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Zulu (1964)



The film Zulu (1964) is a British perennial—it’s the type of film you might watch after you got tanked with the rowing club one night. Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream—belts off, trousers down, isn’t life a scream! Oi! In other words, it’s the quintessential “middle-England” film about British arms and the stiff upper lip. However, it’s worthwhile to consider how Zulu mystifies its audience and invites you to participate in a particular power relation. Short summary: it’s 1879, the British are in Zulu territory in South Africa; their main column has been wiped out and all that remains is a supply depot and field hospital at a small mission station. In the station, 200 British soldiers (some wounded, some not combat soldiers) hold off 4,000 Zulu warriors—the British are forced into a tiny redoubt before the chapel and, when all seems lost, the Zulus call off the attack and sing a song that hails the British as fellow warriors.


As regards power relations, the first point to note is that the film’s whole premise is a reversal: the British are the embattled victims, the plucky underdog, and we are meant to feel sorry for them—to root for the underdog. This conceals the actuality that: a. the British have invaded Zulu territory; b. the Zulus, while numerically superior, only have spears and have no advanced military technology (nor the discipline found in modern European armies). When you take this into account, the fact 200 British soldiers held off 4,000 Zulus is not so remarkable—European arms and discipline convey such an advantage that a small number of men can overcome thousands (and that’s the story of European imperialism, really).


Granted, the Zulus had wiped out a larger British force, numbering about 1,800, slightly before; and yet that was more like dumb luck and incompetence (the British were surprised and their ammunition boxes were rusty when they needed to be unscrewed—even facing 20,000 Zulus, their problem was that they lacked ammunition; if they had it, they would have won handily).


So Zulu reverses actuality—the invaders become defenders, the overdog is the underdog. This is the first stage in the mystification the film creates; in this way, it justifies British imperialism—the victim is in the right (it’s a just war, a defensive war). Yet there’s a second dimension to the mystification; the regiment that defends the mission station is portrayed as primarily Welsh—and a key element to the film is that the Welsh soldiers (the Welsh being known for their choral tradition) have a “beatbox duel” with the Zulus (the warriors from both sides sing at each other—notably, the Welsh soldiers sing the regimental song “Men of Harlech”).


The Welsh are a subordinated national minority within Britain; they were among the first to be subordinated to the English—and the two kingdoms, England and Wales, have been united as a single unit for so long the division is in some ways almost invisible (much more so than with Scotland, where union was only achieved in 1707—and voluntarily at that). This is the double mystification within Zulu: at a certain level, subconscious, British audiences know that the Welsh soldiers are “underdogs”—so again, British imperialism becomes not subordination and domination; it is actually carried out by “subordinate people”—hence, in the audience mind, British imperialism becomes an “underdog” victory. The Zulus—like the Gurkhas—would ideally have eventually been integrated into the Empire as a “martial race” to be deployed in invasions against other areas as “victim-conquerors”. The “victims” cannot be victims and, in fact, have become “victims” even though they have invaded someone else’s country.


The Welsh mystification has gone on for a long time. In Henry V, there is a “comedy Welshman”, Fluellen, whose accent is a joke throughout—at the end he says that Henry V is “truly his king, a Welshman” and Henry says “truly I am, I am a Welsh king” (Shakespeare metacommunication: I’m not, I’m an alien master who thinks you’re funny little people—your role in this play has been comedy relief); double-bind: I’m your true king, a true Welshman—except I’m not, and I think you’re funny and stupid. The same process is repeated with the Norman aristocracy and the English. The “kings of England”—yet are they English kings?


So Zulu plays with ambiguities at two levels to make it appear as if it’s legitimate for the British to be there—the Zulus are the interlopers (on their own territory). The effect is tripled because working-class Michael Caine was miscast by an American (class ignorant) as an officer—a cockney officer (impossible); but, again, it just accentuates the underdoginess of the British. Imagine if the Germans had won the war: imagine they made a war film where a tiny hamlet in the Ukraine was defended against the Red Army by a Waffen SS unit (non-German European SS) and local Ukrainian sympathisers—if you watched it, you’d feel it was legitimate for the Germans to be there, the plucky underdogs.


