Michael Caine’s career has gone all over the map during his early years and in 1964 he caught a big break by starring in Cy Endfield’s war epic Zulu. Detailing the Battle of Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War, Cy Endfield’s picture isn’t always convincing but that’s not to say it is anything less than enthralling. Given as it is also rather well-known as the film which gave Michael Caine his big break, there’s another aspect we can already give Zulu credit for – but I’m speaking as one without much knowledge on the event being depicted. I feel if I knew much more at hand it would be easier to speak upfront but I won’t deny how all throughout Zulu I still kept my eyes peeled even at smaller moments.
Irony starts from the fact that this film was written and directed by an American screenwriter, Cy Endfield – so I’m willing to believe that there are moments in Zulu that show dodgy history but it’s not to take away from what more the film presented as a whole. As noted earlier, Zulu is an epic that details the battle between the British Army and the Zulus in 1879, but Endfield’s handling of events still are never less than compelling – enough for me to overlook the more obvious dramatizations that come about which only show how shady the film’s own look upon history is.
Zulu‘s scale, for a film that runs only a little above two hours, is perhaps one amongst many of the most remarkable things to have come about with a film showing its perspective of the tale – but at the same time the fact it is so overwhelming only hints at how at times it feels distracted within itself. Quite frankly it happens to be one among many things that bother me about many of the most notable classical Hollywood epics for what they favour is something so overwhelming all around, they don’t leave oneself immersed enough in the actual story. In part, it’s helpful when coming to talk about how Zulu looks stunning by all means. Signs the film has dated are clear from time to time but that’s not to take away from how well-crafted such a film is.
For as enthralling as the assembled set pieces are when put together, what keeps Zulu moving at a constant pace are the tremendous battle sequences. For how overlong some of them are, the incredible craft put into them is what keeps the film the enthralling work it makes itself out to be and if there were ever anything more to be said about what room Cy Endfield allows for the work to explore, there’s a specific tone being set when the film is letting itself breathe between each. Obviously, there’s an inspiring one coming about but there’s a great consistency that ultimately weaves the small moments together from scene to scene that in turn adds greater effect at hand. If it could ever be more enthralling than that, that would already be too much to ask.
Many great performances come about whether they be from Stanley Baker or Jack Hawkins but even if he weren’t the leading figure, Michael Caine deserves the spotlight in what may very well be his breakthrough role. There’s never really a fault with any of the performers that come about in Zulu for every actor feels absorbed within the environment that surrounds them – and every moment thus feels natural, even the much weaker spots that come out from the script. Caine’s performance stands out, however, for it shows how much he can allow himself to fit into even if his Cockney accent isn’t something he can always hide for whatever roles he wishes to play.
Zulu is an occasionally problematic work, whether it be from the dodgy history or the bumpy script – but never is it any less than enthralling from start to finish. Cy Endfield brings the sort of inspiration that many would have imagined out of classic American epics into classic British cinema – for it’s a film that’s truly just as inspiring as it is patriotic. And never is any of it coming in the worst way, it all fits perfectly with the story being told for it never underplays its importance. A classic for very good reason indeed, and something we can only thank for bringing the younger Michael Caine to the screen in a spotlight.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount.
Directed by Cy Endfield
Screenplay by John Prebble, Cy Endfield
Produced by Stanley Baker, Cy Endfield
Starring Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson, James Booth, Nigel Green
Release Year: 1964
Running Time: 139 minutes