Zulu: 50 Years On

zulu baker and caine

Below is a great post by Ian Knight, a writer and historian who is internationally regarded as a leading authority on the nineteenth-century history of the Zulu kingdom, and in particular the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. I hope he doesn’t mind my sharing his fascinating recollections of the film by director Cy Endfield and producer / star, Stanley Baker. It addresses the merits of the film, in this its 50th anniversary year; the question of colonialism versus courage, and the shaping of awareness and pride in the Zulu nation and South Africa’s “cultural narrative.” Please take the time to visit Ian’s blog for more fascinating insights.


January 22 is always a significant date for me. Three of the most intriguing, dramatic and shocking battles of the Anglo-Zulu War all took place on that day – Nyezane, iSandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, and 2014 marks 135 years since they took place. That in itself is a rather unsettling thought for me since I first visited the battlefields in 1979, for the centenary commemoration, and even by my dubious maths it means I’ve been going there for thirty-five years – damn, I’m getting old. Although I have been at Isandlwana ‘on the day’ many times, I shall be in the UK this year (in fact I shall be attending the auction of the late David Smith’s Zulu collection at Wallis and Wallis auctioneers in Lewes). The day usually passes for me in a series of mental historical updates – ‘around about now Pearson was crossing the Nyezane’ -and with a certain melancholy yearning for Africa, but it is not entirely inappropriate that this year I shall be at home. Next Wednesday marks another anniversary, and one very much bound up with my own fascination for the story of the Zulu people and their tortuous entanglement with the British Empire, and my epiphany came not in South Africa but in a cinema seat in Brighton, on the Sussex coast, way back in 1964. That was when I first saw the feature-film Zulu, which was released in the UK on 22 January 1964 (the timing was not, of course, a coincidence) – fifty years ago.

I can still remember something of the experience of seeing it for the first time. In those days there were no Blu-rays, no DVDs, no videos, and an agreement with the principle TV companies kept new films off British TV, such as it was then , for years, so if you wanted to see a film it was pretty much the cinema or nothing. I must have been seven when Zulu was released, although I have no recollection now of how long after it came out we actually caught up with it. My parents had already noticed that I was developing a taste for the historical epics which were enjoying a late flourish at the time, and Zulu had been given a ‘U’ certificate – for ‘universal‘, meaning there were no age restrictions on viewing it. Even though a trip to the cinema was more of an adventure then than it is now, I think they regarded it as no more than suitable fodder to keep me quiet for a couple of hours. Personally I had no idea before I saw it what the film was about – the name ‘Zulu’ conjured up (as of course it was intended) vague images of wild Africa and of adventure, but in real terms I had never heard of the Anglo-Zulu War, let alone the battle of Rorke’s Drift. I do remember, though, being intrigued by the UK poster-art, which I‘m sure I had noted before seeing the film itself; in those days posters were splashed across hoardings all over town, and there seemed to be something fiercely intriguing about Zulu’s, which featured the huge title lettering standing in the open veldt, like some colonial-era Ozimandias, inscribed with African totems (which owed nothing to Zulu culture, as it happens), whilst tiny soldiers battled warriors at its base.

Well, if the film itself had disappointed, I suppose I wouldn’t be writing this – or have written a good deal else besides. My memory might be playing tricks – perhaps it was just because of my age and size – but I think we saw it in some wide-screen format as my impression remains that the action stretched round and enveloped me. I remember the moment I was hooked – and it was right at the very beginning, during that opening sequence set on the devastated field of iSandlwana. The camera pans around the aftermath of the battle, scanning the British dead, scattered like discarded toy soldiers, their jackets bright red against the ochre African landscape, the only sound, once Richard Burton’s rich, mellifluous narration has faded away, the crackle of the flames from burning wagons.

Zulu Isandhlwana[1]

Then finally it comes to rest on the bloody hand of a dead soldier, draped over a canon. Oh that hand! Up there on the screen it seemed about twice the size I was then, and it was destined to haunt my imagination for decades to come. And, as a party of splendidly dressed African warriors entered the scene screen left, picking up the rifles from the dead soldiers, I found myself wondering open-mouthed – what on earth has happened here?

In a sense I’ve spent my professional life trying to answer that very question.

