I had fully intended to write about The Patriot this week. It's a guilty pleasure of a film. It's pure puffy-shirted nonsense, and ultimately more about World War II than the American Revolution. (I know, figure that one out.) But so many people already know about The Patriot that it feels like a column cop-out, even if it is appropriate to the holiday. And who wants to read about a Mel Gibson film this week, anyway?
So, I thought I'd tackle another film centered on British colonialism, and the loss of one nation's independence. Zulu is a film I always meant to go back and research after it was oh-so-casually namedropped in my 19th Century Europe class. There's not much of that class I actually remember, as I was sick the entire semester with bronchitis. My notes actually ran in swirls and loops around the page because I was so doped up on drugs, so it's a miracle I recall a Zulu reference. We never actually watched it. Movies were almost always verboten. My professor merely said "You guys remember that Michael Caine movie? Well, this is that war." Everyone tittered in that way history students always do -- oh please, that movie was so inaccurate! -- when in reality, they were probably all holding back from chanting "Zulu! Zulu!" or something. It's only in retrospect I realize we were all dorks doing stuff like that in our heads.
But I digress. One of the reasons I wanted to do this column was to research stuff I didn't know about, and after World's Deadliest Warriors showed off how powerful a Zulu shield was, well, it was time to find out exactly why those Zulus wanted to kill Michael Caine's battalion.
Zulu opens quite calmly (and poshly!) with Richard Burton informing us that the British have suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Zulus at Isandlwana. It then moves quite calmly and incongruously to Zulu King Cetawayo observing a Zulu marriage ceremony, which is being witnessed by the prim Swedish missionary Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins) and his daughter, Margareta (Ulla Jacobsson). Her bosom is heaving at the stirring sight of the majestic, near-naked Zulu and the indignity of marrying so many maidens to so many warriors. A runner informs King Cetewayo of the victory at Isandlwana, and the village erupts in victory and preparation for another battle. The missionaries flee, hoping to warn the British regiment at Rorke's Drift of the impending attack. They also hope they will be able to evacuate the sick and wounded soldiers.
The regiment isn't exactly in disarray, but it's not in top fighting condition either. It's being commanded by the limp-wristed Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine). Royal engineer Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker) is simply trying to "build a bridge" and seethes under his command. When word of the imminent attack reaches them, Chard pulls seniority, and takes command of the missionary post. He does his best to fortify the post, though everything works against him. Otto Witt gets drunk, and incites the Natal native soldiers to flee. The Boers refuse to help. All seems against the British troops as the Zulus line up menacingly on the horizon. After two hot and horrific days, 139 British soldiers (or what's left of them) prove victorious against three to four thousand Zulu troops. The Zulu salute them as valiant warriors and depart, while Burton tells us that eleven of the valiant won the prestigious Victoria Cross.
The Historical Background
Zulu gives absolutely no context to the film. It even goes so far as to imply the British were there by sheer accident, and that it was all the Dutch colonists fault. At one point, one of the characters even says something to this effect to the Boer soldiers. "After all, it's your country." But in truth, the Battle of Rorke's Drift is part of the Anglo-Zulu War, and there's a reason it's called the Anglo-Zulu War and not the Boer-Zulu War. It was England against the Zulu nation. The film's British bewilderment is really silly, and smacks of post-colonial whitewashing.
Well, technically the war did start with the Dutch. Zulu king-to-be Cetshwayo offered the Boer settlers a strip of land along the border of their Utrecht district if they would turn over his brother, Umtonga. This strip of land included Rorke's Drift. Cetshwayo later regretted the deal, and tried to reclaim the land. He managed to win some of it back. Henry Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon, thought it would be neat if South Africa could become a self-governed dominion like Canada. But there were two major problems with that, such as fact that it already contained two foreign kingdoms -- the Dutch South African Republic, and the Zulu Kingdom. But hey, who cared about the Zulu Kingdom, right? Cetshwayo and the British had a few skirmishes along the border, but England needed a stronger excuse to invade the Zulu Kingdom.
They found three unrelated incidents to do so. Two involved wives of a Zulu leader, and the third involved two Europeans who were detained by Zulus and roughed up a bit. Though there was some effort at diplomacy (too long to relate here), and ultimatums were delivered, the British declared war on January 11, 1879. Rorke's Drift was one of the staging points of invasion, though Cetshwayo had given orders not to attack it. While they weren't prepared for the Zulu to attack this specific point, they weren't running around wondering why, why, why is this happening to us? They probably would have thought "Oh! We didn't expect them to attack but we are at war with the Zulus, so let's show them what we've got."
But knowing the British and the Zulu were in a conscious state of war takes the shock and edge off the opening of the film, doesn't it? And it isn't as cool knowing the Zulus eventually lost their independence thanks to this war.
Is It Accurate?
