The sun sets on the British Empire and the historical epic in a pair of 1960s productions built around legendary colonial battles of the late 19th century. Legendary to British history, that is. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa and the Siege of Khartoum in Sudan would be all but unknown in the U.S outside of historical societies were it not for Zulu (1964) and Khartoum (1966), both of which debut stateside on Blu-ray from Twilight Time this week.
These films were produced in the wake of Lawrence of Arabia and El Cid and while they revel in the spectacle of battle (that whole cast of thousands thing), they take a more ambivalent view toward colonial adventure. The glory of the British Empire isn’t quite so glorious in these stories of English military might in the name of conquest.
Zulu (Twilight Time, Blu-Ray) is far and away the superior film. Shot mostly on location in South Africa (with some interiors back in the British studio), directed by American Cy Enfield (who moved to England in the shadow of the Hollywood blacklist) and co-produced by Enfield and Stanley Baker, who takes the leading role, it turns a piece of once-obscure history into a riveting drama. A British station with a contingent of about 150 men (including the sick and wounded in the hospital) are ordered to hold their ground when 4000 Zulu warriors, charged up after massacring a force of over 1,000 British soldiers, surround them. The image is chilling: the station—not even a full fort, just a few buildings and a corral—is nestled in a ring of hills and the Zulu soldiers announce themselves by lining up along the rise around them. Psychological warfare at its best.
Baker plays an army engineer building a bridge across the local river and he takes charge from the station commander, an upper-class officer with even less experience under fire, more concerned with protocol and appearance than battle prep. That soft-spoken ponce is played by Michael Caine in his first major screen role (he gets the “Introducing” credit) and it launched his career, which curiously was made playing working-class blokes rather than society gents. Nigel Green stands out in a superb cast as the division Colour Sergeant, barking out orders with a firm but oddly comforting sense of control. In the chaos of the waves of suicide charges and surprise attacks poking at the station’s makeshift defenses, he offers a sense of order and direction and, when necessary, a comforting word.
You could argue that it’s something of a flag-waiver but Zulu is not about triumph. It’s about survival and luck, about arrogance and the cost of colonialism and occupation. Enfield keeps that landscape in the frame of almost every shot, reminding us that behind every single rise, rock, and field of grass is a potential strike force ready to emerge. There’s an eerie sense of being adrift in a world both familiar (the pale, dry-green hills are like a sun-parched English inland) and alien, then the attacks begin and the emptiness is engulfed by a sea of men. Though based on a true story, in Enfield’s hands it becomes almost ahistorical, an existential ordeal in the desert of the mind with a kicker of a conclusion.
From South to North Africa we get Khartoum (Twilight Time, Blu-Ray), the sweeping story of the 1880 battle between British General Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon (post Ben-Hur and El Cid Charlton Heston) and the Madhi (Laurence Olivier behind a thick beard and brownface make-up) in the Sudan. It opens with a spectacular desert battle, bringing back echoes of Lawrence of Arabia, but then shifts to the battle of wits and wiles between two fierce leaders, with Heston cutting a fascinating figure as Gordon, a wily Brit with a respect for Islam and Egyptian culture but determined to stake this land for Christian Britain, and Olivier far more hammy as the scheming, self-proclaimed Islamic savior rousing his forced with subtlety and subterfuge. On the cusp between leading he-man and older, more thoughtful character roles, Heston plays the vain Gordon with a cocky flair, a brilliant maverick with a mystic’s passion who routinely disobeys orders at his whim and plays politics with the wiles of a guerrilla statesman.
Basil Dearden is no epic director (the grandiose sweep of the rationed spectacle is courtesy of second unit director and legendary stuntman Yakima Cunutt) but he plays the game of wills and wiles with a nice understanding of imperialist realpolitic maneuvering. By the end it’s more 55 Days at Peking than Lawrence, less imperialistic than the latter and less subtle than the former, but always compelling. Richard Johnson and Ralph Richardson co-star.
2014 marks the 50th Anniversary of Zulu. While we recognize it as a classic, it was a sensation in Britain, where the film helped transform a forgotten event into both Britain’s ambivalent answer to the Alamo. The Independent has a look back at of how the film came to be and the impact it had: “Premiered 85 years to the day after the event it commemorates, the film Zulu is 50 years’ old this week. On its initial release, in 1964, it was one of the biggest box-office hits of all time in the home market. For the next 12 years it remained in constant cinema circulation before making its first appearance on television. It has since become a Bank holiday television perennial, and remains beloved by the British public. But the story behind the film’s making is as unusual as the one that it tells.” Read the full feature here.
The disc looks superb, well mastered from an excellent print, sharp with strong colors and no damage. It’s flawless and image pops out of the screen and the disc features an isolated audio track with the score, a dramatic and dynamic work from the always great John Barry. Also features a new commentary track by disc producer Nick Redman and screenwriter Lem Dobbs, both film lovers and film historians who have a tremendous affection for the film, and a booklet with notes on the film by film historian Julie Kirgo.
Khartoum also looks terrific, if not quite as stunning (the film’s matte shots tend to jump out with this kind of clarity), and the sound is 2.0 DTS-HD, which MGM (the company that owns the elements) told the disc producers was the best sound materials they had, but there are prints in circulation with 5.1 sound mix, as many a collector has pointed out on home theater forums. It’s provoked a lot of debate and it’s a shame Twilight Time didn’t have access to those tracks, but the stereo track is excellent. And, of course, it features new commentary, with disc Redman and Dobbs joined by film historian Julie Kirgo, plus the Twilight Time trademark isolated score track (with Frank Cordell’s music) and a booklet with notes on the film by film historian Julie Kirgo.