It is a great mystery how Zulu, a tale of imperial derring-do from the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, has avoided being cancelled. On the face of it, this is a film that revels in one of the most heinous, most blood-thirsty chapters of our colonial past, one tinged with technologically enabled white supremacy. Here is a war film about 140 white Europeans who take on a Zulu force of 4,000 and defeat them, thanks largely to the rapid and orchestrated fire of short-chamber Martini-Henry rifles. (‘And a bayonet,’ as Nigel Green, as colour sergeant Bourne, puts it, ‘with some guts behind it.’)
So it was especially gratifying to see it once again on Channel Four over the Christmas break, albeit with a trigger warning of ‘nudity, battlefield violence and language and attitudes of the era that may offend’ – all rather like flagging up ‘iceberg-related trauma’ ahead of a showing of Titanic.
And yet watch Zulu and you discover that it is anything but a celebration of colonialism or blood-soaked jingoism – or indeed of racial supremacy of any particular kind. In fact, a smash hit on its release in 1964, 60 years ago this month, the film continues to be highly regarded – the BFI ranked it 31st in its 1999 list of the greatest British films of the 20th century, while Empire magazine has it in 33rd place in its 2023 list of the greatest 100 British films of all time (sandwiched between A Man For All Seasons and 1995’s Sense and Sensibility).
In part the secret of Zulu’s enduring appeal lies in the personalities at its heart: first, for a film supposedly about a British imperial success, it was directed and co-produced by Cy Endfield, an American filmmaker who was only in Britain in the 1960s because he had been black-listed in Hollywood for his youthful involvement in communist activism.