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The Battle For Rorke's Drift
Member Name: Jarisleif
Advantages: Stunning from start to finish
Disadvantages: Very few
"Zulu" is a 1964 film that was written by John Prebble & Cy Endfield and directed by Cy Endfield, who has also sat in the big chair for "Universal Soldier" (1979), "Mysterious Island" (1961) and "De Sade" (1969) amongst others.
Warning: Spoilers will likely be given during this review.
The film was 139 minutes in length and starred Stanley Baker ("Hell Drivers", "The Angry Hills", "Yesterday's Enemy") as Lieutenant John Chard, Jack Hawkins ("The Planters Wife", "Lawrence of Arabia", "Angels Five One") as Reverent Otto Witt, and Michael Caine ("Educating Rita", "The Quiet American", "Escape to Victory") as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead.
The plot for the film reads as follows: In 1879, a communiqué from Lord Chelmsford to the Secretary of State for War in London, narrated by Richard Burton, details the crushing defeat of a British force at the hands of the Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana.
The year is 1879 and the Battle of Isandlwana has just been fought, which resulted in a comfortable victory for the Zulus but they weren't done there as an army of 4,000 went on towards Rorke's Drift, which was manned by just 150 British and colonial troops. What followed over that day and night in January, 1879, is depicted in this brilliant depiction which had some wonderful acting from Sir Michael Caine in his breakthrough film and notable performances from others as well. So without further ado, let's get on with the review. Is it any good? Let's find out!
The first thing to note is that the Zulu people are a fearsome tribe and that includes the women. The warrior dances performed must have put a sense of fear into their opponents and their movements throughout the film are wonderfully choreographed - something that must have taken a very long time to perfect and perform. The shields were made from cowhide and I loved the way they looked, but I expect the Zulus themselves probably didn't care how they looked as long as they protected them from enemy spears. The sound of the Zulus as they're marching toward Rorke's Drift is a very powerful sound, and it must have struck fear into the hearts of the British troops who were to defend the fort.
Pleasing to the eye is the wonderful scenery, which is shows clouds on the hills of the amazing South African countryside. I wasn't so sure where it was filmed at first but credit to the location scouts on going with places which are historically linked to the battles. That adds a special touch in my view, because not only can you witness the actors portraying the people who fought and died in the wars, but you can also see where these bloody and violent hostilities took place, and it can give you a sense of understanding of what went through the minds of the Zulu and British armies.
There are a few moment which should be cherished, and one of those is the Welshmen of the group who have taken it upon themselves to boost morale by singing in a few scenes here and there, and I especially enjoyed "Men of Harlech" which begins with one person and quickly spreads to a wonderful chorus of men. I know it's clichéd to have Welsh singers, but I thought it was excellent and it worked really well. A sing-off between the two factions - just like at football matches today - gave me the tingles and I couldn't help but feel for those that had to endure that battle. Speaking of battle, I did appreciate the slow build-up to the start of the battle. I knew it was coming but I just didn't know when, and I found myself wanting the action to start even though it's an integral part of the film to portray what was happening before it. Just as the anticipation builds to boiling point, Zulus finally appear on the horizon and it's then when I started to sit up and appreciate what I've just seen.
There is a small scene when soup is being cooked and it looks a lot like dish water but I guess that steak was off the menu most days. Other scenes which grabbed my attention include a part where the soldiers are carrying sand bags to shore up defences and the actors seem to forget that they're supposed to be heavy. I did laugh when a sick soldier broke windows in the hospital part of the fort and the frame came loose - I don't think that was supposed to be kept in, but I liked it anyway. Another scene which was quite poignant was when a company of Boer horsemen arrive at the camp and tell the officers that defending is futile and leave them, despite Chard's cries for help. The silence in the camp as they realise that they will all probably die there is powerful.
What we get throughout the film is almost air of rivalry between the two Lieutenants, Chard and Bromhead, and they clash on a few occasions about what to do or who's pulling rank, but the double tier firing was a master stroke. One line discharged their weapons and then knelt down to re-load while the second line fired and they both swapped and did the same again. A lovely little dialogue came when Bromhead shouted "Fire at will" and Private Owen said to a colleague: "That's very nice of him". The kill scenes aren't the best in today's day and age, but they were probably good for the time, and the final battle had some intense and gripping action. Perhaps the most sobering moment of the entire film came when the final roll call taking place, with the names of the dead being called out and not answering back mixed amongst those that survived.
In summary, I thought "Zulu" was an excellent film and it's right up there in my top 5 of all-time favourite British films. It might even be my favourite, though I do love "The Long Good Friday", "A Clockwork Orange" and the remake of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" amongst others. What makes "Zulu" special is its unique look at a famous battle in British history and I do like films that tell a story which has actually happened. It's no surprise that Michael Caine became a household name and landed plumb roles after this and that's all credit to the directing of Cy Endfield. If you like war films and historical ones at that, you're going to love this. If you don't, you might want to give it a watch anyway. You may change your mind!
The critics were mixed with their opinion of the film:
Time Out: Zulu is a fairly tough-minded and interesting account of a company of Welsh soldiers doing their bit for somebody else's Queen and Country in an alien land.
Variety: Joseph E. Levine makes an impressive debut in British film production with Zulu, a picture that allows ample scope for his flamboyant approach to showmanship.
rec.arts.movies.reviews: Its failure to present any kind of historical context ill serves the indigenous African peoples whom Endfield presumes to honor.
New York Times: Students of such things in movies should appreciate this one, for it has all the standard ingredients of the heroic hold-the-fort film.
TV Guide: This amazing film is devastatingly accurate in its depiction of the Rorke's Drift action, and is superbly directed by Cy Endfield, whose battle scenes are some of the most terrifying ever committed to film.
My rating: 9/10
Summary: A great film. It will keep you engrossed until the end.