Battle Lines: Zulu (1964)

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In the closely watched race of American directors most misidentified as European, Cyril (Cy) Endfield finishes close behind Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin. Dassin is well-known for his French heist film Rififi, Losey for his Pinter adaptations,  and Endfield for his English colonial war picture Zulu (1964). All had their Hollywood careers annihilated by the blacklist, and their national identity with it, having to flee overseas to continue working. In Endfield’s necessarily vagabond career, his most lasting working relationship was with Welsh tough guy actor Stanley Baker, with whom he made six features, including the cynical two-fisted action films Hell Drivers and Sands of the Kalahari (I wrote about the latter here). Zulu was the one Endfield looked back on most fondly, though, with a script he carried around for four years before he could get it made in the manner he wanted. It is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time through Screen Archives Entertainment, in something approximating its original glory. The film depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, when 150 British colonial troops defended a garrison against thousands of Zulu warriors, as a grim procedural – heroism rendered nauseous and ashamed.


Endfield was a polymath with a gift for card tricks and inventions as well as directing – he impressed fellow magic lover Orson Welles so much he was hired as an assistant at Mercury Productions. Later he invented a portable word processor called the Microwriter, and a computerized pocket organizer called the Agenda. A tinkerer since birth, he clearly shared Welles’ viewpoint that the movie set was “the biggest toy-train set any boy ever had.” The product of Scranton, Pennsylvania, he became attracted to magic when he was 12 or 13. Endfield told Jonathan Rosenbaum that, “the element that attracted me was the dexterity aspect of it.” After seeing a magician at summer camp he designed his own card tricks and gained notoriety by describing the tricks in magazines. He would continue to hone his gift even while attending Yale (where he joined the Young Communist League) and moving to NYC to pursue a career in theater – which was just a bigger stage for illusions. He was aligned with the New Theatre League, a left wing federation of small theaters and theatrical groups organized in 1935. Its main role was to distribute scripts of “Living Newspapers” to its affiliated groups in support of nationwide political campaigns, whether in aid of Spanish Democracy or boycotting the Hearst Press. Everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Brecht lent a hand in the cause. This is the period that probably landed him on HUAC watchlists. He denied ever becoming a member of the party into the 1990s, which Rosenbaum discovered to be false, a lie presumably made so not to scare off any future employers.

Of his Hollywood work, the easiest to see is Try and Get Me! (aka The Sound of Fury, 1950), one of his most explicitly political films made right before his exile. A furious noir about a botched kidnapping, it poses violence as the natural state of American life, ending in a lynching scene of infernal grotesquerie. A theater manager showing the film told Endfield “I never have a performance when I don’t get two or three people coming around to tell me it’s a disgrace to run this kind of anti-American picture.” Named a communist in a HUAC report, Endfield fled the country before he had to start naming names. For the first few years in England he used a front for his films, using his friend’s name Charles de Lautour, for two films, and used it as a co-directing credit on a third, Child in the House (1956), which would be the first pairing of Endfield and Baker. It is an uncharacteristic kitchen sink drama for the duo, who would spend the next five on various self-destructive adventures throughout the British Empire.


Hell Drivers (’57) finds Baker as an ex-con trucker vengefully taking down his former mob boss’ rackets, while Sea Fury and Jet Storm (which I regrettably have yet to see), involve explosive tankers and a grieving father who threatens to take down an airplane. Zulu is their largest scale operation, for which Baker formed his own production company, Diamond Films. Baker, now an established star, was personally invested in the project, proud as he was of the Welsh character of the company that defended the outpost. Though it was made up of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh soldiers, B company of the 24th regiment was based in Brecon, South Wales, and so retained a Welsh character, which was exaggerated in the film. Baker brought Endfield’s script to producer Joseph Levine while he was filming Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), who quickly agreed. It was shot on location in South Africa, with the cooperation of the Zulu nation. Chief Buthulezi acted as the Zulu leader in the film, and in his autobiography Michael Caine says a Zulu princess acted as a consultant on their war strategy from the period.

