Cy Endfield's Zulu: Imperialist oppression or socialist comradeship?


The film Zulu (1963) is often considered a tale of British imperial oppression. It is a film closely based on real history, but with a number of significant historical inaccuracies (see appendix for a list). Yet with its stirring narrative of bravery in overcoming African natives on the one fringe of the Empire, its production team come from other edges of the Empire, both geographically and politically. So is it just another Boys' Own tale of derring-do, or is there something else to this British popular classic?

Director Cy Endfield was born in Pennsylvania, but because of his left-wing sympathies he was forced out of America at the time of McCarthyite hysteria. He fled to Britain, where he formed a production partnership with Stanley Baker, one of the greatest British film stars of the 1950s. Baker was born in Rhondda, Wales, a staunchly working class mining area, and went on to become the first proletarian hero in British cinema. Long before Sean Connery and Michael Caine broke the mould of British screen stardom, Baker ruled the box office as a tough, violent, contemptuous man of action, for example as a truck driver in Endfield's noirish Hell Drivers.

The third figure in the creative team was co-writer John Prebble, a communist who fought in the British Army in World War II before pursuing a career in journalism and popular history. Although he was born in Middlesex and raised in Canada, his family was from Scotland and his closest emotional identification was with the Scottish Highlands. In a number of books such as The Highland Clearances and Culloden (which inspired Peter Watkins' seminal 1963 film) he described the oppression of the Highlanders by the English and Scottish bourgeoisie.

It's not hard to see what attracted the three men to this story of 150 soldiers defending a southern African supply station against 4000 Zulu warriors. For Baker, the story of the men of the 2nd Warwickshires offered a tale of Welsh heroism. For Prebble it offered a tale of working class military struggle. For Endfield it offered a dramatic tale of bravery and trial by combat. And the result is clearly different from the films you might compare it with: either Alexander and Zoltan Korda's tales of the Empire like The Four Feathers, with their focus on personal honour and the military traditions of the officer class, or John Ford's westerns with their attention to nation-building and encroaching domesticity.

Something people have criticised in the film is its lack of historical context. In December 1878, the British High Commissioner in South Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, began to antagonise the Zulu chief Cetshwayo kaMpande with the hope of provoking war and conquering the prosperous Zulu nation. War quickly came, but did not go as planned. On January 22, 1879, the Zulus met the British army at Isandhlwana, and the natives won, killing 1300 British and allied troops. In the aftermath the Zulus swept towards the supply station at Rorke's Drift, which they attacked from January 22 to 23, 1879, and which attack forms the subject matter of the film.

At the start the film mentions the massacre at Isandhlwana and the approaching Zulus, but offers no wider historical account. However, it is fair to say it does not make much effort for justification or humanisation of either side. It does show a Zulu celebration at the start, which is perhaps more kindness than it gives to the white people. Unlike John Ford's westerns, which are full of fresh-faced women, kidnapped children, and imperilled homesteads, this is a film about men at war, men doing their duty and standing together.

Although you might criticise its makers for filming in apartheid-era South Africa so soon after the Sharpeville massacre, it is far from a pro-imperialist film. The first sign of left-wing attitude is the depiction of Michael Caine's character, Lt Gonville Bromhead, a middle-class Englishman from a long line of soldiers, who is nonetheless somewhat effete and cowardly. Initially he wants to run away while Baker's more working-class Welsh engineer Chard prefers to stay and takes command over Bromhead. Early on the Englishman moans about the "cowardly blacks" in his camp, for which he is attacked at the time by the Afrikaaner Adendorff and then more forcefully out-argued with the bravery of the Zulus. Meanwhile Baker's Lt. John Chard remains steadfast through the film - and the image of him standing upright in the thick of battle shouting orders to his troops is the main image of individual bravery in the film.

Another scene of subtle anti-imperialism comes later, when the Welsh solders choose to counter the constant Zulu chants by a song of their own. Rather than anything like Rule Britannia or God Save the Queen, they sing Men of Harlech, which celebrates the steadfastness of Welshmen under Dafydd ap Ieuan besieged by the English during the Wars of the Roses. Thus the Welsh troops emphasise their similarity to the Zulus, through the famous Welsh love of song. In fact, this singing probably never occurred; as with most of the filmmakers' inventions, it is there to express their working class and anti-imperialist attitude.

Rather than focussing on men as individual fighters, director Endfield and the camera of his cinematographer Stephen Dade focus on images of men as a mass. More than the poetry of individual bravery, visually the film is in love with the abstract shape of human forms and the drama of military movements. On one side there are the natives pouring through valleys and lining up on hills, defined by the shape of their oval shields and their stylised warrior poses.

