"Zulu"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Feb 18 17:39:24 MST 2002


Directed by blacklistee Cy Endfield and filmed in apartheid Natal 
province in 1964, "Zulu" succeeds as spectacle and very little else. 
While it is obviously meant to celebrate the courage and 
resourcefulness of British colonial soldiers and their Zulu warrior 
counterparts in the battle of Rorke's Drift on January 23, 1879, it 
relies on an essentially revisionist representation of the key battle 
it dramatizes. More significantly, its failure to present any kind of 
historical context ill serves the indigenous African peoples whom 
Endfield presumes to honor.

The battle of Rorke's Drift occurred only hours after the massacre at 
nearby Isandhlwana, which cost the lives of 1,329 British 
soldiers--the greatest catastrophe since the Crimean War. British 
colonial resolve would soon be tested in the Sudan as well, with the 
bloody defeat of Colonel Gordon in Khartoum in 1881. Likewise, one 
could see reversals for the forces of capitalist civilization in the 
United States. Only 3 years before Isandhlwana, Sitting Bull's 
warriors would vanquish Custer at Little Big Horn. In many ways, 
these victories of precapitalist societies would be the last gasp 
prior to the inexorable rise of capitalist property relations across 
the world. By 1900 the Zulu, the Mahdists and the Sioux would all be 
pacified.

"Zulu" begins with a mass native wedding--the first of many stirring 
scenes involving what appears to be thousands of Zulu extras. 
Endfield skillfully made use of what he had available. As it turns 
out, there were no more than 250 extras on location. Camera angles 
gave the impression that there were far more. As hundreds of dagger 
wielding, bare-breasted maidens are matched up with husbands in an 
arranged wedding, guests of the Zulu King Cetshwayo--a missionary 
(Jack Hawkins) and his daughter (Ulla Jacobsson)--watch nervously. 
Their fears are well grounded. During the ceremony, a messenger 
arrives with news that war with the British has begun. Isandhlwana 
has fallen to the Zulu.

Although "Zulu" is barren of historical context, it is rich in period 
detail. Such a mass wedding actually took place in 1878, a so-called 
'umkhosi,' or first-fruits festival. In Zulu society this served 
numerous ideological and practical functions, including a gathering 
of 'amabutho,' or regiments of fighting men. As part of the tributary 
relations between King and fiefs, gifts of cattle and marriage 
partners were made to the men of his regiments. When the missionary's 
daughter expresses shock, he reminds her that arranged marriages were 
common in their country as well, especially between wealthy older men 
and young attractive women.

While King Cetshwayo was presiding over this ceremony in 1878, the 
British were plotting to invade the Zulu homeland. Unbeknownst to the 
King, British South African High Commissioner Sir Bartle Frere urged 
the colonial secretary to see "the necessity for now settling this 
Zulu question thoroughly and finally." Lord Chelmsford, who commanded 
the British armed forces in South Africa, wrote, "our cause will be a 
good one
and I hope to convince [our critics] that for a savage, as 
for a child, timely severity is greater kindness than mistaken 
leniency."

The missionary and his daughter then take refuge in a small outpost 
called Rorke's Drift, which had been the supply depot for the British 
column overrun at Isandhlwana. Commanded by Lieutenant John Chard 
(Stanley Baker), a stolid Royal Engineer who prefers building bridges 
to warfare, the settlement consisted of a hospital, storehouse, 
cattle kraal, and 140 soldiers (30 incapacitated)--all accurately 
described in the film.

To add a little color to the ensemble, Endfield, who co-wrote the 
film with John Prebble, creates a character named Lieutenant Gonville 
Bromhead, an epicene twit played by Michael Caine in his film debut. 
Caine, who would thereafter play the kind of roles we associate with 
his career--working-class and Cockney--nonetheless does a credible 
job depicting a man who would become existentially transformed by 
fighting into someone substantial and likable. This is essential to 
the film's focus on heroism and sacrifice, which is achieved at the 
expense of ideology and history.

The British troops immediately begin setting up makeshift barricades 
out of sandbags and overturned carts. From a distance, you can hear 
the oncoming Zulu troops who march in formation banging the handles 
of their short spears against their shields. Chugga-chugga-chugga. It 
sounds intimidating, like a faraway but powerful approaching runaway 
train. When I saw first saw the film in 1964, it had the same effect 
on me as any apolitical white person in the audience: they are coming 
to get us.

For the remainder of the film, we are witness to one bloody 
confrontation after another as chanting and howling Zulu warriors 
armed mostly with spears or knives hurl themselves against the 
fortified settlement. At the finale, they are driven off because they 
are no match for the British rifles. After reviewing the stacks of 
lifeless black bodies, the two lieutenants seem deflated despite 
their miraculous-appearing victory. When asked how he feels, Bromhead 
(Caine) replies, "Ashamed."

