As 1964 continued the decade that in Britain would become famous as the ‘Swinging Sixties’, I was a twelve-year old boy, heading off with my parents to see a film at the cinema in London. I was understandably excited, as this was a big film, an historical epic. I would probably get a glossy programme, and enjoy an ice cream in the interval. It was to be a special evening, watching the film on the big screen in one of the capital’s prestigious luxury cinemas.
The film that I was anticipating with such relish was the British production ‘Zulu’, directed by Cy Endfield, and filmed on location in South Africa. It boasted a cast of fine British actors including Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, Patrick Magee, Nigel Green, and James Booth. It also featured the first starring role for the then little-known English actor, Michael Caine. As soon as it started, I was enthralled. Swept along in the scenery of the Veldt, and enjoying the authenticity of the period details too.
By the time that the scene had been set, and the small garrison of British soldiers was about to face an army of over 4,000 Zulus, I was on the edge of my seat, waiting for the action to begin. I was already pleased that there was no distracting love story to slow down the plot. This was based on a real event in 1879, and I had read about if before going to see the film. I was expecting it to be full of action all the way, and the suspenseful build-up was just long enough to whet my appetite.
When the Zulus appeared, I could hardly contain my excitement. I had never seen a film with Zulus in it before. Here they were, tough-looking men, dressed in their ceremonial battle-robes, carrying short spears and huge shields made of animal hide. The sound of their stamping feet reverberated through the cinema, and the panoramic shots showing their deployments had me spellbound. I tried to imagine the terror that those 150 British and Colonial troops must have experienced, to come face to face with such a fierce enemy. When the fighting began, I was in a whirlwind. My eyes moved around the huge screen, trying to make sure that I didn’t miss a thing. I thought it was just fantastic, and one of the best things I had ever seen. More than that, the action continued with very little pause, right until the very end of the two and a half hour running time.
Of course, this is not a review of the film. Neither is it a glorification of British Colonial expansion, or the stealing of land and resources from both settlers and indigenous tribes. It is about how I felt, sitting in the comfy seat, watching a film that I thought was simply splendid, fifty-two years ago. Despite some historical inaccuracies that I was only aware of much later, it has to be said that this film did a fine job of telling the story of an actual battle. Unusually for the time, it showed great respect for the Zulu enemy, portraying them as brave in the extreme, as well as skilled in the ways of war. It also had something to say about the futility of such conflict, in some of the later scenes.
I still enjoy watching this film today. Age and experience might tell me that it is not as great as I once believed, but I never fail to be drawn in once again. Just like when I was twelve.