Zululand, South Africa, 1879. The British are fighting the Zulus and one of their columns has just been wiped out at Isandlwana. The Zulus next fix their sights on the small British outpost at Rorke's Drift. At the outpost are 150 British troops under the command of Lieutenants Bromhead and Chard. In the next few days these 150 troops will fight about 4,000 Zulus in one of the most courageous battles in history.Written by
In real life, Chard and Bromhead were regarded as less than remarkable officers by their superiors, and were in fact considered to be too old (Chard was 32 and Bromhead 33) for their rather junior ranks of Lieutenant. The defense of Rorke's Drift galvanized their careers--Chard was a colonel at the time of his death (of cancer at 49) and Bromhead reached the rank of major before succumbing to typhoid at 46. See more »
The British officer states that the Zulu riflemen cannot fire from the hill because the chief is afraid of hitting his own warriors. This is incongruous with the opening skirmish in which the chief counts the British guns "with the lives of his warriors." See more »
A magnificent recreation of one of the most incredible battles in history, Zulu depicts how less than 100 British soldiers held off an army of 4000 Zulu warriors. The battle follows a previous one, less than a day before, in which about 1200 British soldiers lost. This film really gives new meaning to the saying 'keep a stiff upper lip' - or 'never say die.' The British soldiers here, led by Lieutenants played by Baker & Caine, know full well the force coming against them; they know what has already occurred. By rights, they should beat a hasty retreat before the approaching army arrives. The film never delves into the reasons, psychological or other, of why the commanding officer is determined to remain, beyond just the statement that he holds the "queen's commission." It's a question that baffles the missionary (Hawkins, usually the stiff English officer in other films) who begs them all to leave. The film seems to say, when the moment comes, no man really knows what he will do until it is upon him. Here, the soldiers find out very quickly what they're made of.
Cy Endfield, the director, manages to build some heady suspense before even the awesome battle scenes. The soldiers hear a strange sound in the distance, "like a train" notes Caine. Now we no longer need wonder what 8000 feet on soil sound like. And it's not just the suspense; the drama here is very effective. There are numerous sequences where Endfield manages to drive home a point that sticks in your mind for days - maybe years. Who can forget that simple act of turning over a wagon? The photography is superb, capturing the vastness of the area, and should be seen in widescreen glory. I've seen this film many times as a kid and, of course, these were standard TV showings; I didn't know better, it was one of my favorite films of all time, regardless, but it's twice as glorious in proper aspect ratio. I even had the privilege of seeing this on a theater screen once about 20 years ago and I was suitably blown away, even knowing the story beforehand (nowadays, a DVD on a big screen TV is your best bet). The musical score is perfect, as well. I can't imagine the film with anything different.
When the fighting begins, it's really breathless; by that I mean, there is one central action set piece when many of the Zulu warriors break through the ranks and threaten the inner compound, including the officer in command. I always have to hold my breath during this sequence, even though I've seen it 20 times, it's that good. Every time a Brit soldier falls, I think, my God, that's a good portion of the entire defending force! They can never make it! Yet, they do, several times. It's a relentless depiction of war battles, never equaled (as in "The Alamo",1960, another historical depiction of a small group against a much larger force - it's good, but not even close). Somehow, Endfield and whomever helped choreograph the action scenes managed to weld together the perfect combination of huge crowd battles and singular confrontations where it becomes a little personal.
All the actors are first rate. Caine is terrific in his first major role. Baker is very solid - has to be - as the one in command. Booth - I know his character may not be historically accurate - but he's the most colorful, and when he explodes into full-fledged heroism, it's something to see. And Nigel Green as the sergeant - THAT's why the British ruled the world for a time! In fact, all the supporting and minor roles are filled out excellently; this was when script writing had to be extra professional. The much later prequel had no hope of comparing to this masterpiece, but even that film was well done. Yes, I'll say it one more time - this is a masterpiece.
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