The next stop in the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book following my screening of Lawrence of Arabia is the epic, Zulu starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker.
Now, while one could make arguments about themes of British Imperialism and Colonialism running through the film, I saw more fit to see the film as an experiential viewing, and as such it fires on all cylinders.
Sure, watching it now some of the action sequences don’t necessarily work, but the sheer thrust of the plot, the overwhelming momentum of the story carries it through.
Based on actual events in January of 1879, a station of British soldiers are under siege by superior numbers as Zulu warriors attack their station at Rorke’s Drift. Shot in South Africa, the film makes great use of its gorgeous landscapes, and countless extras. There are a number of simply stunning shots contained in this film that you wouldn’t see today, unless the scenes was augmented by computer enhancements, and the eye would be able to tell.
There is a lone shot as the Zulus mount a ridge, encompassing the station and the camera works its way along revealing more and more of them. Simply a wow moment.
Caine and Baker are Bromhead and Chard, soldiers of the same rank, with different leadership styles. With the assault imminent, Chard takes command, and tries to prepare himself and his men for the oncoming attack.
We are given glimpses into each section of the station, and are introduced to a variety of characters. Here’s where the film slips up a bit, while it takes the time to introduce us to the British troops, the same courtesy is not extended to the Zulu warriors. I know the story is that of the British, and their struggle to survive, but the Zulus are reduced to a faceless, seemingly insurmountable enemy.
Despite that detraction, the film is gripping, intense, has a few moments of levity, and features some very nice performances. Caine’s arc in particular is engaging, as he starts as a proper English gentleman, pursuing leisurely hunting and holding his men to a high standard. He follows the letter but not always the spirit. Where he finishes, is somewhere completely different.
Chard meanwhile, is a hard working engineer, who commands differently, but gets the best out of his men.
The two together work to save their men, their station, and the good British name. But will they survive?
Solidly paced the story is a slow boil in the first half. You know right in the opening minutes of the film that the attack is coming, and the rest of the first hour is almost all preparing for what is to come.
Violent, but not as bloody as it could have been, the film, clocking in at almost two and a half hours, is solidly entertaining, and features Caine in one of his first big screen roles.
Well worth watching.