I still love the marvellous existential simplicity of that opening. No agonising about a political context here – you, the viewer, are plunged into the dramatic crux of the story. It’s Africa in the days of the redcoats, and as far as audiences in Britain were concerned, something has gone very wrong. It’s interesting to note that that opening was only apparently decided on quite late in the day (for a study of the making of the film see Sheldon Hall‘s excellent Zulu; With Some Guts Behind It); in some early drafts of the script the camera was to settle on a lizard crawling over a dead hand, whilst Stanley Baker – the film’s co-producer and star – claimed in an interview that it had originally been planned to open with the dance sequence at King Cetshwayo’s royal homestead which, in the final cut, runs after the title credits instead.

Yet the final positioning was undoubtedly the right one, for in 1964 that opening was not only a dramatic one but, in Britain at least, a challenging one. I certainly remember that, even by the age of seven, I had imbued something of the conventional view of our Imperial past – that we were always the good guys, and that the British Army always won its battles. By placing that image of dead and defeated redcoats before the audience right at the beginning of the film, Zulu not only created the context of tension against which the rest of the film’s drama played out, but also looked askance at the prevailing way Britain regarded its colonial past. And that, to my mind, is the real reason why the film has stood the test of time, and remains a potent piece of cinema fifty years on. By focussing on the experiences of a small group of low-ranking soldiers – the most exalted among them two lowly lieutenants – it avoids the trap of gung-ho jingoism, and instead presents a cynical other-ranks view of Empire in which soldiers fight, not for Queen and Country, but ‘because we’re ‘ere, lad. Nobody else. Just us.’

zulu troops

As such, in its way, it offers a polished critique of colonialism, in which both sides share an extraordinary courage in combat, but our heroes express a disdain for their cause. What are we doing here, the film – and the soldiers – ask time and again, what is this Imperial adventure to us, did we ‘ever see a Zulu walking down the city road?’ Africa itself seems hostile, the little garrison in the red coats dwarfed by the spectacular mountain amphitheatre behind, the Zulus appearing over the crest of hills or rising up from the long grass like a malign spirit of Africa personified.

Zulu Impi-Commanders[1]

They belong here, the film is saying – you do not. Nor is there any refuge to be found behind the glittering façade of military glory; at the very end, as Burton’s voice again intones the names of the Victoria Cross-winning heroes, more like a lament than a eulogy, the camera wanders over new scenes of desolation which mirror those at iSandlwana, of wounded and exhausted men and the burial detail, digging graves.

There is a strong issue of class conflict in the film, too. This was probably inevitable given the political leanings of the producers – Baker, a Welsh miner’s son, was a life-long Labour support, whilst his American co-producer and director, Cy Endfield, had been blacklisted in Hollywood for his alleged communist sympathies – but it was also in keeping with the spirit of the times. Most of the British actors in the film had some military service behind them – the young Michael Caine had done his National Service in the Korean War – but by 1964 there were the stirrings of change in popular attitudes towards the Empire in Britain. India was already independent, the Suez fiasco had shown that it was America, not Britain, who now held the whip hand in international affairs, and old colonies in Africa were steadily being given up. There were the stirrings of a psychological retreat, as well as a physical one, away from the image of itself as an Imperial power which had dominated British thought for centuries. In Zulu Imperial adventures are attributed to the old ruling elite, to a world of rigid class distinction, where power and privilege belong by right of birth – the class to which Caine’s character, Lt. Bromhead, belongs but from which, over the course of the film, his experiences distance him. Orders issued by ’somebody’s son and heir, who got a commission before he learned to shave’ are ridiculed by the ordinary soldiers upon whom the consequences fall, and there’s no doubt we are asked to identify with them as the Voice of the Common Man. The Common Man of 1964, that is, for in 1879 attitudes, particularly in the military, were much more squarely behind the Empire – but in its willingness to confront established views about the past Zulu is surprisingly modern, looking ahead to more overtly iconoclastic films like Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) rather than the simplistic heroism of 1930s Hollywood Imperial adventures.