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It is subject matter fraught with racial tension, a fabled British military victory that involved the slaughter of thousands of black colonial subjects. Endfield avoids a triumphal tone, stripping it of context, and presents it as an abstract depiction of the human condition – as abject as that in the finale of Try and Get Me! The film has had a noticeable cultural impact in the black community. Afrika Bambaataa recalled watching Zulu as a kid, and named his youth organization and hip hop incubator the “Zulu Nation” after their model. He had kids battle each other “in a nonviolent way, like rapper against rapper rather than knife against knife.” Bambaataa remembers the impact the movie had him, how the Zulus, “fought like warriors for land that was theirs.”

Endfield utilizes all of his technical facility in filling the 70mm frames, using dollies down the lines of interchangeable soldiers. The script aims to collapse class difference in the arc of the relationship between Stanley Baker and posh English lieutenant Michael Caine, who was here cast in his first major role. Baker recommended him to Endfield after seeing him in the play Next Time I’ll Sing to You, then all the rage on the West End. Caine was supposed to audition for the role of the Cockney sergeant, but Endfield had already cast the part, but liked Caine’s blonde-haired blue-eyed looks for the high-horse lieutenant. The class lines between Baker and Caine collapse along with the outpost’s initial defenses. As does any lingering racial resentments, as both sides’ troops are gutted, exhausted, and respectful of the other side by the end of the Brits’ bloody Pyrrhic victory.

18 Responses Battle Lines: Zulu (1964)
Posted By Jenni : February 18, 2014 3:49 pm

Zulu blew me away the first time I saw it and count me as one who assumed the director was British.

Posted By Ben Martin : February 18, 2014 3:57 pm

My favorite Ray Harryhausen film is, was, and always will be Mysterious Island. I’m a pretty big Harryhausen fan, met him multiple times and even had a chance to chat with him on several occasions (and get an autographs on an original Mysterious Island one-sheet). I told him that i thought Mysterious island was my favorite of his at least in part because the non-creature scenes held up as well as the creature scenes. I told him that i thought it might have something to do with the talent of the director, Cy Endfield. Mr. Harryhausen replied “You might just be right.” Once i watched Zulu and Sands of the Kalahari, I was sure i was right. Well done on an excellent post, R. Emmett.

Posted By tdraicer : February 18, 2014 5:10 pm

About 15 years later Endfield made Zulu Dawn, about the British disaster before Zulu, and it is also a very good film (with a great cast) that for whatever reason was virtually ignored when it was released.

I too thought he was from the UK.

Posted By Tom Herling : February 18, 2014 5:25 pm

Just by coincidence I happened to watch that film just last week. In hindsight, casting Michael Caine as the typical English Public School officer is surprising, given that so many of his further roles would be that of the wise guy Cockney.

In his place, as the stern Colour Sergeant, is Nigel Green, one of those great character actors you never recognize as being “an actor,” because he pulls of the job without any unnecessary flourishes.

Had it been filmed a few years earlier, in black and white and with a lower budget, it might have ended up as yet another British “boys’ thrilling stories” actioner. The widescreen and color photography bring out the breathtaking scenery of Rorke’s Drift, which I had visited when I was in South Africa some years ago, and “Zulu” gives you a feeling close to what it was like to stand in the actual battle site and imagine thousands of warriors rushing toward you.

Posted By Arthur : February 18, 2014 5:26 pm

Perhaps Zulu Dawn was virtually ignored because it had a directly opposite outcome from Zulu. As for Zulu, there was something unreal about the battle sequences. At several points it seemed as if the Africans were just hanging back and waiting to be killed instead of overwhelming the base in force. Sort of like in the traditional cowboy and Indian films where the Indians ride around in circles and are picked off one-by-one. It was the same sort of thing in Magnificent Seven. Yes, Zulu was based on a true story, but the execution, to me, did not make sense.

Posted By B Piper : February 18, 2014 5:51 pm

Ben Martin, you beat me to it. You could cut the Dynamation scenes out of MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and still have a first rate adventure yarn. Of course I’d murder anyone who tried.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : February 18, 2014 6:13 pm

Cy Endfield co-wrote the screenplay for ZULU DAWN, but it was directed by Douglas Hickox. I haven’t seen it yet (I know, I know…), though it was released in an apparently decent Blu-Ray last year by Severin Films:

Anybody else vouch for ZULU DAWN?

Posted By Ben Martin : February 18, 2014 6:17 pm

That’s great, B. Piper. Good to know others think like me when it comes to Cyrus Harding, Gideon Spillet, Neb, Herbert, Pencroft and Lady Mary. Thanks for responding. {And yes, i’d miss the giant crab, bees, bird and nautiloid cephalopod terribly.)

