Not much is known in the West of tribal life in South Africa, except when it is noted that Nelson Mandela was born among the Thembu people, in the royal Madiba clan. In later years he was known to  friends as “Madiba.” The best known of the native peoples of South Africa are the Zulus, whose resistance to European incursions has been powerfully documented on film. This is near the beginning of a long line of movies about European settlers defending  “their” land against native populations. It would turn around only with the election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa in 1994.

Zulu  (1964)

 This film has little to offer on the vitality of Zulu tribal culture at the end of the 19th century.  It has a very high tolerance, however, for the discussion of tarnished British dignity at the height of Empire.  The two primary voices are the senior officers played by Michael Caine and Stanley Baker.  It opens in 1879 with the report of the massacre of a British garrison at Isandlwana by a large and disciplined force of Zulu warriors.  The first scenes take a long look at celebratory dancing in a Zulu village.  An English missionary and his daughter are present as word comes of the massacre.  They rush off in a panic, the daughter in fear of her virtue.  The scene shifts to life at another much smaller garrison, awkwardly commanded jointly by Caine and Baker, with the men employed at constructing a bridge.  This is a study of the arrogance of the sons of aristocrats who must embody the dominant superiority of the Empire in a land that does not want them.  The enlisted men are portrayed as little more than savages, except for their uniforms.  With news of the massacre, the officers begin to understand the futility of their position.  The missionary and his daughter arrive in search of refuge.  The garrison becomes a microcosm of the Empire.  For the first hour or so, after the opening ceremonies, the Zulus are an unseen presence, four thousand strong, advancing on the small fort manned by less than 200 British defenders.  When at last there is the obligatory scene with thousands of warriors materializing on the mountainous horizon, the film shifts gears.  The Zulus move in waves through the brush; then suddenly stand, beating their animal skin shields, and swarm on the fort in a ritual run.  It is a stirring and beautiful sight.  The chiefs, standing on a distant rise, allow some sixty warriors to be shot point blank in order to count the guns of the Redcoats.  The message here is that the Zulus have little regard for individual lives.  For the Brits, it is something like shooting fish in a barrel.  The Zulus pull back and then come again in greater numbers.  This time they have augmented their spears with captured guns.  It is the remarkable spectacle of men rushing on each other in vast numbers trying to kill every mother’s son on the field.  The hand-to-hand combat is a bit of an absurd pantomime, asking the viewer to believe that the Zulus were easy pickings for the disciplined forces of the Crown.  The almost naked warriors advance in waves, chanting and waving spears; then recede, and advance again.  The Brits stand and shoot, repulsing the warriors in the first assaults with superior firepower.  There is still plenty of time for talk between rounds.  We are meant to relate to the determined courage of the white invaders against the undifferentiated fury of men defending their homeland.  It is an awful slaughter.  A half hour into the assault, all the Brits should be dead.  Only the demands of the movie industry (and official history) could sustain them through the night to face another day.  In the morning, the Zulus sing to their enemy in a great chorus.  The Brits respond with a rousing chorus of their own.  It is really a very remarkable meeting across the boundary lines of Civilization.  The Zulus charge on a dead run.  The Brits mount a tiered firing strategy that leaves a great pile of bodies at their feet.  The Zulus appear to leave.  The Brits hold a sad roll call.  Caine says he feels ashamed, but the men are no less determined to fight their battle to the end.  Once again, the warriors line the horizon.  They chant and sing to the beleaguered Brits.  Caine goes a bit crazy at the thought that they are taunting their enemies.  Their resident Zulu expert joins in the mild hysterics saying, “Don’t you see, it’s over.  Your egos don’t matter any more.”  He then corrects their impression of the taunting.  The Zulus are saluting their fellow warriors and then they walk away.  The garrison is saved by the good graces of the enemy.  Narrator Richard Burton recites a list of those survivors who were highly decorated by the Crown for their valor at the front.  We are left with a roll call of British heroes, and a deep memory of masses of warriors dedicated only to the defense of their homeland.  A British chorus sings over the credits.  See prequel, Zulu Dawn (1979).


Zulu Dawn  (1979)

 This movie, and the more highly regarded Zulu (1964) both take place in January of 1879.  The first battle between the British and the Zulu nation surrounding them at Natal was fought at Isandhlwana earlier in the month.  The final battle, fought at Rorke’s Drift (depicted in the earlier movie of 1964), came at the end of the month.  Both films were instigated by Cy Endfield, an American refugee from blacklisting, living in England.  He wrote and directed the 1964 film.  The 1979 movie was based on his book of the same name.

 Scenes of Zulu rites play under the opening credits, including the ritual killing of a bull, vigorous dancing, and later a gladiatorial combat for two men with spears; one is killed.  It is the year 1879 and the British are firmly established in their colony of Natal in South Africa.  The officers and their ladies are gathered at a lovely clubhouse set among lush English gardens.  There is a croquet lawn.  The British are made to look like bloody fools, some haughty and over-refined (officers) and others bullish or stupid (enlisted).  Peter O’Toole is the general in command; Burt Lancaster is a headstrong Colonel.  Both men are featured strongly in the lawn scenes but are swallowed up by the action of the coming battle sequences.  When the King of Zululand refuses a British ultimatum to change his ways, war is declared and the army of Redcoats marches to the border in a splendid panoply.  They have no other apparent agenda than dominance over the Zulu people, and their contempt for the savages is clear.  The Zulus are 30,000 strong.  There are skirmishes along the way, with “first blood” going to the British.  A great deal of somewhat tedious moving about of men and equipment follows these first encounters.  Eventually, the iconic moment arrives, and a swarm of Zulus appears over the tops of surrounding hills.  The British officers, meanwhile, are enjoying wine at dinner in their field mess.  The Zulus, chanting rhythmically, rush down the hillsides to meet the meager forces of the Redcoats.  The soldiers kneel and fire, then drop back so the next rank can do the same.  It is a slaughter of monumental proportions.  In the end, sheer numbers prevail and the British are vanquished.  The film downplays the defeat, giving us the obligatory spectacle of Lancaster beating off his attackers with his rifle butt before he is killed with a spear.  The final scene finds a devastated O’Toole walking through the burning camp littered with bodies.  He seems genuinely regretful for this military blunder that will contribute to the collapse of the Empire.

 Made entirely on location in Africa, Zulu Dawn is often remarkable for its documentation of the realities of this clash of cultures on a vast landscape.  At other times, it seems flat and even bland as the two sides slaughter one another.

Shaka Zulu  (1983)

The review for this ten-part South African television series is too long for this first set of blogs.

South Africa Related Posts:

Return to Africa Overview