On the other side are the Welsh infantrymen with their white hats and red coats, the latter always to be kept tightly buttoned up despite the heat. Uniform always robs men of their individuality, and the film celebrates this, most especially in the soldiers standing fast against the charging enemy to discharge volley after volley from their Martini-Henri rifles. These lines remaining straight are the clearest symbol of collective bravery. Towards the end the combat dissolves into almost abstract visuals with only the shouts of "fire!" and the accompanying explosions, almost mechanical.

Against the regulated shooting, the film also presents the chaos and violence of hand-to-hand fighting as the Zulu warriors repeatedly reach the stockade walls and overrun the hospital. Aside from the combat much of the emphasis is on waiting, and the heroism of waiting. Throughout the film the main expression on Baker's face is that of worried observation. The film also follows the growth in Bromhead, who initially scorns both the Welshman Chard and the black natives, but eventually learns courage of his own.

In many ways the film is less an explicit discussion of the empire than an isolated tale of the nature of bravery. Probably Prebble's wartime experiences were important in this; it is not a film about individual bravery but about people playing their role, staying in the line, defending their comrades, facing up to almost certain death while being led by Baker who is one of their own. This alone makes it a kind of socialist film. And you can add to that the varied and sympathetic portrayal of the privates, who are far from the cor-blimeying caricatures of many British war movies.

The film does not follow the traditional narrative of the futility of war, such as Lewis Milestone's Pork Chop Hill, Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, or Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron. This is not a film about the stupidity of the generals at headquarters. Zulu is a film with significant amounts of bravery, commemorating a British victory distinguished by great bravery. It is not a film about the folly of generals, but about the bravery of the lower ranks, an everyday courage based in teamwork rather than glory. Nobody wants to be there, and they don't understand the history or logic behind it (any more than they explain it to the viewer), but whatever the morality of the war, this is a film that is prepared to celebrate the people who had to fight it.

While plainly not pacifist, the film has a strong underpinning of hatred for the futility of war. It is notable how the film ends not with triumphalism but with disgust and a focus on sacrifice and brotherhood. After the conflict we get a final coda. The two officers Chard and Bromhead discuss the sickness and disgust they feel, while a rollcall shows both the losses they have suffered and the spirit of the enlisted men. Ultimately it does not show us the triumph of Empire, just a few men staying alive.

When the credits roll it is clear that the British have earned nothing except courage. It ends with the famous (and made-up) scene where the Zulu warriors salute their fellow braves. From one group of British imperial subjects to another? With its ending the final message is one of brotherhood, of people on both sides doing a job ("I came here to build a bridge") and appreciating the valour and mourning the sacrifice they have seen. Emphasising fellowship and communal bravery rather than individual violence, it is perhaps not such an odd choice for its role as perennial Christmas viewing on British television.

Appendix: Historical inaccuracies in the film

1. The 2nd Warwickshire regiment was only 11% Welsh at the time; like most regiments of that period it recruited throughout Britain (source: Knight).

2. Men of Harlech was probably not sung. When the regiment became the South Wales Borderers in 1881, it became their regimental song, but at the time of the film was not, and as mentioned above most of the soldiers were not Welsh (sources: Knight and Weston).

3. The Zulus were not armed with Martini-Henri rifles looted from Isandhlwana; they had already obtained rifles from white traders. In any case, the Zulus fighting at Rorke's Drift on January 22-23 would not have had time to get rifles from Isandhlwana (source: Knight).

4. The Zulus' salute of the British was entirely fictional. Rather than salute and then retreat, the Zulus were too exhausted to attack any more and retreated when more British troops, under Lord Chelmsford, arrived. The British then went out onto the battlefield and shot or bayonetted all the wounded Zulus (source: Knight).

However, many of the other details in the film are correct, including the course of the battle and the attack on the hospital, and most of the characters in the film are closely based on real people (source:

  • Dennis Barker. "John Prebble". The Guardian. January 31, 2001.,3604,431248,00.html (accessed December 27, 2003).
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  • Steve James. "The flawed legacy of Scottish popular historian John Prebble". World Socialist Web Site. 2001. (accessed December 27, 2003).
  • Ian Knight. The ZULU! Website. (accessed December 27, 2003).
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  • David Thompson. "A Biographical Dictionary of Film". Andre Deutsch, London. 1994. (accessed December 27, 2003).
  • John Weston. "Men of Harlech". Data Wales. (accessed December 27, 2003).