By the time it opened on America’s movie screens 52 years ago today, the historical action tale Zulu (1964) had already been a box-office sensation in its native England for nearly five months. This stirring recreation of the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift, wherein a garrison of some 150 British soldiers in South Africa defended its isolated position against a powerful assault force of 4,000 Zulu warriors determined to ward off the colonialist intentions of the English empire, was hailed as an even-handed celebration of heroism on the part of both sides. Blighty reviewers and audiences were captivated by the starkly beautiful location filming (in Super Technirama 70 by Stephen Dade), the bracing impact of its battle sequences, the on-point performances of its cast (producer Stanley Baker, newly burnished co-star Michael Caine, plus Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson, James Booth, Nigel Green, the Welsh singer Ivor Emanuel and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi), the pageantry of its Zulu tribal rituals and the spare but powerful score by John Barry. Though the screenplay by John Prebble and director Cy Endfield took a few liberties with some details of characterization and actual events (as fact checker and war film aficionado Kevin Hardy notes here: http://warmoviebuff.blogspot.com/2015/02/history-or-hollywood-zulu-1964.html), the movie’s ardent global following nonetheless considers it history writ large.
One of those early fans who caught Zulu in British cinemas in 1964 was Twilight Time co-founder Nick Redman: “Zulu was, in some sense, my earliest cinematic love – and the wonderful thing is that everything I loved about it as a boy remains just as marvelous to me as an adult. It’s got that astonishing cast, of course, and John Barry’s score – perhaps one of the greatest in film history. And it’s a superb adventure story peopled by memorable characters who get to be crafty and charming and honorable and redeemed – heroic in the best sense of the word. It’s a movie about different kinds of honor, and about how respect has to be earned – and that goes for both sides, the Zulus and the British. When the outnumbering Zulu forces sing their praise to the tiny British garrison – that’s a moment that kills me as much today as it did when I was a kid…maybe more. After so many viewings, the fact that Zulu can still have that effect – that’s the mark of a great movie.”
Widescreen spectaculars were a regular staple of international moviegoing at the time. But current events tempered reaction to the film when it arrived here. As Jeff Stafford at TCM.com chronicles: “The release of Zulu in June of 1964 in the U.S. coincided with a tense period between Whites and African-Americans just prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which was passed in July. Because of this, many American reviewers' opinion of the film was colored by racial issues and responded to it quite differently than British audiences. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, ‘With so much racial tension and anticolonial discord in the world, a film on the order of Zulu seems strangely archaic and indiscreet...if you're not too squeamish at the sight of slaughter and blood and can keep your mind fixed on the notion that there was something heroic and strong about British colonial expansion in the 19th century, you may find a great deal of excitement in this robustly Kiplingesque film.’ And Crowther certainly had a valid point when he asked ‘Is it a contribution to the cause of harmony to show so much vicious acrimony between black men and white...to make an exciting thing of firing rifles into the faces of charging warriors and sticking bayonets into them?” Thanks to the enterprising marketing of the project’s executive producer Joseph E. Levine, the $2-million film was already in the black from its British engagements but went on to a substantial $8-million box-office gross in the colonies. Featuring a rousing yet warts-and-all Audio Commentary by Redman and fellow historian Lem Dobbs, Zulu soldiers on via an impressive hi-def Blu-ray, available here: http://www.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/26552/ZULU-1964-SPECIAL-PROMOTION/.