ZuluReviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 04/27/04 01:33:47
Being British, can sometimes make it difficult to watch war movies, where our achievements are continually belittled. According to 'U-571' it was the Americans and not the British who captured the Enigma coding machine. Even 'The Great Escape' showed the Americans leading the breakout despite the fact that there were no Americans held as POW's in those camps. Which is why 'Zulu' will always held with great affection by anyone British. This is one achievement no-one can take way from us.Africa, the end of the 19th century and an army of Zulu warriors have already massacred one army camp and are now moving towards the small settlement of Rourkes Drift with the same purpose in mind. Except that they're now armed with rifles as well as spears.
Rourkes Drift holds barely a hundred-men and is under the command of the snooty Bromhead (Michael Caine). When he learns of the imminent threat facing his men, he's forced to cede command however to the bridge-builder Shard (Stanley Baker). Shard may be of a lower class than Bromhead, but he joined the army before him. Bromhead and Shard must unite their small group of English and Welsh guards, not particularly well-versed in the art of war, and manage to hold off the overwhelming odds of four thousand against one hundred. A task made more difficult when your men number the thieving and scowling Private Hook (James Booth), and loyal but ageing soldiers like Colour-Seargeant Bourne (Nigel Green) and Dutch soldier Adendorff (Gert van der Bergh) and you have the religious zealot Witt (Jack Hawkins) trying to persuade your men to flee their outpost.
The influence of 'Zulu' is obvious. Any war movie depicting over-whelming odds and backs-to-the-wall bravery is a direct descendant from it. 'Black Hawk Down', 'Saving Private Ryan', even 'Lord of the Rings' will acknowledge the debt they owe to Cy Endfields actioner. Even 'Dog Soldiers' gives it a nod in its dialogue.
But what 'Zulu' has over all those, is a sense of military intelligence. Whereas something like 'Black Hawk Down' simply presented roaring action of fleeing soldiers against a raging mass of enemy, 'Zulu' explains the tactics of attack and defence. Endfield uses the first hour to patiently set-up the geography of the location and the attack plan of the Zulus. This works brilliantly because when they attack, we know why they're doing it and how. Endfield doesn't just cut away to action like he's having a fit, it's more like a chess game. He sets up the pieces and the tactics and then lets it flow. This sucks you into the heat of the battle and never leaves you confused as to what's going on and where everyone else. The location is vital here too as Rourkes Drift is barely more than a sick-bay, a few prison cells and some stores. And it's in these meagre defences that the men have to protect themselves. This lack of cover elevates the tension considerably as sometimes the difference between life and death is a few inches of plaster. Put it this way, this isn't a Helms Deep we're hiding in.
An easy criticism to throw at 'Zulu' is that it's racist with its depiction of whites mowing down black attackers. This would be true but for two reasons 1) it's a true story and 2) Endfield pays the Zulu a lot of respectful attention. The Zulu army is shown to be highly-tactical, intelligent and resourceful. While the pasty-faced Brits toil and sweat away in the boiling sun, the fit Zulu army move across great distances with no problem. There's pointed dialogue too as Hook grumbles that he's never seen a Zulu walk down the High street so why should have a problem with him? Why indeed.
And when the border-line racist Bromhead damns their own slaves as 'cowardly blacks', what's Adendorff's response? "What the hell do you mean "cowardly blacks"? They died on your side didn't they? And who the hell do you think is coming to wipe out your little command? The Grenadier Guards? ". It's wartime satire at it's most pointed. And this vein of black humour is at it's most memorable when the first attack is repelled:
Bromhead: 60!, we got at least 60 wouldn't you say?
Adendorff: That leaves only 3,940".
It's a film that's careful to pay tribute to the armies of both sides. The British may be the out-numbered force, but let's not forget that they were the invaders here.
The tribute is also paid with sterling performances throughout. Michael Caine may only produce 1 good performance out of 7, but this is one of his best (and first major role). Bromhead may not be the nicest of men, but come the battle he's up and standing with the rest of his men. Likewise Baker, another in the long list of great British actors from the 60's who never quite became the star he should have. He has the quiet air of authority about him and convinces immediately as the man to take command. The performances from the most junior of privates upwards all ring true, and there's no sense of Hollywood stars simply pretending to be a soldier (like, Nicholas Cage, say), these are men that convince as soldiers. The unsung hero is Nigel Green as Bourne. With walrus-like whiskers, it's apparent that he's the old veteran that the superiors respect and the young, frightened soldiers look to for comfort. Absolutely superb in the role, if Baker and the Caine are the head of the film, Green is the heart. If I'm ever stuck in a Hollywood war outnumbered and with my back to the wall, it's not Josh Hartnett or Mel Gibson I'd want to fight alongside with - it's Caine, Baker, and especially Green.Despite the protracted and necessary build-up, the final 70-plus minutes are as fierce and gripping as anything conjured up lately. This is no gung-ho, boys own adventure. There's a strong critical, anti-war streak running throughout 'Zulu' that while never preachy, makes you think just why were the forces there. The battle is still in the record books today as the most Victoria Crosses awarded for valour in combat, in one single battle and the film pays the utmost respect for those men who held and held and held, even when it could be thought it was pointless to do so any more. And it has an absolute kicker of an ending that manages to be both terrifying, distressing and strangely uplifting and respectful in the same few minutes. If there's one film that makes me proud to be British, it's 'Zulu'. And all patriotism aside, you can't claim to be knowledgeable about war films unless you've seen it. If they did give out certificates for films that could be termed classics, 'Zulu' would be the first in line.
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