Sunday, April 29, 2012

Zulu

In his review of the Bill Maher documentary Religulous, Roger Ebert said he was going to try not to discuss religion; he just wanted to focus on the movie. I'm going to try to do the same with my review of Zulu (1964), which depicts a small force of British forces fighting an overwhelming force of Zulu warriors at the Battle of Rorke's Drift in 1879 during the Anglo-Zulu War. We can probably spend all day discussing the impact of colonialism and imperialism on Africa, and the historical accuracies of the movie, but right now, I'm more interested in answering the question of whether Zulu remains an effective and involving motion picture about one heroic stand. I believe it does.

War has broken out between British Army and the forces of Zulu King Cetewayo, and the Zulu forces have achieved the upper hand after annihilating a British detachment at the Battle of Isandlwana. Before long, the Zulus are advancing on a supply and hospital outpost occupied by the British Army's 24th Regiment of Foot at Rorke's Drift. Upon learning news of the defeat at Isandlwana, Lt. John Chard (Stanley Baker) of the Royal Engineers assumes command of the unit from its less experienced leader, Lt. Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine). The soldiers, numbering around 100, dig in and fortify the place as thousands of Zulus warriors advance.

The best praise I can give Zulu is how even nearly 50 years after its release, with such titles as Platoon and Saving Private Ryan in its wake, it remains an intense depiction of warfare. As presented in the film, Her Majesty's fighting men are in a desperate, pitched fight for survival, throwing everything they have into the maelstrom and trying to hold on until relief arrives. Sure, it's not as graphic or gory as later war movies, but combat remains a draining, exhaustive, chaotic, and dangerous enterprise. The men grow tired and become dirty as all the smoke, dirt, sweat, and soot pile on. The soldiers, organized in lines and firing volleys against the attacking warriors, frequently become engaged in vicious hand-to-hand fighting as they struggle to hold their lines. If the line should break, we know they are lost. In a brief pause in the fighting, we see the soldiers rationing out spoonfuls of water.

The film effectively builds up to the showdown between the British and the Zulus, opening with narration discussing Isandlwana and then showing the corpse-strewn battlefield. From there, the film takes its time, waiting as the British frantically rush about to prepare a defense, not knowing when the Zulus will arrive but knowing they surely will. We get some little dramas between the characters as they argue whether to retreat, and some of the men require some prodding to fight.

Once the Zulus arrive, the battle begins and doesn't let up until the movie's over. They attack from different sides, sending in wave after wave of warriors against the outnumbered British. There are brief interludes, pauses in which the soldiers (and the audience) wait anxiously for the next attack, on edge about how and where it will come. It's the classic siege scenario done with energy and intensity.

Zulu isn't really a character-driven movie. The important thing is how everyone looks and feels like they belong to this far-flung military unit. While there are individual acts of heroics performed throughout the film and although there are a number of recognizable stars in the cast, this is not a movie about one superstar actor dominating the whole show. It's more about the collective group of men, these highly disciplined soldiers who stood firm in the face of seemingly insurmountably odds.

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