Twilight Time // 1964 // 138 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // February 17th, 2014
The supreme spectacle that had to come thunder out of the most thrilling continent!
Zulu depicts the Battle of Rorke's Drift, which was between a British army of only 150 men, many sick or wounded, and 4,000 native Zulu warriors. The battle took place in January of 1879 in Natal, headed by Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker, Helen of Troy) of the Royal Engineers. Unable to outrun the Zulus and escape a battle, Chard must defend his station -- made up of ramshackle tents and crumbling structures -- against an army of battle hardened Zulus. Chard is assisted by Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (The Dark Knight's Michael Caine, in his first major film role), a brilliant but more laid back strategist. Outnumbered by thousands, the British soldiers, along with a missionary (Jack Hawkins, Waterloo) and his daughter (Ulla Jacobsson, Smiles of a Summer Night) caught in between the fight, devise a strategy to keep themselves alive as a wave of Zulu attacks come from seemingly every direction.
You know that old cliché "they don't make 'em like this anymore?" That could easily be applied to the 1964 epic Zulu, written and directed by Cy Endfield (1961's Mysterious Island). The 1960s saw a resurgence in historical epics, including Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Cleopatra (which almost sank the studio due to its bloated budget and stars). These seemed to be in direct response to the 1950s, which was the decade of the Biblical epic (The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur). The impressive feat in these epics -- aside of their scope -- is that the filmmakers pulled out all the stops without the use of modern day computers or digital trickery. What you saw on screen was real life stunts, actual reenacted battles, and production design that would make any production designer's head spin. When critics and historians use the word 'epic' to describe these movies, they aren't kidding -- it is awe inspiring how much detail and human blood, sweat, and tears were put into these films to recreate a specific era or event. When lists and reviews ramble off the names of these epic films, 1964's Zulu is often left in the dark. Why? After watching Zulu, I'm not quite sure. The fact is that while Zulu may not be as endearing or inspiring as other big budget historical movies of its time, it's still grand entertainment with a scope that'll make your jaw drop. When the midpoint comes and the valley shows off a line of Zulu warriors waiting to descend upon the British soldiers, it's everything that an expensive Hollywood epic should be.
I'll admit to being a little hesitant going into Zulu, assuming I was getting a stodgy old story about soldiers prattling on about their duties and very little entertainment value. Wow, was I wrong. Although the first half of Zulu can be a bit overly chatty at times, as soon as the midpoint rolls around and the Zulu's show up, the film kicks into high gear as the thousands of warriors make their way towards the British station, fortified only with lumpy bags of corn and overturned wooden wagons. The stakes get ratcheted up when the Zulu warriors begin a second wave of attacks with the British's own rifles (taken from a previous battle). Huts are burned, horses are fallen, and hundreds are felled by spears and gunpowder. Michael Bay, eat your heart out.
The actors are all uniformly excellent. The standouts include Stanley Baker as the rigid Lieutenant Chard, who bickers with Michael Caine's Bromhead over who has the seniority to lead the soldiers (Chard wins by only three months seniority). It's almost jarring to see Michael Caine as such a youthful spirit; it's clear why he became a star because his presence holds so much weight during the film. The most entertaining character in the film is Otto Witt (played by Jack Hawkins), a fire and brimstone spitting reverend who has a bit of a weakness for the bottle. Witt seems to be channeling old time preachers who know how to stab at the hearts of men with threats about hell and eternal damnation, to great effect. Also listen closely, for the opening and closing narration is provided by none other than Oscar winner William Holden (Stalag 17).
Interestingly, Cy Endfield's screenplay doesn't really take sides between the Zulus or British soldiers. Although it's clear we want to British to win, I never got the impression that the Zulu warriors were 'bad guys', but natives trying to defend their turf. That may not be reason enough for the slaughter, but at least it didn't simplify the motives behind the attacks. The only major complaint I have is that, due to the nature of high definition, many of the up close and personal hand-to-hand fights look phony. If you watch closely (and sometimes even when you don't) you can see that there's little to no contact between the warriors and the soldiers. When one warrior is stabbed with a bayonet, it looks like the knife actually bends on his chest. Again, I can't really fault the film for this as much as the clarity of the picture.
Zulu is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen in 1080p high definition. Twilight Time's work on this catalog title (limited to only 3,000 units) is very good, although I wouldn't say it's the peak of high definition. The transfer itself looks decent with deep, solid colors (blues and reds are very prominent), but the print shows a few blemishes from time to time and the image can't compete with other recently released catalog titles. That being said, this is still a very pleasing transfer that should make fans happy. The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono, both in English. The 2.0 mix is mostly front heavy and a fine representation of the original audio presentation. The most pleasing aspect is composer John Barry's lushly thrilling film score. Also included on this disc are English subtitles.
The extra features on this first ever American Blu-ray release of Zulu are rather slim; the meatiest is a commentary track by Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman discussing their love for the film. Also included is an isolated audio track of John Barry's adventurous score, a promo for MGM's 90th anniversary, and a theatrical trailer for Zulu.
I didn't know anything about the Battle of Rorke's Drift going into Zulu and afterwards I felt just a bit more enlightened than when I'd started. This is a grueling, exciting, dramatic retelling of a moment in history that allowed a few to persevere over the many. In a way, it's the ultimate underdog movie, featuring thrilling action scenes, excellent performances, and a fascinating look at a past that seems to have been long forgotten.
Worth seeking out for those who love old time historical epics.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Twilight Time
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Isolated Score