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Zulu (1964): A Movie Ahead of its Time


Partha Protim Barua


When you think of a historical war/battle movie, you might think of a movie where an outnumbered or outmatched group of soldiers miraculously survive an attack. This is a very common theme in war movies and there are various historical incidents that provide good story material for such movies. The movie Zulu, which came out in 1964, is quite the same. It tells a story about a group of British soldiers who are stuck in an unfavourable position and must fend off against an encroaching horde of Zulu (an indigenous group from Southern Africa) warriors. 

Such war movies are nothing new. It is quite similar to a popular Hollywood movie called 300—adapted from a comic book based on Greek history—where the Spartans are shown to be fighting off against a horde of Persian warriors. While the Spartans had a certain personality and motivation, the Persians were kind of one-dimensional. We can criticise it all we want, but even our Bangladeshi war movies where freedom fighters fight against all odds, we can see the same cliché. Now, there is a reason why movies are made like this. It is because when the antagonists are made to land acutely villainous roles, the audacity and valiance of the protagonists create a remarkably sharp contrast; making their triumph all the more glorious. However, the unique thing about Zulu(1964) is that it was able to achieve all of that by making the outnumbered British soldier look very heroic; but, they achieved that without making the attacking Zulu warriors look completely evil.

This movie came out in 1964. At that time, racial stereotyping was quite common. Therefore, in this movie, the half-naked Zulu warriors could have been easily portrayed as a bunch of backwater savages. Yet, they weren’t, and that’s quite admirable.

The movie starts with a scene where Zulu warriors walk over the dead corpse of British soldiers who were recently defeated by them. It shows the dire situation of the war without making the Zulu do something drastically evil. Then there’s a scene where a festival is taking place in a Zulu village. A British woman and a missionary attending that festival, as guests of the Zulu king, saw a huge number of Zulu men and women dancing half-naked as part of a mass wedding ceremony. It was actually a part of their culture and the movie wasn’t afraid to show it. In the current day and age, many movies are hesitant to show such aspects of old cultures because they may look odd. But this one was willing to show the real side of Zulu culture from the perspective of two British people without trying to make fun of that culture. Eventually, the Zulu king hears of their recent victory against the British warriors. So, they decide to go on the warpath. 

The rest of the story is shown from the perspective of some British soldiers stuck in a supply depot and hospital with several wounded soldiers. Despite having superior firepower, they are severely outnumbered against the incoming Zulu attack. They had the choice of abandoning the wounded soldiers but they decided to make a last stand. As the story progresses, the audience gets an overall image of the last stand from the perspective of those British soldiers who talk about the Zulus. 

There is a short dialogue that describes it beautifully. When a veteran British soldier and a new recruit talk about the Zulus, the recruit gives voice to the thought that they are just a bunch of savages. But the Veteran, who actually knew the Zulus, corrects him. Instead of referring to them as some kind of dark, menacing threat, he describes them as noble, innovative, and cultured people who can be a very dangerous foe. He makes the Zulus look dangerous without making them look like generic evil people. 

*Spoiler warning*

The British own the fight, which is actually historically accurate. But, it was a very tough victory for the British because the Zulus had their own strategy. If you are curious to know how they won, then you should most definitely watch the movie. Anybody who has an interest in historical war movies should give it a watch because it does its job near perfectly. It makes the British, who are the main protagonists, look really heroic. It also makes the Zulus look like a courageous, honourable group of people. At the end of the battle, there is a scene where both the British and the Zulus show respect to each other for their bravery which, in turn, can make the viewers respect both the conflicting cultures—something that’s very rare even in today’s movies. That’s why this movie was ahead of its time.

 


Partha is just an amateur novelist who wants to be more than an amateur some day.

 

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