Zulu: With Some Guts Behind It
Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett

by Sheldon Hall. Sheffield,UK: Tomahawk Press. 2005. 431 pp. Illus. Hardcover, $50.00

Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964) is perhaps the most distinguished action-oriented historical epic produced during a time noteworthy for the genre. Zulu recounts one of the most celebrated engagements in British military history, the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift, during which a tiny garrison of British troops fought four thousand Zulu warriors in a classic Last Stand narrative that resulted, surprisingly, in the victory of the British and the awarding of eleven Victoria Crosses to the defenders of the outpost. Not as lavish and sprawling as other films of its genre, Zulu focuses almost exclusively on gritty battle action and its impact on the soldiers of the garrison. Cy Endfield’s direction gives the film powerful dramatic tension, enhanced by a literate script and the participation of some of the greatest British character actors of the era. The film enjoyed success after its U.K. premiere, but had a lukewarm initial reception in the U.S. (due, according to Hall’s speculation, serious racial tensions during the civil rights movement). With numerous rereleases, however, particularly with the rise of cable TV and home video, Zulu attracted many devoted fans.

Sheldon Hall, an avid devotee of the film, has created a book that seems almost as much a labor of love as the film itself was for Endfield and the film’s coproducer and star, actor Stanley Baker, who is credited by many, including Hall, as the film’s true creator. Hall’s book is a painstaking account of the film’s realization through the various stages of its production and marketing. The book covers a good deal of ground, from sketches of the film’s distinguished cast (which included Michael Caine in his first starring role), to deleted script passages to the circumstances of filming in South Africa under apartheid.

This making-of book is a considerable work of scholarship, but also a fan collectible complete with a color section of still images from the film, poster and other advertising art, and the cover of the comic book tie-in. Hall gives the U.S. reader some interesting tidbits.  At the time of its release, Zulu inspired a minor fad in Britain, making something called the “Zulu Stamp” a temporary ‘in’ dance at discotheques—Hall reproduces images of Stanley Baker raving it up in Swinging London. Hall also reproduces more trenchant documents, including a 1965 letter to Cy Endfield from Prince Buthelezi, leader of the Zulu nation, who in Zulu played the part of his great grandfather, King Cetshwayo, the Zulu leader at the time of the events of the film. Buthelezi complains in the letter that he was forbidden to see Zulu in apartheid-controlled South Africa, and that he was mistaken in passing up Cy Endfield’s invitation to screen the film when Buthelezi visited London.

A 2004 letter from Buthelezi, which Hall solicited for the book, may have taken Hall aback. Buthelezi recalls fondly his involvement in the film, but in one of his last sentences he states: “The film was supposed (my emphasis) to pay tribute to brave people on both sides of the conflict, the Zulu regiments and the British soldiers.” Buthelezi further states: “As Zulu people we wished that the battle of Islandlwana was portrayed, not just its end as was the case in the film.” Prince Buthelezi’s revaluation of the film, combined with the years of suffering a racist regime, may have dimmed his early, always slightly bewildered interest in Zulu.

While Hall compiles samples of the film’s early journalistic reception, critical interrogation isn’t part of this project, unfortunate since sustained criticism of Zulu has been late in coming considering the film’s increasing following over the last forty years. A piece I wrote on Zulu’s dubious politics and morality for Cineaste (Vol. XXV, No. 4), which was followed by an exchange of letters (Vol. XXVI, No. 2), provoked response in defense of the film, including Hall’s essay “Monkey Feathers: Defending Zulu,” in the 2002 anthology British Historical Film and another, rather similar defense by John Chapman in his book Past and Present: National Identity and the British Historical Film (2005). It is not my purpose here to recapitulate the entire debate. Suffice it to say that I have revisited Zulu numerous times—always with great interest—and have read seriously the defenses by Hall and Chapman. I am not particularly impressed by their arguments—I find much of what they say flowery special pleading, or simply outrageous, including the refrain, more Chapman than Hall, that “we can’t measure the standards of the past by the politics of today.” How many times have we heard this claptrap in neoconfederate responses to the portrayal of race and slavery in the cinema—indeed, to the morality of slavery itself? Zulu’s view of race and the assumptions of the Last Stand narrative continue to strike me as highly problematic—depending on the audience with whom I screen the film, it sometimes comes across as ludicrous, with me its sole defender in a given group.

Some of the film’s partisans, including Hall, argue that its image of warfare is highly critical, placing it solidly within the antiwar films of the Fifties and Sixties. I am only moderately persuaded by this argument. At best, Zulu has an existential/absurdist view of warfare (typified by a famous exchange between a terrified soldier and his grim sergeant: “Why us?” “Because we’re ’ere lad, nobody else.”) that isn’t connected to imperialist policies. Chapman suggests at one point that the outlook (embodied in the character of Private Hook, played with verve by James Booth) may flow from the Angry Young Man sensibility that pervaded British cinema of the era. Compare this view to, say, Stanley Kubrick’s vision of war in Paths of Glory (1957), where the frontline soldier is cannon fodder for class interests.

Zulu possesses some genuine intelligence, and contains within it the stresses and contradictions of the period during which it was made. Although it romanticizes history, it also raises questions about the representation of history, an unusual feat for a work of its time. Yet Zulu is caught up in machismo and the cult of male professionalism that has pervaded the action cinema. Its view of race, as I have noted, is more than open to criticism. By producing a useful piece of scholarship on the details of the film’s production, Sheldon Hall may help to continue the discourse about this troubling, fascinating film.

Copyright © 2006 by Cineaste Magazine, Inc.