Zulu Attack[1]

There is one area, though, where Zulu troubles modern audiences. It is a film about a historical event in which the troops on one side were white men, and those on the other black; can a film about a conflict in which both sides, to a degree, defined themselves in racial terms, entirely escape the judgement that it is really just about ’white bullets and black bodies’? In my opinion yes it can – both because its underlying message is a deeply anti-colonial one, and because, whilst it makes no bones about presenting only one side of the story – that of the ordinary soldiers trapped by circumstance within the British perimeter – it takes great care to treat the Zulus with an on-screen respect which, even by 1964, was still rare. In its depiction of the Zulu enemy, Zulu is very different to, say, the way mainstream Hollywood was still representing Native Americans – and their cause – in popular Westerns.

Zulu Cetewayo-and-the-Witts[1]

In this regard the attitude of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi is interesting. Buthelezi is both the traditional leader of the Buthelezi people, a member of the Zulu royal family, and a politician – in 1964 his political career was just beginning when he was approached by Enfield to play his maternal great-grandfather, King Cetshwayo. Over the years, looking back on the film, Buthelezi has clearly pondered whether it was appropriate to be involved in a film which was centred upon a historic Zulu defeat. At times he has expressed some ambivalence towards it, but it is interesting to note that when, in July 2013, he was given the newly-instituted ‘Simon Mabhunu Sabela Award’ by the KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission for his contribution to South African cinema, he seemed to have embraced its positive impact on popular understanding of Zulu history around the world. ‘It was remarkable at the time’, he said in his acceptance speech, ‘to engage so many [Zulu] extras. But what was more remarkable was that they were not emotionally removed from their work. Indeed, these men found themselves re-enacting the deeds of their own grandfathers. Somehow this drew the audience into what was, in the end, a very human experience. The memories evoked by the film were very recent in our national consciousness. They were part of the cultural narrative we grew up with and part of what shaped us as a nation’. Tellingly, Buthelezi recognised that ‘international interest in the film’ had also shaped interest ‘in our nation’s history’.

zulu alt ending - witts return with cavalry column

In an alternate ending, the Witts return at the head of a cavalry column after the battle.

Indeed it has; although the film enjoyed only limited popularity in South Africa – where it was deemed unsuitable for black audiences and the Zulus who appeared in it were only allowed to see it at all by Buthelezi’s direct intervention, and where the ruling Nationalist Government had a disdain for British Imperial history – it reinvented and re-cast interest in the story of Rorke’s Drift elsewhere, particularly in Britain. It is ultimately responsible for today’s Anglo-Zulu War industry, for the surprise growth in tourism to the battlefield areas since the 1990s, and for the acres of newsprint which burst forth whenever a related artefact is put up for auction, a re-enactment occurs on the battlefields, or a new figure emerges from the fog of history to claim that they, too, had stood behind those iconic mealie-bag barricades.

Which begs another question, of course – fifty years on, can Zulu be said to be any good as history? Well, now …Of course, like all cinematic representations of reality, it has changed and distorted events and characters not only to suit a dramatic narrative but to make them recognisable to modern audiences (there we are again, back to that sixties jaundiced view of Empire, a view which resonates with us today, but which the real Chard and Bromhead would scarcely have recognised). The film distorts the sequence of events – most of the battle actually took place at night, which would not have made for an interesting viewing experience, and there was no dramatic attack in the peachy light of dawn the following morning. No one sang ‘Men of Harlech’, the garrison was not composed entirely of Welshmen, the uniforms were far too clean and, well, not quite right. Col. Sgt. Bourne – the magnificent Nigel Green in the film – was only in his twenties at the time of the battle, Pte. Hook was a teetotaller and something of a model soldier, the missionary, Otto Witt, had sent his daughter (who was significantly younger than Ulla Jacobsson) away to safety days before – and so on, and so on. And to a world conditioned by Saving Private Ryan to the realistic depiction of the violence of battle, Zulu is indeed rather muted, a reflection that the rather tougher censorship laws of the day were reluctant to allow anything too graphic to be seen by a general audience. It is interesting, though, to note that the vast majority of those whose interest in the history was shaped by an early contact with the film are more than willing to forgive Zulu its faults.

Indeed, the point which has come back to me time and time again over the last fifty years is this. If Zulu had never been made, would anyone now, apart perhaps from a handful of learned historians, know or care about the British invasion of Zululand, and the battles of iSandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, at all?

Originally posted 2014-06-10 16:31:06. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Read and post comments on this article