Mike’s Take on Stanley Baker Movies ………. Day 10
I should think that this is the most widely known Stanley Baker film and one I hope he was proud of as he also had a hand in producing it along with frequent collaborator and the director of the film, Cyril Endfield. The fact that it also cast Michael Caine in his breakthrough role after more than a few years in bit parts adds to it’s place in film history.
With a rousing score from John Barry and an opening narration from Richard Burton, Zulu is a relentless tale that is tightly plotted from the onset. It begins where the eventual 1979 prequel Zulu Dawn ends. A huge defeat for the British forces in Africa in the year 1879 to the Zulu warrior nation leaves little chance for a small regiment holed up at a field hospital/fort near by. Jack Hawkins as a missionary accompanied by his daughter Ulla Jacobsson return to the hospital where he hopes to convince the company commander to abandon their station and retreat to safety.
“The orders are to hold our ground.”
Stanley Baker cuts a striking figure against the brown fields and dry soil of Africa. He’s going to find himself the highest ranking officer at the fort by happenstance. He’s an engineer by trade attempting to design a bridge for the military across a local river. Up to this point, it’s the young arrogant Michael Caine by way of the military academy who has been the company commander. Caine plays it just right with an arrogance and sense of entitlement that doesn’t endear him to us initially.
Baker makes the unpopular choice to stand their ground and quickly has the regiment begin to fortify whatever they can in an attempt to fend off the nearly 4000 Zulu warriors heading towards them. “Like a train in the distance.” That’s exactly what the Zulu nation sound like as their approach echoes off the hills wherein lies the fort holding Baker and his men. Included in the brigade are Nigel Green giving a perfectly understated performance as the Sergeant at Arms who is as stoic a character in the face of death as we’re likely to see and James Booth as a professional lay about no good soldier always coming up with injuries and illnesses to get out of any manual labor.
The tension will increase severely as the beat of the drums grow louder mixed with Hawkins religious ravings that only serve to disrupt the younger members of the regiment. Let the battle begin.
It’s a hellacious storm of gunfire and death as the Zulu warriors walk and charge to their deaths while their Chief’s direct the battle from a nearby hilltop. It’s a very cold and calculated attack on the part of the Zulu Chiefs. Countless men are sent to their deaths in order to gage the strength of the British fighters. As the British army slowly lose their ground they’ll stage a major stand off in order to defend the Alamo.
Sorry about that but that’s what this final battle reminds me of having grown up on the Duke’s pet project long before I eventually caught up to Baker’s pet project of his own in the VHS era. A heroic tale is presented here that sees boys become men and Caine humbled as Baker refuses to give in to the inevitable that stands before him and his small fighting force.
There is more than one memorable scene in this film that sees men facing certain death rise to the occasion in both heroism and spirit and I love the roll call where Sergeant Green keeps everything proper and Military like. I have no real knowledge of the true events and the reasons for the British being in Africa so I won’t comment on the political angle of the film which some history buffs might be inclined to do and may even go so far as to pick sides in the dispute thereby damning the other. Taken as pure entertainment, Baker’s production of Zulu is grand entertainment and should be viewed as such. It’s both exhilarating and emotional on the senses and NOT to be missed.
According to Burton’s closing narrative, there were 11 men decorated at the battle with the Victoria Cross led by Baker and Caine for there actions on the battlefield. Even that no good layabout Booth rises from his hospital bed to stage a hell of a war all on his own earning himself that same medal along with Green.
Incredibly, this beautifully filmed movie was all but ignored for awards of any kind. The only thing it was recognized for was for Best Art Direction at the BAFTA Awards. Stanley Baker had already appeared on screen in 1956 opposite bit player Michael Caine in A Hill In Korea which makes it all the more curious that this film claims to be “Introducing Michael Caine” in the opening credits.
If I’m to be recommending Stanley Baker films or Michael Caine flicks as well for that matter, this one is a lock so go score yourself a copy.