In the Hollywood heyday of the ‘30s and ‘40s, America was synonymous with rip-snorting action-adventure movies. Audiences throughout the world thrilled to such classics as Gunga Din, The Sea Hawk, and Union Pacific. In the 1950s the Japanese made their distinctive mark on the genre with Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, and The Taira Clan Saga. But in the 1960s, thanks to the success of Lawrence of Arabia, the British cinema began to take charge of this exciting cinematic territory. One of the best examples of this period is Zulu.

Set in Africa in 1879, this beautifully crafted widescreen 1964 release recounts an incident following the epic battle of Isandhlwana. There, seasoned, well-armed British soldiers found themselves at a loss when confronted by a massive army of skillfully trained Zulu warriors—leading to what many historians have cited as the most humiliating military defeat in recorded history. Zulu begins only hours after this battle took place, showing how a small group of British soldiers stood their ground at a farm house against an onslaught of wave upon wave of Zulus. Mixing terse “stiff upper lip” characterization, with elaborately choreographed battle scenes, director Cy Endfield produces the sort of excitement Raoul Walsh and Michael Curtiz brought to Hollywood action epics—with more than a touch of the visual eloquence Kurosawa crafted for his medieval Japanese samurai sagas.

No action film would be complete without interpersonal conflict, and in Zulu director Endfield and his script collaborator John Prebble supply ample portions of dramatic seasoning to play off against the ever-accelerating action scenes.  The chief source of friction is between Stanley Baker (who also co-produced the film) as Lieutenant Chard, an officer in charge of building a bridge who gets caught in the battle, and Michael Caine (in his first major screen role) as Lieutenant Bromhead, a novice upper-class commander. With the Zulus beating at the door, Baker’s officer takes command due to seniority and tactical skill. But he knows he does so at the price of Caine’s scorn.

This bout of military one-upmanship is just the tip of the iceberg, however. For just beneath this officer class stands an army of lower-class soldiers, most of whom have been conscripted into the service by force. Veteran British character actor James Booth gives a wonderful performance as one of these soldiers—a man who’d rather stay in sickbay at first, but who rises to the occasion when the Zulus come calling. His bravery stands in contrast to the hysteria of Jack Hawkins’ Reverend Witt, a well-meaning but naive man who can’t seem to understand that his Zulu parishioners may be interested in the scriptures, but when it comes to the British occupation have a strictly non “love thy neighbor” policy. His daughter, well-played by Ingmar Bergman veteran Ulla Jacobsson, is equally unable to cope with the situation. And it’s one of the film’s most telling bits of self-deprecating humor that this nominal “love interest” is disposed of fairly early on. There’s no room for romance when you’re surrounded by Zulus.

The Zulus, of course, are the real stars of the movie. It’s impossible not to be awe-struck at the sight of these warriors moving in precise formation while chanting their war cries as they advance on the farm encampment. From their first appearance (Chapter 12), to their terrifying attack on the very center of the army encampment (Chapter 20), to their eerie farewell (Chapter 27), they’re overwhelming screen presences. In fact, while the British get all the dramatic characterization, it’s not unlikely for a viewer to find his or her sympathies shifting to the Zulus’ side. It’s for this reason that the film’s finale (the battle ends in a quasi-draw) is so satisfying. Both were brave, both were skilled, and in movie terms at least, both were deserving of admiration.

Endfield is certainly deserving of admiration, as is his cinematographer Stephen Nathan, and composer John Barry. Thanks to their efforts, combined with the spirited teamwork of the cast, Zulu is the sort of action-adventure film whose like hasn’t been seen again until 1979, when Zulu Dawn was made—a “prequel” dealing with the battle of Isandhlwana. It was a beautiful piece of filmmaking, but for all that, not quite as satisfying as the original. For there’s always a special something about being there first with the goods.

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