Zulu (1964): Epicness of an English Sort

A kind of ‘retro’ retro review today. My daughter and I watched this magnificent film again last night. It is an eternal favorite in this house and has been for a long time.

For those of you who might live under a rock or perhaps on some planet where television signals don’t reach, Zulu is a 1964 historical war film depicting the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British Army and the Zulus in January 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War. It was produced as a joint venture with Stanley Baker‘s production company Diamond Films.

Cy Enfield directed the film (Cy was blacklisted in Hollywood by the HUAC who decided that he was an ‘sympathiser’ to the ‘red peril’ that the industry was hysterically trying to stamp out in the 1950’s. Enfield left the USA and set up shop in the UK IN 1951). The film’s producers were Stanley Baker, Cy Enfield and Joseph E Levine.

The film was shot on  using the Super Technirama 70 cinematographic process, and distributed by Paramount Pictures in all countries excluding the United States, where it was distributed by Embassy Pictures. The Technirama was obviously good choice as the film still looks magnificent. The colours are rich and full and the film feels panoramic to the extreme.

All the exteriors of Zulu were filmed in South Africa. The interiors were filmed at Twickenham Studios in England. Michael Caine(in his first ‘starring’ role, “Introducing Michael Caine”) writes about the experience in his first Autobiography, What’s it all About?. Caine talks about how abysmally the ‘locals’ were treated and how Stanley Baker was furious about it.

Stanley Baker
Stanley Baker and Michael Caine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He also talks about the ‘spies’ the South African Police had mixed with the local film crews. It was a deplorable time in South Africa’s social and political history.

Caine also writes about the weeks of waiting by the film crew and cast because of rain. He also talks of his own personal trials and tribulations on his first big role.

*If you haven’t read Michael Caines Autobiography, I strongly urge you to do so. He talks a great deal about Zulu and other films he has worked on and well as personal aspects of his life. He was a firm favorite of mine before he wrote the book, after reading it, I became a firm devotee of the man’s work.*

Despite the political problems faced by the production crew and (in some cases) the cast. The film was finished and shown to rave reviews and huge box office returns.

There were a few folks who were less than delighted by the portrayal of some of the ‘real’ characters in the film. The screenplay was adapted from an article about Rourke’s Drift written by John Prebble. Cy Enfield talked to the Zulu historians to get a picture of the battle from ‘both sides’ and he and Prebble came up with the finished script.

Historical license was taken with some of the characters in the film to either enhance their story or to make it more poignant. The Wittes and Private Hook in particular were changed to fit the mood of the film and to make the character cinematically more interesting.

Some things were ‘made up’ for the same reason. There was no instance of the two groups ‘singing’ at each other and the Zulu’s did not, in fact, ‘salute the soldiers’ for their bravery. But in true Hollywood style it looks brilliant and moves the film on nicely. In other words, “If it wasn’t like that brother, it should have been.”

The cast list was a compilation of some of Britain’s finest actors:

The action scenes are brilliant considering the Zulu tribesmen had never acted before. Since Stanley Baker viewed the film as a western, the producers brought in a western film for the tribesmen to watch so they could see how the action sequences were to look and how to ‘die’ on film.

Historical picture of Zulu warriors from about...
Historical picture of Zulu warriors from about the same time as the events at Rorke’s Drift (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The film opens and closes with the magnificent voice of Richard Burton (who was a close friend of Stanley’s) telling, firstly of the massacre of British troops at the Battle of Isandlwana and at the end of the film he details a brief history of the Victorian Cross and which of the men who fought at Rourke’s Drift were awarded the Cross.

This epic film about an out-numbered group of British solders (150 soldiers and 4000 Zulu warriors) and their desperate battle to keep from being overrun by the Zulu’s and their eventual ‘victory,’ is a true timeless masterpiece.

I defy anyone to watch the film and not come out in gooseflesh at the ‘train noise’ the advancing Zulu warriors make as they approach the Drift or to see the scenes of the Zulu chanting and striking their cowhide shields as they prepare to charge the soldiers. These scenes alone are worth the price of admission (so to speak).

The makeup, the costumes and the set all scream out with authenticity although the river that Chard is to build a bridge over is laughably small and looks more like a dammed section of a small creek. I do know there were some technical problems with the actual river and unfortunately it shows.

But water difficulties aside, Caine absolutely knocks it out of the park in his first starring role. At the beginning of the film you cannot stand his character and by the end of it you like and admire the man. Baker is as resolute and as firm as an oak tree, using his engineer skills to build a way to defend the Drift with wagons and ‘mealie’ (corn) bags.

Nigel Green as the colour sergeant also trumps the rest of the cast, but James Booth (as Private Hook) who did not even get to film outside of England comes a close second to Green in performance.

If you want to see a film that shows ‘how they used to make em’ watch Zulu. In fact, if you are an aspiring young film maker, I would make it a requirement to study this film. Well, this film and Terminator 2: Judgement Day on how to make a action movie work.

Cover of "Zulu"
Cover of Zulu

Michael Smith 12/10/2012

As a postscript I just realised that I have not mentioned the exquisitely epic score and soundtrack by the magnificent John Barry (perhaps better known as the creator of the ‘Bond’ music). Mea Culpa to the estate and survivors of messer Barry (3 November 1933 – 30 January 2011). How could I forget when the music was playing through my head while I wrote this.


Cover of T2: Judgement Day

Author: Mike's Film Talk

Former Actor, Former Writer, Former Journalist, USAF Veteran, http://MikesFilmTalk.com Former Member Nevada Film Critics Society

10 thoughts on “Zulu (1964): Epicness of an English Sort”

  1. I love this film! I remember watching it with my Dad when I was little. My favourite character was Hook! Although it couldn’t have been great team support to have been a coward during the battles, the character played by James Booth certainly added some light-hearted comedy to the film 🙂 A wonderful post Mike! Oh and I will make a note to read Michaels’ biography.


  2. I remember watching this one years ago… It was disturbing as all war films are for me… just my two cents! I like Mr. Caine and wish he would do something in the movies again. 😉


  3. Michael Caine’s a favorite in this house too, as is “Zulu.” Read the books, too. My favorite star autobiographies were the two written by David Niven. “Bring on the Empty Horses” and “The Moon’s a Balloon.” Michael Caine always struck me as a decent guy who tried to be on the right side and mostly, succeeded.


    1. I worked for a chap in the early 90’s who went boating on the Thames (this was back when Caine owned a house that had frontage on the Thames) and their boat broke down. They drifted over to the rivers edge and standing on the bank was Michael Caine asking if they needed any assistance and to come on up to the house to phone for help and a cup of tea. Class act that man, all the way! 🙂


  4. One of the all-time great war films. I picked up the Blu-ray of it this year, to go along with the old DVD I’ve had for some time. Good one to spotlight, Mike.


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