Posted By Doug : February 18, 2014 7:58 pm

I know that I’ve mentioned it here before, but if anyone wants to read a stinging, burning hot satire of South Africa after the events which take place in “Zulu”, look up Tom Sharpe’s first novel, “Riotous Assembly”. After publication, Sharpe was deported from South Africa for being an ‘undeniable subversive’.
Indeed he was-authorities of every political stripe are targeted by Sharpe in his works.

Posted By Muriel : February 18, 2014 8:05 pm

When I was 10 years old, “Zulu” and “National Velvet” were my favorite movies. I only saw Zulu in B&W on an old time TV.
I did not see it again until I was an adult, and it still holds up from my youthful impressions.

Posted By sailorbob : February 18, 2014 8:55 pm

This is one of the main reasons I read this blog – I always learn something new. I would have sworn Cyril Endfield was British, and was unaware of his involvement with ZULU DAWN. ZULU DAWN is a great film but unfortunately was buried by blockbusters when it was released.

Posted By kingrat : February 18, 2014 9:25 pm

Emmet, thank you for writing about ZULU and Cy Endfield, a much undervalued director. TRY AND GET ME, HELL DRIVERS, ZULU, and SANDS OF THE KALAHARI are all very good, and SEA FURY isn’t bad, if not quite in their class.

Posted By Nick : February 19, 2014 1:35 am

A few technical corrections:

There is no such thing as 70mm VistaVision.

Zulu was shot in the Technirama process, which like Vistavision was 8-perf horizontal 35mm.

Zulu was exhibited in Super Technirama 70 to be precise. Unlike Super Panavision and Todd-AO, Super Technirama 70 was not a true 70mm process, but simply the standard 8-perf 35mm Technirama element blown up to a 5-perf 70mm print.

In summary, Zulu was only ever 35mm (albeit horizontal 35mm), all 70mm prints simply being blow ups.

Posted By Gamera2000 : February 19, 2014 2:14 am

Zulu blew me away the first time I saw it, but didn’t really connect him as the director of one of my favorite films, Mysterious Island, until I read his write up in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionry of Film. It has a gritty and unsentimental view of war, which prevents it from being a celebration of colonial victory.

So Zulu Dawn some years ago on Cable. It is good, though not as good as Zulu, but I have a feeling that it’s reception was hurt by the fact that it depicts one of Britain’s greatest defeats.

Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : February 19, 2014 10:01 am

Great “stiff upper lip” movie. Gary Bond (WAKE IN FRIGHT),is in
it too.

Posted By Patrick : February 20, 2014 3:40 pm

Any idea when TCM will show Zulu again? Another interesting fact about this movie is that the Star Stanley Baker took this role over being James Bond in Dr. No. Makes some sense now that I know he was a friend of the Director of Zulu who was black listed Cyril Endfield.

Posted By swac44 : February 25, 2014 2:06 pm

For three summers during college I portrayed a member of the 78th Highlanders Victorian infantry regiment at a local fortress, doing historical reenactments of life in the citadel, complete with foot & arms drill, in painstakingly recreated uniforms (try wearing a heavy wool kilt and doublet for three summer months, I sweat out 15 pounds my first week). An annual tradition was to watch Zulu in the museum’s video theatre (and empty a keg or two). The period depicted in the film is a bit later than ours (we were circa the 1857 Seige of Lucknow in India) but despite the prsence of Martini rifles, a lot of the traditions and drill were similar to ours, and we had a hoot watching it. It wasn’t until years later that I returned to the film with a better understanding of the deeper cultural implications of what I’d been watching.

One unfortunate side-effect was the fact that I was a bit of a slacker, and my name happened to be similar to the goldbricking Pvt. Hook (my last name is Cooke), so that became my nickname for the remainder of my “tour of duty” on Citadel Hill.

Posted By swac44 : February 25, 2014 4:36 pm

On a different note, 1960s comedian Godfrey Cambridge had a classic bit about being stuck on a plane where the in-flight movie was Zulu, which he found a bit disconcerting.

(The whole 7 minute bit is about airline travel, but you can skip to the part about Zulu at the 4 minute mark.)

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