Since such a vast number of British soldiers appeared to be killed 
during the encounter represented in the film, one then must wonder 
why there was so little to celebrate. Perhaps Endfield and Prebble 
were mindful of Rorke's Drift's true history, which was not 
accurately reflected in their screenplay. While there was a battle at 
Rorke's Drift on January 23, 1879, it was a one-sided affair 
entirely. Zulu scholar Magema Fuze points out, "The Zulus died in 
heaps there, killed by those white men in the building. They went on 
killing them until dawn, and in the early morning the Zulus withdrew 
defeated, leaving behind heaps of dead on the ground."

James O. Gump sums up the reality behind Rorke's Drift in his 
excellent "The Dust Rose Like Smoke: the Subjugation of the Zulu and 
the Sioux":

"Chard's forces, bolstered by Martini-Henry breech-loading rifles and 
ample supplies of ammunition, sustained fifteen deaths. In 
recognition of their valiant defense [Gump is being ironic here] at 
Rorke's Drift, Chard and ten of his men each received a Victoria 
Cross, the highest honor to be bestowed on a British soldier in the 
nineteenth century [described solemnly by narrator Richard Burton at 
the film's conclusion.]"

In other words, Rorke's Drift was actually a "turkey-shoot" of the 
kind that occurred on the road to Basra at the end of the Gulf War or 
which has just occurred in Afghanistan. Some things never change.

In examining the motives--conscious or subconscious--of Endfield and 
Prebble, it would be useful to take a look at their rather singular 
careers. An April 21, 1995 obituary in the Independent reports:

"Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1914, Endfield established a 
reputation as a brilliant card magician while a teenager. In New York 
he formed a satirical fringe group that performed in clubs, and at 
weddings and bar mitzvahs, and went on to run an amateur theatre in 
Montreal for a year and to direct in the Catskills before moving to 
Los Angeles in 1940. Having fooled the accomplished amateur magician 
Orson Welles with some card-tricks of his own, Endfield parlayed his 
way into films by teaching Welles's producer Jack Moss tricks in 
return for sitting in on the shooting of Journey of Fear (1942) and 
the editing of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) as an apprentice with 
the Mercury Theatre. From the outset, Endfield displayed an acute 
sense of social criticism that proved ill- advised in his times: his 
first film, Inflation (1942), an allegorical 15-minute short made at 
MGM, initially impressed the Office of War Information who had 
commissioned it, but was repressed before it could be released by the 
Chamber of Commerce for being excessively anti-capitalistic."

Unlike other red screenwriters, Endfield was not reluctant to put 
politics into his films. Many audiences saw his lynch mob film "The 
Sound of Fury" as openly anti-American. Although he had begun to shed 
his ties to the radical movement after WWII, the House Un-American 
Activities Committee fingered him in 1951. Unwilling to name names, 
he became one of many blacklisted directors who moved to Britain. His 
last directorial effort was Universal Soldier (1971), an anti-war 
film starring George Lazenby and Germaine Greer. He died in 1995. 

Best known for his career as popular historian devoted to Scottish 
culture and traditions, Prebble--like Endfield--had a leftist past. A 
February 6, 2001 London Times obituary for Prebble, who had just died 
at the age of 85, reveals the following:

"In the first part of his life he had tended to be a member of the 
'awkward squad', whether as a Communist before the war or as an 
agitator in the ranks of the Royal Artillery during it. His 
experiences in Germany in 1945 gave him powerful insights into the 
nature of conquest and defeat. When he wrote the books for which he 
became famous, he did so not as a dry historian, measuring the facts, 
but as a storyteller who invested them with partisan vigour and 
powerful characterisation. Among the criticisms later levelled at him 
by academic historians was that he presented everything as a series 
of tragedies and in terms of conflict between Lowlander and Gael. . .

"John Edward Curtis Prebble had Scottish ancestors, among them a 
dissenter who fled to America in the 17th century. His father was the 
son of a naval petty officer who fell on hard times, working as an 
unskilled labourer in Shoreditch and as a porter at Smithfield meat 
market before emigrating to the prairie town of Sutherland, 
Saskatchewan. 

"The North American Depression drove the family back to London, where 
Prebble won a scholarship to Latymer School. His first working 
experience was as an estate agent's clerk: collecting rents for slum 
landlords drove him towards communism, though the party rejected his 
request to serve in the Spanish Civil War."

It is safe to say that for Prebble, the Zulu war scriptwriting 
project suggested to him by Endfield resonated well with his own 
passions for Scottish martial traditions. In either case, you have 
precapitalist societies resisting the onslaught of primitive 
accumulation. Unfortunately, despite their identifications with the 
underdog and their radical past, neither Prebble nor Endfield could 
do justice to the Zulu struggle. By the time old age had reached 
them, they were content to spin out colorful tales about the majesty 
and horror of colonial war. Kipling did this better than anybody.

-- 
Louis Proyect, lnp3 at panix.com on 02/18/2002

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