“They don’t like it up ’em.”

A similar dynamic is present in cowboy and Indian films—who is “meant to” be here, anyway? Indeed, the Zulu extras were shown cowboy and Indian films to train them to act—the director just said “act like the Indians”. So Zulu is also a disguised Western that masquerades as a film about the British Empire—ironically, the NYT reviewer made snotty remarks about “cheering the British Empire”. Well, what about the Red Indians, chum?


In truth, everyone pretends they have “clean hands” and that they are the “real victims”—the man who stands for himself in an unapologetic and demystified way evokes disgust, horror, and unadmitted admiration. Hitler came quite close to this ideal—and that is the real reason he is hated; he wasn’t a hypocrite about life—he said, “I’m for me just as you are for you,” and that is why, perhaps, my prospective “Nazi Western” would never have been made. Hitler’s “madness” was not to be hypocritical—everyone thinks they’re “the master race”, it’s to say it that’s “madness” (just as it’s madness to say “I’m God”—I said that long ago; but you all think you’re God too, I know…).


In fact, “the Germans” are also demonised in Zulu—Boer cavalry scouts who pass the mission station refuse to stand and fight with the plucky Brits and instead ride on; and that’s because they’re “German” (apartheid South Africa was influenced by Volkish ideas); and they’re the European rivals—the true rivals—to the British in Southern Africa (in a few decades they will be fought in the Boer War—and portrayed as the “victimisers of the blacks” in another mystification). In Zulu, the Boers are “the bad guys” who run away and leave their fellow Europeans in a rut—ironically, the British, by standing firm, win respect from the Zulus; they are honoured as warriors with a final song as the Zulus retreat—to kill the blacks is to respect the blacks, the Boers are too cowardly to do that so they truly hate the blacks (so runs the knotty logic). Kaffir.


There are other aspects in Zulu worth consideration. The battle takes place on a mission station, but the missionary himself—a Swede—is presented as a drunk and a coward. The final battle takes place by a chapel but the chapel has been militarised, it’s no longer sacred. What counts in the end is martial courage, a disciplined fire rate, and communal singing (Welsh)—this is “the true religion”. I think this reflects what Indo-Aryans really think. Religion—especially soapy-ropey lovey-dovey Christianity—is not as important as war (Heraclitus—war is the king of all) and when you sing in war, duel against the Zulus, there is a spiritual element to it. War has its own spiritual element—Christians are cowards who run away when trouble brews and then return when the real work has been done to “save the child-like black folk”(I am vomit). The Indo-Aryan religious needs are minimal—and can be satisfied with a song in battle.


Whether it is “legitimate” for the British to be there—or for the Americans to be in Indian country—really depends, in fact, on how Christian you are. It’s Christianity that brought us “just war theory”; and just war theory basically says that the only just war is a defensive war. Now, you could stretch “defensive” a long way—as happened with the Iraq War—and argue that the British needed to pre-empt the Zulus from attacking British settlements beyond Zulu lands; but why were the British in South Africa in the first place?


Unless you stretch “defence” to such a conceptual extent as to be meaningless (“It was necessary to conquer South Africa because if we didn’t another European power would, so cutting off our supply route to India, so ultimately endangering our homeland”) there isn’t really any just reason why the British (or the Dutch) were in South Africa—and that’s the ultimate tension between Christianity, residual cultural Christianity, and being European (that ends in hypocrisy—really, Europeans are Heraclitean; we’re war dogs). This is why we end up with peculiar films like Zulu (and many Westerns) that have to prove “the settlers are the real victims”; and they do that by twists and turns in the plots—moral knots—that are eventually unpicked “problematised” by cultural Marxists who work in the same Christian Semitic tradition.


Actually, an unapologetic film about the British in Zululand would be very different and would awe you in its power—you would find that it would disturb and would feel “immoral” and yet “right” at a certain level, and that would be because the false Christian accretion had been removed; but you’re a modern cultural Christian who is feminised and “a good person”—so naturally, you couldn’t approve; even though your hands are covered in blood, you’re “a victim”. It’s just war.



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