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Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964) [BFI #31]

18 November 2011

“Because we’re here, lad. No one else, just us.” (Colour Sergeant Bourne)


It’s 1879 and the British Empire is in its full hubristic pomp.  Emissaries from the Mother Country are busy painting the globe red; sometimes with the blood of those who already lived there but more usually with money, torture and a show of vastly superior force (does any of this sound familiar?).  That was the way brought the disparate parts of Canada together, and that was how Lord Chelmsford was going to bring British overlordship to the tribes and kingdoms and Boer states of southern Africa.  The arrogant Chelmsford reckoned without the proud warrior nation of the Zulus under their king, Cetshwayo.

From a twenty-first century perspective it can be hard to see just how to read this.  We’ve seen the crime of apartheid in action, we’ve rejoiced with Nelson Mandela and their repossession of their own country.  When we see, as we do in the opening scene of Zulu, the scenes of carnage where the impi had taken out a big chunk of Chelmsford’s main column at Isandlwana we can feel the horror but it’s hard not to feel a cheer for Cetshwayo’s warriors, giving the Imperial Lion a bloody nose with nothing but assegais and sheer weight of numbers.  Did 1964 audiences, with Empire still well within living memory, feel the same way?  What if the force under attack is not the main force of an inept colonial general but a rag-tag assortment of the wounded and military misfits holed out in a Christian mission to keep them out of the way, fighting for their own survival?  Zulu, thankfully, is no celebration of imperial conquest and glory but the true story, somewhat embroidered but without detracting from the heroism of the original, of such an ill-favoured bunch. The history of Rorke’s Drift and its 11 Victoria Crosses (it might have been 12 but Colour Sergeant Bourne declined his, asking for and receiving a commission instead) is well documented and whatever one feels about colonial adventurism, it’s impossible not to feel awe.

Although Cy Endfield directed, Zulu was the child of its star and co-producer, Stanley Baker. [But see comments below] Baker was always an unlikely star; the craggy Welsh miner’s son was never going to be a conventional matinée idol but he was handsome enough in a dangerous, bad boy kind of way. He looks like he should have been a mining engineer and perhaps that’s why the role of the jaded Lieutenant of Engineers John Chard, passed over for promotion and sent Rorke’s Drift to build a bridge where he can’t get under the feet of his superior officers, seems to fit him like a miner’s moleskin trousers.  Baker, who might well have been the first screen Bond if he’s wanted the part, never quite lived up to his promise.  He was a hard-living man who could (and did) drink his friend Richard Burton under the table, a compulsive gambler  and a chain smoker who was carried off by lung cancer while still in his forties.  He was also a socialist, perhaps the first champagne socialist, and a friend of Harold Wilson who gave him a knighthood in his resignation honours list (he was too ill to be invested and dies just a few weeks later).  This film was born of his socialism along with the obsession with Rorke’s Drift which later led him to buy Lt Chard’s VC (he thought it was a replica but it proved to be the real thing).  It was evidently a very muscular kind of socialism (the film is not kind to its pacifist characters) but one that was able to recognise and do justice to the Zulus portrayed.  That was some comfort to one feeling a little queasy at the possible moral ambivalence of the story.

At Rorke’s Drift Baker finds his foil in a more familiar name today: Michael Caine. The opening credits play a game with us, with their “and introducing MICHAEL CAINE”. Michael had been jobbing around British film lots for eight years since his debut in the 1956 comedy Sailor, Beware! (alongside an equally uncredited Paul Eddington).  This is still an unfamiliar Caine to today’s eyes though; he was yet to assume the chirpy cockney persona and here plays an upper-class twit, Lieutenant Bromhead, who prefers potting the local wildlife to fighting.  When they hear of the approaching Zulu army from a party of Boers who aren’t hanging about to help, Chard and Bromhead instantly disagree on what to do.  It’s only by three months superiority of commission that gives Chard precedence over a reluctant Bromhead.  The rest of the garrison are none-too promising; wounded soldiers in a makeshift hospital and able-bodied squaddies more concerned with choir practice than anything else (the Welshman Baker transformed the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment of Foot into a Welsh regiment).  And then there’s the pacifist Swedish clergyman, with his secret stash of booze and his prim daughter.  Astonishingly this preacher is played by Jack Hawkins, an actor more often associated with lantern-jawed officers with well-starched-and-ironed upper lips.  Hawkins does his best but he’s clearly not comfortable in the part (which he hated when he saw it, and not surprising as this padre is pure cultural cringe).  Thank goodness, say officers and audience alike, when he disappears after the first hour.

