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UK 1964
Directed by
Cy Endfield
135 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars


Cy Endfield was a HUAC blacklisted American director who emigrated to England in the 1950s where he had a reasonable career, this being his most successful and best known film. It is a recreation of an epic battle between 40,000 Zulus and a garrison of 105 British troops stationed at a mission in Rorke's Drift in Natal, South Africa in 1897.

Stanley Baker who was also co-producer (he had worked with Endfield on Hell Drivers,1957, Sea Fury,1958, and Jet Storm,1959) stars as Lieutenant John Chad, an Army engineer building a bridge at the mission. The small contingent of soldiers working on the mission are commanded by a young blueblood, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine, affecting a public school accent, in his first major role). As Chad is the senior officer by a matter of months when they find themselves under threat he takes command and decides, against the overwhelming odds, to dig in.

Stylistically the film is dated, most evidently in the battle sequences which are filmed in the old school bang-you’re-dead-now-fall-down manner and which are a far cry from today’s sophisticated SFX-laden action films. The script by Endfield with John Prebble, who wrote the original story, ekes out the basic premise by interpellating additional narrative elements in the form of a tipsy missionary (Jack Hawkins) and his daughter (Ulla Jacobsson) and a rogueish malingerer (James Booth). These are familiar types, as are lesser characters such as the tirelessly dedicated Army surgeon (Patrick Magee) but to the film's credit the Baker and Caine characters and their clash lifts the film above the strictly generic whilst Endfield handles the building tension well.

But if the film is fixed in the 1960s stylistically, probably what most people will find dated is the complete lack of political contextualisation. There is no explanation of why the Zulus were rising against the British, what the British were doing in South Africa and what was their relationship to the Boers, represented here by a lone campaign advisor.. Also the battle is depicted entirely from the British point of view. In this respect it in principle has same sensibility as a traditional frontier Western. The Zulus are not demonized, or for that matter, romanticized (apparently Endfield used real Zulus, not Johannesburg extras), but their anonymity condemns the film to being very much a another chapter in the swollen book of stories of British heroism, the token reflections on the butchery of war and the alienated condition of the colonialist notwithstanding,




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