Following the devastating loss of life by British forces at the Battle of Isandlwana, a small missionary station at Rorke’s Drift gets word of an impending Zulu invasion. Rorke’s Drift marked the border between the British colony of Natal and the Zulu Kingdom in Southern Africa. The more you know about British Imperialism and their colonization of Africa, the better. Honestly, Endfield (who co-scripted with John Prebble) does almost nothing to establish any historical context for his story. That doesn’t make it difficult to follow the onscreen action (of which there is a considerable amount), but it does make it difficult to feel any particular way about it. Marveling at the massive, 4,000-strong Zulu army as it converges upon the meager group of 150 British soldiers is easy. But without some knowledge of the history behind it, it all feels strangely dispassionate.
Clearly, unmistakably, irrefutably this is a story told from the British perspective. For all the insistence by fans of Zulu, who correctly point out that the indigenous people are afforded a general degree of respect in this depiction, no individual Zulu character in the film is given any kind of discernible identity or sense of motivation (not even King Cetshwayo, played by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi). British leaders Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker) and Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine, “introduced” here in his first prominent role), along with Swedish missionaries Reverend Witt (Jack Hawkins) and daughter Margareta (Ulla Jacobsson), remain the focus. However, the Zulus are portrayed as honorable and resourceful fighters, even though Zulu ultimately feels like a Union Jack-waving bit of jingoism.
Apparently Zulu was issued in 2008 in the U.K. as a region-free release. I haven’t seen it, so I have no comparisons to make. But if the movie is important to you, I encourage you to seek out the opinions of those who have scrutinized each release side-by-side. However, for my money this Twilight Time edition looks extremely nice. Much of it is clean, sharp, and nuanced enough to look like a relatively new production, not one that is 50 years old. Panoramic shots of the South African locations, of which there are many, are stunning to behold. Stephen Dade’s cinematography is well represented, with the only mildly troubling aspect being the occasionally flickering image and a few spots of debris on the source print.
The audio is presented in both DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo and DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono. IMDb references the existence of four-track and (for 70mm prints) 6-track stereo; I’m not sure if these elements simply are no longer available. At any rate, the stereo mix is far easier on the ears, though I applaud the inclusion of the mono. Even though there’s harshness to the dialogue that can be annoying, it’s valuable to have the option of hearing the film the way the majority of filmgoers did upon its initial release. The stereo has surprising depth and will likely be the go-to choice for most viewers. The clarity of the lossless audio exposes the all-too-obvious, often unconvincing ADR throughout, but that’s the price of high definition presentation.
John Barry’s incredible score is granted a DTS-HD MA 2.0 isolated track, useful for students and serious enthusiasts of film scoring. This is an M&E mix, so you’ll hear all the Foley work as well. There’s also a theatrical trailer. But the primary bonus is the commentary track by film historians Nick Redman and Lem Dobbs, who really shed a great deal of light on the production. There’s a lot of interesting discussion about the relative importance of accuracy when adapting historical events for filmed entertainment.
Dobbs, in particular, insists that it shouldn’t matter and chastises viewers who complain about artistic liberties. Basically, he argues that those seeking the actual history should consult scholarly accounts and enjoy the movie for what it is. I disagree to a point, on the grounds that these movies often become an accepted source of historical information. I guess it comes down to a case-by-case basis, but that’s another argument for another time. It makes for a thought-provoking audio commentary.
Zulu is available, while supplies last, from Twilight Time via their distributor Screen Archives. As with all titles in TT’s limited edition series, only 3,000 copies were pressed so act fast if this is a favorite.