Thursday, November 6, 2008

Flick of the Week: "The army doesn't like more than one disaster in a day"

In the novel by Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (much, much better than the movie), the narrator writes that two of his Dad's favourite films are The Guns of Navarone and Zulu, and so it is apt that for this week's flick we move with Stanley Baker from the Mediterranean of WWII to South Africa in the Anglo-Zulu War for the great 1964 war film, Zulu.

Zulu concerns the defence of the mission station Rorke's Drift (drift means a ford) by 139 men in a Welsh company (though many in the company were not from Wales) in the British Army (specifically, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot) against a Zulu Army regiment of around 4000 warriors.

Now the reasons for the British going to war with the Zulus may be all that is bad about colonial rule of white men over black men, but let us not let that interfere with the enjoyment of this brilliant movie.

The film was Stanley Baker's dream project - he was Welsh, and the defence of Rorke's Drift is the stuff of Welsh legend. The setting is 22 January 1879; news arrives to the mission that the day before in the first major engagement of the War, the Battle of Isandlwana, the British had suffered a massive defeat - losing over 1300 men. What was worse was the news that a force of Zulu's was coming to their way, with no time for them to retreat or get reinforcements.

The film concerns this prelude and the defence by the small company against wave after wave of Zulus.

As such it is a pure war film - little time for character development, and no scenes of the home front, and yet the characters are vibrant and memorable. The two lieutenants Bromhead and Chard played by Michale Caine (his first major role - the credit is "introducing...) and Stanley Baker play off each brilliantly - Caine as a posh pure military man, Bromhead, ("chin chin old boy!") and Baker as the engineer, Chard, who is there to build a bridge, and yet who finds he must take command.

Other characters of note are Colour Sgt Frank Bourne (played by the 45 year old Nigel Green, yet in reality Bourne was only 25 at the time), Pte Hook, Pte Hitch, the numerous Joneses known by their serial number, and Jack Hawkins as the Reverend Otto Witt, who as he is forced to leave the mission, drunkenly screams at the soldiers:

"You're all going to die! Don't you realize? Can't you see? You're all going to die! Death awaits you all!"

Which probably do not rank as the most heartening of words to hear as you prepare for battle.

The movie is about heroism as a unit - yes there are individual acts of courage, but this is the ultimate "there's no I in team" film. It's the film you would force recruits to watch before going off to war; it's the film a football team should watch before playing the Grand Final - it's the ultimate underdog film; and a number of war films since owe it a debt. Mel Gibson's We Were Soldiers is virtually Zulu in Vietnam, and the great Sci-Fi film Aliens is basically Zulu in Space. Any time you see a film with a small band of soldiers trying to defend against an army, you can be sure the director has first watch Zulu to see how it is done properly.

The main reason the battle is so famous is that eleven Victoria Crosses awarded to the men at Rorke's Drift - the most ever received in a single action by one regiment. Somewhat justifiably the large number is criticised as being more an over-reaction to the loss at Isandlwana, as it helped take the public's attention away from that battle. Equally some think that other battles in WWI - such as Lone Pine (7 were awarded to Australian soldiers) should have resulted in more VCs being awarded. But it's hard to be too churlish, especially when at the time VCs could not be awarded posthumously.

The film contains a number of stirring moments, and brilliantly captures the tension before the battle - especially due to the great, deep and intense singing of the Zulus before they attack. But the best moment in the film is when before the final charge by the Zulus, the Welsh decide to respond with a rendition of "Men of Harlech":

This film is the reason why when the Welsh national team play any rugby or football match the crowd will sing 'Men of Harlech'. And let's be honest, it beats the absolute hell out of Waltzing Matilda.

In many ways Zulu is a dated film - it glorifies the fighting of the British, without questioning too much politics of the war. But it does not glorify war - there is nothing 'fun' going on here, any jokes are bitter remarks made to stay sane. It also treats the Zulus with respect - which is certainly their due given they were fighting on their land, with spears against rifles.

They don't fight wars like this anymore - and the final slaughter has one thinking of the deaths to come in WWI when the British would be the ones charging towards men in fixed positions - only then the fixed positions would have not just rifles but also machine guns.

It's in many ways an anti-war film - the end result seems pointless - what was won? And none of the men appear anything but buggered after the battle - there is no sense of victory, only relief that the Zulus will attack no more.

The film ends with a narration by another great Welsh actor, Richard Burton, whose beautiful, whiskey-soaked oratory voice reads out the list of the 11 VC winners. Again there is no triumph in the list, and yet as the music of John Barry builds, you cannot but feel a sense of wonder at the deeds of this band of men in the face of such overwhelming odds.

Great film - always in the bargain bins, plus the DVD has a great documentary on the making of.

Best line:
Colour Sergeant Bourne: It's a miracle.
Lieutenant John Chard: If it's a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it's a short chamber Boxer Henry point 45 caliber miracle.
Colour Sergeant Bourne: And a bayonet, sir, with some guts behind.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a great movie Grog and prob my biggest filmic guilty secret. to add to you list of the influenced, there is The Two Towers. Jackson says something about Zulu's influence on him in his commentary in teh box set.