It’s the second hour that everybody remembers.  The one with surge after surge of Zulu warriors bearing down on all sides, overrunning the compound and firing the hospital and church before retreating to regroup, while the British in their dress uniforms (another bit of license for dramatic effect) struggle to cover the walls and maintain constant fire even though each wave of impi diminished their numbers further.  There’s an astonishing moment, perhaps the highlight of the whole film, when the beleaguered garrison respond to the Zulu war song with a spirited rendering of Men of Harlech.  It’s a moment when you realise that the opposed forces are brother warriors, mutually respected, more than bitter antagonists.  It must have been a hard concept to carry off in 1964.  But If the second half is the lasting memory then the contrasting first half, in which not much happens but the atmosphere is suffused with menace, like the silence under a gathering thunderstorm.  The distant rhythmic drumming from the unseen army is as terrifying a prelude as a film could have.

Zulu was made with the co-operation of the Zulu nation.  Not something that was easy to carry off in 1964, the year Nelson Mandela was imprisoned,  and the fact that the completed film exists in the form it does was an early cultural blow against apartheid.  The regime of Hendrik Vervoerd did what it could to scupper it.  The Zulu performers were not able to watch the finished film, let alone attend the premier, and apartheid regulations would not permit them to be paid for their performance.  So Cy Endfield and Stanley Baker arranged to give them the cows used in the production – they stampede during the battle and there does seem to be an awful lot of them, a far bigger herd than a small mission might be expected to keep.  The cattle would be worth more to the Zulu at that time than any amount of Rands. and that touch as much as anything makes me warm to the film.


A brief hello

18 November 2011

Have I the right to call myself a true cinephile?  Probably not.  I’ve had a taste of academic film studies as part of an Open University course, and while I enjoyed much of the subject and it opened my eyes to an enhanced experience of watching films, I found the theoretical aspects rather dry and indigestible.  One stumbling block which became notorious amongst those on the course was the 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by the feminist theorist Laura Mulvey.  At the time it seemed like intellectual masturbation of the most self-indulgent kind.  Since then, helped partly by the engaging woman with whom I found myself chatting about films in the back room of a pub in Ladbroke Grove who everntually revealed herself to be Ms Mulvey herself, I’ve learned to accept that people can enjoy anything in their own way.

Nor am I a shallow consumer of the latest Hollywood gossip.  Today’s standard public cinemas and most of the films they show have little appeal for me and to be fair they aren’t aimed at me anyway; they are places for the kind of young people I haven’t been for many years.  If indeed I ever was, because I have loved watching films of all kinds since I was very young and silent shorts were the staple fodder of the Sunday School Christmas treat.   Later I was lucky enough to be taught by Mr Fred Aicken, who had mixed results engaging me with chemistry but in his capacity as guiding light of the Welwyn Garden City Film Society he scored a bullseye.  First he found me a way to see The Graduate when was under-age for the cinema  Then through the society he introduced me to such exotic delights as Luis Buñuel‘s surrealist masterpiece L’âge d’or, Ingmar Bergman‘s Hour of the Wolf (which I remember squeezed between power cuts in the school hall during the 1972 miners’ strike) and, unforgettably, an obscure German silent called Variety.  Years later I married an American who introduced me to the wonders of Woody Allen.

None of those will find their way into this blog.  I’ve journalled my general film experiences before, in a desultory way, but this project is intended to be a record of an exploration of British filmmaking.  It’s characteristically British to disparage this country’s cinematic history, and like any country we’ve churned out some turkeys in our time, but off the top of my head I could name a dozen that could stand proudly with the greatest films of all.  Maybe one day I’ll try ranking my favourites just for fun but for now my guide is the list of  100 Greatest British Films published by the British Film Institute in 1999.  I won’t be following it slavishly; even at a glance I can think of titles that I’d have in there which aren’t.  And I won’t be following the list in any particular order, so nothing should be inferred from that beyond the fact that the title was available to me then.

I look forward to sharing my adventure with any of you who care to drop in and comment.  Assuming, that is, that you’re going to be a congenial travelling companion.