The battle of Rorke's Drift has gone down in British military history as our own modern Thermopylae where a small group of Spartans faced the might of the Persian army and it remains the military encounter for which the most Victoria crosses were awarded to one regiment.
The film represents the events that took place at Rorke's Drift on that famous day and manages to bring to the screen the brutality and heroism of the men involved on both sides of the conflict. While some artistic licence was inevitably used in depicting the events for dramatic purposes it remains a fairly accurate, if rather sanitised historical account of the battle. Made in 1964 it includes a stupendous cast of top British character actors and represents a first starring role for a young Michael Caine.
The project was the brainchild of Stanley Baker a huge star and leading man in the 1960's who together with the film's director Cy Endfield set up a production company Diamond Films especially to make the film. Baker had known of the real life events of the battle and was keen to bring them to the screen. By taking the lead role of the garrison commander Lt. John Chard for himself he ensure the project had box office bankability and then persuaded some of the most talented British actors of his generation to also take part. Baker was a powerful screen presence and this role as the tough but beleaguered commander plays to his acting strengths. Over his short career, he died prematurely aged only 48 Baker specialised in tough, gritty unpredictable characters probably indicative of his upbringing in a welsh mining family and while not classically good looking his dark brooding and rather dangerous features hit the mark with many female fans.
Michael Caine gives an impressive performance as the inexperienced junior officer unprepared for the battle. In this early outing Caine's later loveable but roguish cockney persona is hidden away behind his clipped and at times rather unconvincing upper-class accent but despite this his screen charisma is obvious and it is this role which enabled him to go on to later iconic 60's starring roles in the 'Ipcress File' and 'Alfie'. The part only came to him through Baxter's insistence after the studio had originally wanted Terence Stamp then already a rising star for the role. What made things more difficult is the fact that Caine and Stamp were sharing a flat at the time.
Impressive supporting roles are everywhere to be seen. Patrick Magee is excellent as the hard pressed surgeon giving one of his trademark quirky and idiosyncratic performances which made him a favourite of the horror genre later in the decade. Also present is star of 40's and 50's movies Jack Hawkins as the fanatical Swedish missionary Otto Witt. Another young well-known actor of the time James Booth who also happened to be one of Baker's best mates got the role of ne'er-do-well cockney private Hook, a role originally meant for Caine and made it his own. The smashing supporting cast is rounded off by Nigel Green another familiar face on 60's and 70's movies as colour sergeant Bourne and of course there is a small voice cameo by Baker's fellow Welshman and friend Richard Burton as the narrator. The film also features Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi who later became an important leader and player in the struggle against apartheid as the chief Cetewayo of the Zulu warriors in the film.
Partly filmed on location in Natal province the film is justly remembered in large part for its realistic battle sequences shot in glorious old style widescreen Technicolor using a huge number of native Zulu tribesmen to represent Zulu army. The director Cy Endfield handled the action with great skill and masterfully increases the tension as the outpost faces wave after wave of Zulu attacks. The script which was a collaboration between Endfield and original writer John Prebble who first told the story in a magazine article. The film does a good job in getting beyond the events of the battle itself and to examining in more detail the relationships and characters of those involved. The tensions within the group of colonist and soldiers and between officers and enlisted men is cleverly highlighted in the build up to the Zulu attacks. To save money on travel costs the indoor scenes were filmed in studios in Twickenham and some of the actors never got to go to South Africa. In the end the film ended up being made for £2million a modest amount even from that period but it is to the credit of the director and producers that it doesn't come across as being a low budget movie.
As you would expect from a war film of this period the subject matter does not allow for strong female characters but Swedish actress Ulla Jacobsson gives a fine performance as Margareta the beautiful mismatched wife of reverend Witt.
Some may criticise the film for being a little jingoistic and glamourising the 'stiff upper lip' colonial role of the British in South Africa. It is easy to forget watching the heroic feats of the soldiers that the British were an invading force and instigated a brutal colonial regime of the Zulu nation. While these criticisms do have some merit it should be stated in the defence of Baxter and the other filmmakers that they were keen to see the conflict from both sides a difficult thing to do while filming in apartheid South Africa. Even though the Zulu warriors are not in any way personalised but are represented as a faceless horde of bloodthirsty warriors, their courage and heroism in the conflict is also acknowledged as is their some might say justified motivation for the war in general. It might have made for an even more interesting film if some of the Zulu fighters had been fleshed out as characters, if we could have seen the conflict more from their viewpoint but maybe this is asking a little too much bearing in mind the political situation in South Africa at the time and the legal constraints that had to be applied. As it was the south African authorities were not happy at the portrayal of the Zulus as equals to British soldiers.
One final feature to mention is the excellent soundtrack by supreme film composer John Barry who had already made his name with his previous work on Bond films 'Dr No' and 'From Russia With Love'.
THE DVD AND BONUS FEATURES
THEATRICAL TRAILER-sensationalist trailer from the time of the film release lingering somewhat longer than needed on the Zulu dance performed by 200 semi-clad Zulu virgins!
COMMENTARY with film historian Sheldon Hall and second unit director Robert Porter- Interesting insights from both commentators.
THE MAKING OF ZULU: ROLL OF HONOUR
This is the first of two short features telling the story of how the movie was made. It includes interview and anecdotes from Robert Porter the second unit director, Lady Ellen Baker widow of Stanley Baker, James Booth, Jan Prebble widow of John Prebble the original writer, Glynn Edwards one of the actors (later of Minder fame) and others. These and others explain how the script came to be written and how finance was raised and how they managed to keep within the restrictive £2 million pounds budget. The film also faced problems of shooting in natal province in apartheid South Africa the actors tell of the presence of secret police on set and how baker managed to get around the race laws not allowing Zulu actors from getting equity rates for their work Baker decided to give them the cattle seen in the film and the building made for the sets, which then became schools and hospitals for the Zulus.
THE MAKING OF ZULU : ' AND SNAPPETH THE SPEAR IN SUNDER'
This documentary featuring many of the same people has more anecdotes and background stories on the filming and on the cast and crew's interaction with the Zulu. I especially enjoyed hearing how the Zulu extras had to be introduced to the concept of cinema by being shown some old silent films and then how they quickly took to moviemaking with great enthusiasm leading to some great overacting still visible in parts of the battle scenes. A part of the feature is also devoted to the composer John Barry and how the Zulu's traditional music influenced in his writing of the film score. Finally we get a little about the film's star Baker and his premature death from lung cancer aged only 48. and the lasting legacy of the film he starred in and produced.
Both mini documentaries are worth watching after seeing the film to add a little background to the story and the people involved.
'Zulu' is a thoroughly enjoyable action movie well acted by all the cast and notable for kick starting the career on of Britain's best known and best loved actor Michael Caine. Its portrayal of the battle is sympathetic to both sides and the dramatic licence taken with the story doesn't detract from the astonishing events of that day. In reality the conduct of both the Zulu and the British was not as honourable as the film would like us to believe and atrocities occurred in the aftermath of the battle and subsequently during the longer conflict by both Zulu and British forces. Such details are not in the remit of this film and as a piece of drama based on historical fact it works far better than most. The film was a huge box office success and owning this copy on DVD is well worth the money.
'Zulu' on DVD can be bought from Amazon uk for £3.72 and delivered free.
© Mauri 2012
Summary: The story of the battle of Rorke's Drift in the Anglo/Zulu war