I was always afraid to see Zulu, the British war film "introducing" Michael Caine, which was a big hit the summer of 1964 - I thought it might be bloody, jingoistic, and awkwardly racist. And this despite the fact many movie lists feature it as one of the great films. As a film buff, what was I doing, avoiding it.
So, last night, I finally watched it.
Bloody hell, what a movie. What a complex, haunting, terrifying, beautiful, horrific, great scream it from the roofs movie. One of the best I've ever seen, easily now in my top ten.
Well, firstly, politically, it doesn't go far enough, but, for its time, it's remarkably balanced. The "villains" of the film, the Zulus, are really more like antagonists - but never are they depicted as less than noble, brave, brilliant. I have seen critics say they should have been given more of a voice, less of a communal mass identity, but the point of the film is to recreate an actual military battle, which was - despite and because of its offencive imperialist nature - terrifying. Meanwhile the colonialists, preachers, and British soldiers, humanised as they are, express, in their faces, their eyes, and sometimes their words, a revisionism already - questioning what they are there for, and why they should be killing people to defend a land that isn't theirs.
More to the point - the film's build up of impending doom, and then action sequences, are the most thrilling and dreadful I'd ever seen. I now understand why the film has so influenced the whole Zombie cultural phenomenon - because the only way to recreate the sense of utter horror as a vast human wave descends to crush you - without wading into uncomfortable politics, is to make the Zulus zombies.
But, see above - the Zulus are not mindless, not dead, and not simply motivated by some nameless unspeakable hunger - they are driven by the justified desire to see the occupying British forces thrown out of their country. They have right, and might, on their side - and, if they had had more rifles, they might have fended off the British troops. As it is, by the time the Anglo-Zulu wars were done, tens of thousands of their people had died, defending a nation that the British stole from them, to give, finally, to the Boers. Mostly due to diamonds, I should add.
So, yes - the red coated British soldiers are, broadly speaking, utterly in the wrong, the true villains of the piece.
However, as the film reminds us, they were also men who, oftener than not, didn't want to be there (the Welsh farmer who sings for instance, or Hook, the thief and rebel, or Chard, the bridge building engineer).
Regardless of the historical setting, the film unfolds almost entirely, except for the framing narration by Richard Burton, which is pompous and of its time - as a real time exercise in mounting horror - as the very small, mostly injured garrison, of 150 troops at the remote mountain station - realise that the Zulu warriors are marching to destroy them - 4,000 Zulu warriors - led by a tactical mastermind, their King.
And, you are there with them. What do you do?
Well, some run away, or leave (including the cavalry, one of the cinema's finest downbeat moments), get drunk, rave, - but, in a manner that was borrowed by Robert Redford in All Is Lost (a film that is Zulu with the sea as the warriors) - most of the 150 remain stoic, calm, and professional, and set about preparing for the worst.
Here is where the film becomes the existential masterwork it really is - for the feeble bulwarks, the few sandbags, the plan to move to the redoubt - are all as nothing against the oncoming doom - and yet, still, for the most part, the weary and increasingly terrified men, engineer and plod and button up their uniforms, and - yes, die - many horribly.
It is terrible to see the warriors shot down in their hundreds by the British rifles - and it is terrible to see Zulu spears also kill - and the killing itself is dreadful, and sad, and one realises the carnage is, from one angle, senseless.
But war has an awful logic, and the logic runs like this - why are they coming to kill us, Sergeant? Because, we are the ones here.
And, if 4,000 people are coming to kill you, what do you do? If you are the preacher, you do not fight, you leave. If you were a British soldier or officer in the 1870s, you stood your ground, to fight. To not would be to be shot as a traitor.
The film is beautifully shot - and the isolation and weakness of the British position, those few red coats - is hugely evocative. This is, of course, the best British Western ever filmed - and since it explores class, power, war, religion, bravery, duty, fear, death, and race, unflinchingly, it earns a dignity that so few other war films do. And, finally, the film is about dignity, torn from the wound of war. I wonder what you think.
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