ZULU is a John Ford cavalry Western. Oh, I know John Ford didn’t direct it, and there’s not an Apache in sight, but scene after scene in ZULU plays as if the filmmakers had watched FORT APACHE, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, and RIO GRANDE a dozen times each before making ZULU. Take the opening scene, as the camera pans over a destroyed British regiment, then the victorious Zulu warriors come into the shot and one of them picks up a fallen rifle and thrusts it exultantly into the air over his head. That really plays like a John Ford scene to me. There are even several of Ford’s signature low-angle shots later in the film.
For those few of you who haven’t seen it, ZULU is the story of less than two hundred British soldiers trying to defend an isolated mission in Africa against four thousand Zulu warriors in 1879. I guess that makes it an Alamo movie, too, in the same way that David Gemmell’s LEGEND is an Alamo novel. The first half of the movie, before the attack begins, is really slow. It didn’t help matters for me that I had trouble telling the various soldiers apart, and the DVD didn’t have captions on it, so I understood only about half the dialogue. (Worst case scenario for a deaf old geezer like me: British accents and no captions.) The second half is full of action, though, and it’s well-staged. Given the movie’s age, all the fighting is pretty bloodless despite the rampant death and destruction, which seems a little odd after seeing so many war movies with such graphic gore, but I can’t say that the lack of blood splattering everywhere really bothered me. At least there was none of that blasted close-up, quick-cut editing.
Stanley Baker plays the engineer who winds up in command of the defenders, an impossibly young Michael Caine is his second-in-command, and Jack Hawkins is a Swedish missionary. All of them do good jobs. The photography and the scenery are spectacular. Going back to my John Ford comparison, that part of Africa really does look like the American West. Overall, ZULU is okay, a war movie that just tells a story without any heavy-handed messages. That makes it worth watching in my book.