Movies We Like: 'Zulu'

The members of the ruling class of the British Isles seem to be committed to demonstrating that they are nothing but hopeless neo-socialists busy sacrificing their green and pleasant land on the altar of nanny-state multiculturalism. It seems that every day there is a report of some new Labor assault on free speech, a fresh disaster in the decaying single-payer health care system, or another craven surrender to domestic jihadism. The latest atrocity is Scotland’s politicians’ “compassionate release” of Lockerbie mass-murderer Abdulbaset al-Megrahi, a shameful maneuver that managed to combine greed, cowardice and self-righteousness all into one gutless package. I used to emphasize that I was 25% Scot and not mention my 12.5% French ancestry. Now? Well, can you say, “Bonjour?” At least the “frogs” leadership will take their own side in a fight.

But the people of the British Isles – the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish – are a proud, tough bunch ill-served by their shabby politicians. And nowhere on screen can you see their heart and glory displayed better than in 1964’s war epic Zulu.

Understand that Zulu is a true story. In January 1879, a column of about 1500 poorly-deployed British troops was overrun at Isandhlwana by the 20,000-man Zulu army of King Catshweyo. After that slaughter – the Zulus did not bother with niceties like taking prisoners – the Zulus turned their attention to the nearby mission station at Rourke’s Drift, defended by about 100 Welsh infantrymen and their English officers. The desperate battle against overwhelming odds that followed became a legend.

Zulu is one of those films that just clicks. The story, of course, is compelling, but at the center are the characters. Stanley Baker, who also directed, plays Lieutenant Chard, the engineer who happened to be at Rourke’s Drift building a bridge when the Zulus arrived and who took charge of the defense. Baker’s subtle portrayal counterpoints the character’s tactical skill in planning the battle with his evident fear of failing his men.

Michael Caine made his starring debut as the second in command, the initially frivolous Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, who resents the ranking Chard’s usurpation of his command but comes to respect and depend on him. Caine, a Korean War veteran, is fantastic – a nobleman at first more concerned with hunting and horsemanship than leading his men, but who also demonstrates bravery and aplomb under fire. And there’s a larger truth there about such men even today – for example, Prince Harry is a London party boy yet he pulled every one of his many strings to get himself sent into combat in Afghanistan.

Nor can you forget Nigel Greene as Color Sergeant Borne, the senior sergeant who holds the men together under fire. Throughout the film he is there squaring away the tommies – directing laggards to get back to work and insisting on buttoned tunics even in the unforgiving African sun. But during the battles, where the Zulus assault the depleted defenders, you see where his sergeant’s discipline comes into play as the Welshmen operate like a machine to hold off the advancing Zulu impis.

A word about the Zulus – they really are Zulus. The filmmakers showed them old cowboy movies to teach them how to act. Some of their death scenes are a bit, well, exaggerated, but when the camera shows them charging across the veldt at full speed, you get a good idea of what those redcoats felt. And make no mistake – Zulu properly honors and respects the courage of these African warriors. They were worthy and honorable opponents.

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I first saw Zulu in the 70s on television and found it a rousing adventure. But as I grew up, and as I served as an officer myself, I came to appreciate its many layers. The characters are anything but cardboard cut-outs. Every one of them is an individual, with quirks, fears and the potential for heroism. The leaders are tough but fair, human but striving to meet their heavy responsibilities. These are the same qualities I saw in the best officers I’ve worked for.

One of my favorite scenes has an attached Boer officer explain to the Englishmen how the Zulus fight in a battle formation shaped like a cape buffalo with the “horns” seeking to encircle the enemy. Later, in the climactic battle, you see how Chard uses that knowledge to turn the tables on the Zulus by drawing their main attack into a kill zone where he concentrates his firepower using three ranks of volley-firing infantry and stops it cold. But the film does not hesitate to show the devastating consequences – or the effect that doing such violence has on good men faced with no alternative but to inflict it. There’s more maturity about the psychic cost of war in two minutes of Zulu than in a dozen unwatched and unwatchable anti-Iraq war flicks.

The visuals are stunning – Baker knew how to direct and the cinematography goes seamlessly from epic to intimate. The African location is almost a character itself. The sound and the music are equally critical. Listen to how the scattered rifle shots grow to a crescendo as the enemy closes in. Feel the heavy thud of the Zulus slamming their razor-sharp assegais against their cowhide shields in an attempt to unnerve the defenders. Shiver at the Zulu war song, which Ridley Scott mixed in with the German barbarian chants in the “Unleash hell!” battle scene at the beginning of Gladiator. Try not to get goosebumps as just prior to the final battle the Welshman respond to the Zulus’ song with a chorus of the tradition Welsh regiments’ song Men of Harlech:

Men of Harlech stop your dreaming

Can’t you see their spear points gleaming?

See their warrior pennants streaming

To this battlefield . . .

It’s a terrific scene that, with the battle that follows, truly demonstrates what it means to be a warrior. And you cannot overlook the John Barry score – it is both inspiring and ominous, and certainly one of the great movie themes of all time.

Zulu is a terrific movie, but its message is especially vital today. Zulu reflects the fighting spirit of the British peoples that still lives on despite all efforts to eradicate and emasculate it. Right now, United Kingdom units are doing some of the toughest fighting in Afghanistan. That includes 2 Rifles, the unit Big Hollywood contributor Michael Yon was embedded with until his reporting of their aggressive warrior esprit apparently offended their fainthearted civilian leaders back in London (This is my view, not necessarily Yon’s – I’ve never met the man and I do not speak for him). He covers Americans too, and if you want to feel some pride in our own warriors, check out Do Americans Care About British Soldiers?

If you have not yet read Yon’s reports Bad Medicine and the heartbreaking The Koop-Etchalls Effect, I have two questions:

1. Why not?


2. Why are you not reading them right now?

And when you do, drop something in his tip jar so Yon can keep up his awesome work. He’s completely reader supported and the mainstream media neither can nor will do what he does. I just hit the tip jar and I challenge you to do the same and then to put it into the comments to inspire others. Let’s see if together we can generate $500 so today’s British heroes don’t have to wait 85 years to see their story told.


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