Well, there was a Battle of Rorke's Drift. All of the soldiers in the film really did fight there, as their names and Victoria Crosses are a matter of historical record. There's a lot of information about this soldier or that soldier being older, younger, smarter, or less pacifist than portrayed. There's even detailed information about their facial hair. Well, no film in the 1960s or 1970s ever managed to recreate historical hair styles. Even today, we tend to avoid putting our handsome actors in those hideous Victorian mustaches. Perhaps the silliest examples are in the main characters. Bromhead, portrayed as a pansy who is hardened by his first battle, was actually a well-liked officer. However, he was partially deaf, which rendered him unfit for hard duty, so he was sent to Rorke's Drift as it was unlikely to be attacked. Chard, the epitome of British manhood in the film, was widely considered lazy and useless. Private Henry Hook (James Booth), whose drunken and insubordinate antics provide the comic relief, was actually a reliable soldier who faithfully guarded the hospital as ordered. His family was so upset by his portrayal that they walked out of the movie.
The Natal native soldiers really did desert (some were even shot as they fled), but they didn't do so at the instigation of the Witts. Otto Witt was a real missionary, and he was at Rorke's Drift. He was actually a much younger man, who had a wife and two babies. He didn't warn them of the Zulu approach, though he happened to be one of the lookouts who initially saw them arrive. He wasn't a pacifist. He aided the British in any way he could, and stayed at Rorke's Drift to help defend the interests of white colonists. He did leave before the battle in order to protect his family.
The battle itself is accurate -- barring details like how wagons were or weren't overturned, cattle stampeding, anachronistic guns, the Zulus having top-of-the-line guns, and the singing contest at the end. But you have to let your army have one rah-rah-for-England moment in a movie, so anyone can forgive that moment. Less defensible is the Zulu salute at the end. In truth, the Zulus retreated. They did mass on the hills again, as if prepared to attack, but they themselves were just as exhausted, hungry, and low on ammunition as the British. Instead, the conclusion of the battle was typically Victorian. Wounded Zulus who had been left behind were rounded up and executed. About 500 died in all. The British survivors didn't fare much better, as they were without shelter or medical care, and disease spread through Rorke's Drift, though only three soldiers died.
What I find rather fascinating about Zulu though is that despite the careful omission of ugly colonial history, the film is remarkably fair in its portrayal of the Zulu. The Zulu cast was actually made up of Zulus, who had a large part in saying how the battle must be recreated. (A princess actually drew the battle in sand for the filmmakers. I love that.) Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a descendant of King Cetshwayo, plays him in the film. The main flaw comes in making them a rather faceless and fearful horde of natives. You don't know their side of the story at all. I'd like to think that modern filmmakers are a little more sensitive to this. Even Michael Bay managed to show us the Japanese side of Pearl Harbor. But I have to give credit to the filmmakers, as they could have just thrown a random African tribe at the audience, called it Zulu, and glorified in killing them off. While there's definitely a pride in the victory, and the Zulu are conveniently anonymous, the British soldiers seem to regret all the "butchery" that's going on. You can contrast this to any Western where whites slaughter Native Americans (who aren't even Native Americans, but white people painted brown), and it looks absolutely PC in comparison.
The real stereotypes come in not with the Zulus, but with the British troops! Half the film honestly plays as satire. There's a lot of "What, what!", "Allo guvnor!" "Me old lady!" type of caricature going on. The garrison is almost entirely Welsh (it wasn't in real life), and the film delights in making them out to be idiots who worry about singing and taking care of baby calves. It has the effect of making you pity them -- they have no idea what they're in for, poor fellows -- and root for the Zulus to wipe them out.
The timing of this film is also interesting. Throughout the 1960s, many of England's African colonies declared independence and South Africa became a republic outside the Commonwealth. Apartheid became entrenched, and become an international point of controversy. I may be wrong, but I've always been under the impression that a lot of immigrants from Africa (I'd love to list all the nations here, please don't think I generalize or think they're all the same), Jamaica, Trinidad, and Tobago began moving to England. There was a lot of racism and intolerance thrown their way. 1968 was a politically and socially turbulent time in a lot of countries, and England was no exception.
I've always wondered if Zulu was really trying to say anything about this. Is it, on some level, a fantasy of when white England was able to drive back African threats? On the surface, you could say so, but the movie isn't overtly racist. The drunken Hook even says that the Zulu have never done anything to him or England, so why bother to fight? I wouldn't say Zulu hearkens back to the glory days of colonialism, either. Many of the characters hint that they shouldn't even be there, and wish they'd stayed home, which suggests the filmmakers sided with the 1960s shedding of colonialism. I'm tempted to put Zulu in the category of Iraq and Vietnam movies that honor the troops, but disdain the cause they were fighting for.
But then you see one of the posters for the film (pictured above), and the question mark rears it's ugly head again. I know a lot of people would be tempted to dismiss it as a simple adventure film, but Burton's slow intoning of the Victoria Cross winners suggests it is meant as something more. It's certainly regarded very highly by critics and in British pop culture, far more than I was led to believe by my classmates in 19th Century Europe. Whether it's controversial to anyone beyond the descendants of Rorke's troops will take more research. I hope to return to the topic someday -- perhaps with the help of a Cinematical's readers? -- and find out.