Note: Originally published March 7th, 2012
Social political awareness has a habit of interfering with my love of old films. Movies that maintain an antiquated sense of what was and what wasn't acceptable can make the experience of watching an old movie laughable at best, uncomfortable at worse.
Classic films like The Birth of a Nation may be a wonderfully constructed but it's unlikely it can be watched without cringing when the Klu Klux Klan rides in like heroes to the rescue.
Even director Preston Sturges who I adore uses unfortunate colloquialisms that were perfectly acceptable at the time but now come across as racially insensitive. No need to repeat them here. There's a running gag in The Miracle at Morgan's Creek (the movie I still list as my all time favourite) where the frustrated but lovable single father Constable Edmund Kockenlocker (William Demarest) gears up to boot his daughters in their backsides, misses and falls to the floor. It's funny, but as my friend Steve observed, "I suppose in the 40s child abuse was okay as long as your weren't good at it."
So how will we accept Zulu when it airs this weekend on Saturday Night at the Movies?
Zulu is director Cy Endfield's rousing adventure drama based on the real life battle between British soldiers and Zulu warriors on Rourke's Drift. It's a tale, not unlike the Alamo, where a group of soldiers are up against insurmountable odds. Being outnumbered is usually enough to gain an audience's sympathy except when the soldiers are outnumbered by people protecting their own land and their own way of life. The enemies in Zulu, if indeed the film has enemies, would be the Zulu warriors - a rather questionable status considering the film takes place in Zululand.
If you are able remove the politics from the film and push aside any distasteful imagery where 'might is right', than Zulu can be enjoyed with the zeal and excitement of a lad caught up in a copy of Boy's Own . But if you choose to take in account that colonialism, despite any good intentions of bringing in a infrastructure to a barren land, caused more issue than solutions, caused millions of lives to be uprooted and pushed into subservient roles, caused entire cultures to disband and disappear, than rooting for the British soldiers is bound to be difficult.
But Cy Endfield does something remarkable with Zulu - something made more remarkable considering he did it in 1964 long before anone dared to imagine that colonialism could be anything but positive. Endfield gives the warriors character, strength and honour. For the British he offers up Stanley Baker, Michael Caine (his first role) and Jack Hawkins as our guides as well as the men we are most likely to side with, but he also establishes the Zulu warriors as brave, valiant and worthy opponents.
These warriors are feared but not because Endfield portrays them as frightening caricatures of African savages. They are feared because they are men - passionate soldiers driven to protect their home and families. It's something that even the men they are attacking become aware of.
Zulu is told from the eyes of the British soldiers, but those eyes see not only the Zulus as the enemy, but also see how they themselves are an enemy to the Zulu.
The narrative does not completely allow for the kind of balanced ideology one might hope for were the film remade today. And indeed, a film called Zulu is set to be released in 2013 starring Orlando Bloom and Djimon Hounsou but that story is set in contemporary Zululand with no connection to the 1964 film. But Zulu stands out now, as it did in '64 because it's an action film without the cartoon-like villains. Zulu shows respect for the men who will do whatever they can to keep what is theirs - and a show of respect can go a long way.