Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s: Zulu

Michael Caine and Stanley Baker in Zulu.

Michael Caine and Stanley Baker in Zulu.

We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.

10. Zulu, 1964

The true—well, sorta—story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, 1879, South Africa, where ninety British soldiers fought against several thousand Zulu warriors.

At one point a young bugler, lips trembling, asks the tough Sergeant: “Why? Why?” And the Sergeant, stiff-upper lip, as the British used to be, replies, “Because we’re here, lad.”

zulu poster

A young, incredibly gifted actor named Michael Caine makes his very first major film appearance as a foppish young officer who becomes a man in the crucible of battle.

Zulu’s score by the great John Barry, is one of the most memorable I have ever heard. During the Yom Kippur War I used to hum it to myself to keep up my spirits and remind myself that numbers don’t matter, that in the end discipline, courage and fortitude triumph.

The Zulu warriors are treated with great respect. We, along with the British soldiers, are in awe of their distinctive battle formations, designed as a feint to draw in the enemy and then the flanks close up like a tidal wave — for the killing end. Zulu ritual pre-battle songs and dance are mesmerizing, and we can’t help but feel compassion for these brave premodern warriors who are about to meet the end of their history. The razor sharp Assagai spear is no match for the Martini-Henry repeating rifle.

This is a war movie that hits all the sweet spots a war movies should hit. We have a seemingly futile last stand of the few against the many. A cross-section of British soldiers that includes the drunken lout who rises to the peak of heroism, and the befuddled ranker who makes sure to button his tunic as the battle rages because he fears his Sergeant as much as he fears the Zulu. And of course we have Michael Caine and Stanley Baker, rivals for command with no battlefield experience. But they must lead because, well, that’s what leaders do.

Zulu is one of the great war movies of all time with superb performances by a dozen character actors, and a fine supporting performance of only a few minutes by Ulla Jacobsson as a preacher’s daughter who has, like so many Westerners, romanticized the natives, only to come face to face with the unflinching cruelty that is at the heart of a warrior culture.

The final battle, where the Zulu and the British fight to the death across a few yards, is one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed.

The screenplay by John Prebble and director Cy Endfield, is a model of restraint allowing the action to carry the story. Dialogue is clipped and to the point. Soldiers fight. They do not make speeches.

Here’s a clip of the final battle.

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  1. inthePRofCA
    Posted June 28, 2015 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    Slight pedantry here, but the Martini-Henry is a single shot breechloader.

    Shavua tov.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. Michael Kennedy
    Posted June 25, 2015 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I’m sure you have read Steven Pressfield’s great book, The Lion’s Gate.

    It is his best yet and all true.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. kgbudge
    Posted June 25, 2015 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    And Jack Hawkins, too, I see. Added to my wish list.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted June 25, 2015 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

      Jack Hawkins plays drunk for most of the movie. In fact, I think he’s the weakest character in the film—the drunken Padre.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. sennacherib
    Posted June 24, 2015 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    “Because we’re here, lad.”
    The quote should be completed, “just us, nobody else”. Then it’s what a soldier will eventually understand when it’s time. Yom Kippur, huh. That was a pretty close run thing feller. Glad you stayed in the land of the living.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted June 25, 2015 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, I should have included the complete quote. Thanks.

      And thank you President Nixon, for the airlift, and General Sharon, for his genius in crossing the canal and turning the tide of war.

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      • sennacherib
        Posted June 26, 2015 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

        I do remember watching reports on TV. I especially remember a live interview with Dayan (I’m almost certain it was him). Behind him was a road leading to Suez city, from which several columns of smoke were rising and where the Israelis had surrounded Egypt’s Third Army. Dayan was asked what would the Israeli’s do now that the Egyptians were trapped, I will never ever forget his response “We will break their bones”. Of course the US and Russia imposed a cease fire almost immediately, but I remember that like it happened yesterday. My own soldiering days were recently over, but I thought that’s how you do it and I would follow in his command.

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