Tuesday, June 22, 2010


1964, UK, directed by Cy Endfield

Although it's tempting to lump Zulu together with other epics of the empire in its various guises - most obviously David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia - Cy Endfield's film attempts something both more limited, an account of a single military action, and perhaps trickier, that is, presenting that action in a manner that avoids caricature of either side. Of course, the British viewpoint is privileged throughout since the camera, for the most part, remains within the British army post at Rorke's Drift, but the film is a rare account that emphasizes not African savagery or naïveté but rather the tactical and strategic intelligence of the Zulus, who implement a coherent battlefield plan - sketched out for us by an Afrikaner - and who then make a rational calculation about the virtues of continued engagement. The film does, nonetheless, play loose with certain aspects of the historical records, inserting several sequences - most notably a singing "battle" - for dramatic purposes and underplaying some particularly brutal British acts, such as the killing of wounded Zulu.

Endfield provides us with virtually no context for Rorke's Drift beyond an indication that it is a continuation of a battle fought earlier in the day at Isandlwana - a decision which robs the film of any sense of the African motivation for the battle - and focuses immediately on the reactive efforts of the small British garrison to improvise a defense. Endfield shot parts of the film on location, and the outdoor sequences are terrifically impressive, with the tiny outpost dwarfed by the Drakensberg mountains, made more ominous still by the presence of Zulu fighters appearing from on high in several shots. There is, though, an occasional sense of disconnect from the interior sequences, many of which were shot back in England, and which sometimes have a more jocular tone that feels remote from the fighting outside (those inside the buildings, either prisoners or invalids, don't take up weapons until quite late in the film, which seems extraordinary given the numerical disparity between the Zulu regiments and British defenders).

Although Rorke's Drift is remembered as one of the great imperial rearguard actions, a disaster in the making that turned into an improbable victory - the more notable, in both military and propaganda terms, for coming immediately after the comprehensive defeat at Isandlwana - Endfield's presentation, even while enumerating the honors won in the course of the fighting, implies that there's little heroic about any such battle. The camera pans away from the guns and bayonets on the stockade to a carpet of Zulu bodies that must surely have recalled, for anyone watching in 1964, the horrific images of body upon body that emerged when the concentration camps were liberated (the sequence in Zulu is almost in black and white, unlike the vivid colours elsewhere in the film, making the analogy even clearer). It's a fascinating reappraisal of the realities of imperial conquest, a film that undermines conventional propaganda even as it reinforces the standing of Rorke's Drift in British historical memory.

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