Jhere is an urban myth about a scene in Zulu in which a British officer in a red tunic is horribly struck in the throat by three successive spears: after a dazed silence in the cinema hall, a guy shouted from behind: “One hundred and eighty! (Other versions of the story have an extra on the spot who shouts it out – then gets fired – or even the star himself, Michael Cain.)
Now the film is grappling with more darts. Sir Michael Caine is furious to learn that Zulu, the 1964 film about the battle of Rorke’s Drift that made him an international star, has been named as something that could foster far-right sympathies by the Research Information and Communication Unitmanaged as part of Prevent, the government’s counter-terrorism operation.
As if to troll Sir Michael and everyone else, the unit includes The Four Feathers, The Great Escape and The Dam Busters on its roster – the last perhaps because of the name Wing Commander Guy Gibson gives his dog. (To quote David Brent’s explanation, “That was before racism was bad.”) But the list also includes works by Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Tennyson, Kipling and Edmund Burke as well as The Thick of It, Yes Minister and The Great British Rail Journeys of Michael Portillo. (Perhaps we’ll leave the latter to them.)
But is Prevent really trying to get Zulu and all those other texts canceled? Or is it simply recording the (perhaps mischievous) way in which far-right groups solemnly invoke these things as touchstones?
And could it be that Prevent’s goofy list is getting people to watch Zulu again, getting a new generation to see Stanley Baker, that lion of British cinema who played Caine’s commanding officer, Lieutenant John Chard, and of course Caine himself, playing a classy stiff-lipped guy for the first and last time in his life? There’s also Jack Hawkins as the alcoholic civilian missionary who is evacuated in a truck screaming, “You’re all going to die!” You do not realize ? You do not see ?
It’s certainly a tricky watch, with the concept of empire being re-examined. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was fought during the Anglo-Zulu War, caused by the British invasion of Zululand in 1879. You could say the numbers of combatants on both sides were about equal, but the British had the guns , breech-loading rifles and Gatling guns. The Zulus were defending an unprovoked attack on their territory by an invader with superior weaponry. But the Zulu film claimed underdog status for the British by focusing on a specific event in which only 150 British soldiers held off around 4,000 Zulu warriors. The film sentimentally imagines a final showdown in which the Brits and Zulus sing to each other, imbued with respect for each other’s martial gallantry: the Zulus a funeral lament and the Brits a chorus of Men of Harlech. Did director Cy Endfield consider a football match between them in no man’s land?
The film doesn’t exactly provide the general context: it was part of a catastrophic setback for the British, given the earlier Battle of Isandlwana – to which Rorke’s Drift was a footnote – in which they were defeated despite their advantage in armament. Additionally, after Rorke’s Drift, some Zulus were hanged using a specially constructed gallows. The film is arguably part of the cover-up mythology that began almost immediately: the seizing and inflation of a relatively unimportant event.
Undoubtedly, Zulu’s look and feel inspired an unlisted film Prevent: Carry On Up the Khyber, that well-known satire of British colonialism. Perhaps the Research Information and Communication Unit could host a double poster of these films at the Ministry of the Interior.