Zulu review, Life, 7/3/64



War's Raw and Grisly Essence

With his durable instinct for comfort and his own sensibilities, modern man has done a good job of depersonalizing war, of physically separating the killer from the killed.  Some lieutenant in a subterranean silo in South Dakota or in an air-conditioned submarine in the arctic can take one more bit of crumb cake and then turn the key that launches the rocket that blows up a sizable city.  But the basic method of waging any kind of warfare, ancient or modern, remains the ghastly personal act of one human taking another's life.  An electrifying new movie called Zulu reminds us just how ghastly and how personal those romantic old colonial battles used to be.  A 2 1/4-hour British film in the Pukka Sahib tradition of Gunga Din or The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (but without many of the cliches), it is taut, violent, sometimes witty and , above all, believable.  It is also largely true.

In January 1879 the British army was busy "pacifying" South Africa in a war against the Zulus--bold, proud, superbly drilled and surprisingly well-equipped native tribesmen.  It was a tough war and Zulu deals with its toughest battle:  the fight at Rorke's Drift.  That was a mission station, "a rotten, stinkin' hole in the middle of nowhere," surrounded (in the movie at least) by great brooding ridges.  It was garrisoned by B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, South Wales  Borderers--eight officers and 133 enlisted men, mostly tough Welshmen.  Following the massacre of a large British column in January 1879, the Zulus stripped the rifles from the dead and then--4,000 strong--attacked this tiny detachment in its vulnerable valley.

The first third of Zulu is given over to the garrison's frantic readying for this fight, once they learn the Zulus are on their way.  Stanley Baker, an engineer officer and plainly and understandably terrified, directs the preparations.  He is aided and sometimes opposed by his second-in-command, a bored and elegant young officer skillfully played by newcomer Michael Caine.  Underlying their desperate efforts is a growing, terrible sound, a repeated hollow chugging as of a distant train:  the oncoming Zulus , beating on their hide shields with their war spears.

On e minute there is nothing but heat and flies and the clank of firearms held nervously at the ready.  The next, there are the 4,000 warriors stretched along the tide lines and tiny against the sky.  Then, for almost an hour and a half, there is unmitigated hand-to-hand war.

There have been lots of movies in which stalwart lines of perfectly disciplined Englishmen shouting "Front rank!  Reload!  Ready!  Fire!" cut down wave after wave of screaming natives.  Zulu  manages to be very different.  First of all the natives are disciplined too, and one quickly loses any illusion that this anything like a western, where the Indians drop three to a shot and the cowboys are immortal.  At any minute the Zulus may win this battle.

Second, through a rigorous concern for keeping the moviegoer aware of how the fight is going, Zulu never dissolves into the amorphous battle ballets of most war movies, but remains understandable:  when Baker finds the enemy attacking over one of his weakly manned barricades while sharpshooters in the hills  pick off his men on another, he is frantic and so are you.  The imminence of British defeat is so clear in Zulu, and its consequences so explicit, that you feel besieged yourself by those single-minded, shouting lines of able warriors.

Best of all, throughout this mass carnage (it goes on for a day and a night--Zulus, unlike Indians, fight at night) the movie returns again and again to poignant, shocking details of men engaged in constant slaughter.  There are men who go almost mad in a rage that grows from repeated killing.  There are men who tremble.  There are men who talk gently in the presence of death and there are men who rail, hoarse with thirst and fear, as the first cold wash of another dawn brings a promise of still more blood, more battle.

Lots of guns go off in Zulu and lots of extras bite the ground.  But its combination of superb acting and careful concern with credibility--the weeping frustration of a surgeon who cannot save; the appalling courage of two wounded Borderers suddenly possessed with a demon desire to get cartridges to their firing lines--makes all the carnage real and even compelling.  Zulu's war is fearful and ugly, not at all like the fancy ones we try to think up nowadays, and not at all like the movies, either.

                                        --Paul Mandel