It is difficult to say which is the best war movie. As only Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) could put it in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), “Wars not make one great.” The whole of civilization, yesterday, today, but hopefully not in the future, have been shaped by armed conflict. There seems to be something within mankind that makes us need to prove ourselves against one another on the battlefield, even if that means a great deal of death and destruction. The ironic thing about this concept is that almost invariably in the wake of bloody struggle, history remembers a survivor surveying the ruin they have wrought and feeling little else but anguish and sadness. There are those, too, that will tell you that warfare triggers a great deal of advancement, politically and scientifically. Of course, one has to deal with cataclysm in the short term, but in the long run society is the better for it. All of it is folly, and the Bible would tell you so. In today’s film, Zulu (1964), there is a Swedish missionary named Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins), who pleads with those about to go into combat to throw down their arms, quoting scripture the entire time. Unfortunately, he is not listened to, and the rest of the movie is the result.
In Zulu, one of the first scenes features Reverend Witt and his daughter, Margareta (Ulla Jacobsson), as guests of the title African tribal people’s king, King Cetshwayo (Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi). While the king’s warriors processing before their wives, the king receives the news of the massacre at Isandlwana, the aftermath of which is the opening shot. This means the Zulu nation is at war with England, and the Witts are aware that there is an English garrison at their nearby humble base of operations at Rorke’s Drift. The activity at said location is muted. Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine), commander of the company encamped there, is out hunting. A detachment of this unit is helping Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker) of the Royal Engineers to build a bridge over a river next to the few odd buildings that make up this tiny speck on the map. Others are writing music, nuzzling a baby calf, or idling away the days as malingerers in the sick bay. Lieutenants Bromhead and Chard are two different people, the former being a member of the gentry and a bit snobbish, and the latter having risen through the ranks. What puts them on relatively equal footing is their commissions, though Lieutenant Chard’s is two months Lieutenant Bromhead’s senior. This makes Lieutenant Chard in overall command, to which Lieutenant Bromhead reluctantly accedes. This is important because the local Natal commander, Lieutenant Gert Adendorff (Gert van den Bergh), has brought word of the disaster at Isandlwana, which means war. This is confirmed when the Witts arrive, who assume that they will be evacuating the sick and wounded. Lieutenant Chard takes charge, orders everyone to stay put, and begins overseeing the construction of defensive positions. Reverend Witt sees this as madness, and eventually has to be subdued and confined to a storeroom. To hold where they are does appear foolhardy. Though they have fast loading rifles and are fighting an enemy mostly armed with spears, there are barely above 100 British soldiers to over 4,000 well trained Zulu warriors. When the Zulu contingent gets to Rorke’s Drift, the situation seems even more hopeless. After the initial assault by the Zulu, which is meant to probe for weaknesses, Lieutenant Chard has a drunk and slipping into lunacy Reverend Witt and his daughter sent away. From here until the end of the movie, you have a battle. Describing action like this can be redundant, so I will spare you all the details. What I will tell you is that it takes everyone contributing in some fashion for the British to successfully defend Rorke’s Drift. I bring this up because one of the common soldiers focused on in the film is Private Henry Hook (James Booth). Like many in the British Army at that time, Private Hook is a criminal. He is also the malingerer referred to earlier, claiming sickness in order to get out of his duty. True to his desire to shirk, he spends much of the battle ignoring it. It is not until the threat gets a bit too close for comfort does he decide to fight. Before the end of it, he is heroically staying behind to save others as the hospital building is overrun and begins to burn. He is not the only man to act with valor that day, and into the next morning, given the odds. On the following day, after several charges are beaten back, the Zulus try one last attack. As with the others, it is the superior British firepower that saves them. Still, it takes a toll on the British. It is then that a remarkable thing occurs. With the bedraggled defenders looking on, the Zulus line the hills around Rorke’s Drift a final time. They then sing a salute to their foe and depart, to the utter surprise of Lieutenants Bromhead and Chard. The final thing we see in the film is the camera panning across the shattered remains of the outpost, with the narrator naming the eleven recipients of the Victoria’s Cross (England’s version of the Medal of Honor) that fought in the battle, all of which have been named already amongst the British soldiers and officers.
I began this review of Zulu talking about the difficulty of saying good things about a war film. The last thing I want to do is glorify it. To do so would be as crazy as the two professed Christians are portrayed. So often, it is as arbitrary as Color Sergeant Frank Bourne’s (Nigel Green) stated reason for why they are staying put at Rorke’s Drift: “Because it’s there.” Violence is unthinking in the act, even if it is premeditated in the planning. What I shall take away from a film like this as a practicing Catholic is a lesson in bravery. This is something the film does well in giving credit to both sides. It takes just as much guts to charge into a wall of bullets armed only with a cowhide shield and a spear as it does to face the overwhelming numbers as the British did. For our purposes, society does not make it easy to be a practicing Catholic. Modern culture is filled with distractions that are either benign, or are directly attempting to controvert Faith. This is especially hard on young people. As a youth minister, I dealt with the constant struggle to get middle and high schoolers to our nights. Sometimes, our opponent was their other extracurricular commitments. The bigger one is the disapprobation of their non-Catholic/Christian friends who would think going to youth group to be lame. That is tough for people at that age. I wish I could give them all the courage of the men at Rorke’s Drift. Perhaps then we would have a healthier Church?
Zulu is a longer and older movie, and probably one only for the committed history buff. Though I am no expert on this part of the past, as I understand it the film is a pretty faithful rendering of the events in South Africa in January of 1879. Neither side is portrayed as the aggressor, though years of African colonialism by the British would tell you otherwise. Such pollical discussions are far from this movie, however, and there is some merit to how it is handled.