Zulu review, America, 7/25/64
Which Zulu Did You See?
On Jan. 22, 19879, 4,000 spear-carrying Zulu warriors, having already massacred 1,200 British troops near by, fell on the mission station at Rorke's Drift, Natal. The station was defended by about one hundred men of the South Wales Borderers, commanded by two lieutenants. The Zulus' sheer weight of numbers and their reckless disregard for casualties should have eventually prevailed against the soldiers' rifles. So skillful and valorous was the defense, however, that the Zulu general finally recoiled from throwing away any more lives and withdrew his men, first massing them in a ritual tribute to the courageous foe. In the more than one hundred years since its creation, the Victoria Cross, the British Empire's highest decoration for valor, has been awarded 1,344 times. Eleven of them were won that day at Rorke's Drift.
Zulu, a British film produced by Stanley Baker and Cy Endfield, directed by the latter and starring the former, gives an account of that battle. While conceding that it is very bloody and not without flaws, I thought it was an exceedingly good movie. It impressed me because I thought that, within its deliberately rather narrow framework, it was attempting to tell the truth about the episode, not the literal truth necessarily, but the artistic truth. What the film seemed to me to be saying, implicitly and through artful and unified use of all the various devices of film language, was: This is what it was like when two honorable forces--the British soldier doing his duty and obeying orders and the Zulu warrior defending his land and upholding his tribal traditions--met head-on as part of a much larger and less honorable historical movement that they could not comprehend or control Explicitly the film offers no solution and makes no statement, pro- or anti-colonialist. It simply presents the facts in such a way as to force the audience to ponder the paradoxes of human courage in an unlovely context.
My reason for approaching the film in this manner is that I have before me two reviews of it, which express points of view not only differing from mine but absolutely contradictory to each other. Bosley Crowther, in the New York Times, describes it as a Kiplingesque, outpost-of-empire film and implies that we can only admire it if we think "there was something heroic and strong about British colonial expansion in the 19th century." On the other hand, that curious little magaine, Films in Review, calls it "a denigration of the British past...The battle is staged so as to elicit sympathy for the Zulus, not the British. Indeed, one of the recipients of the VC is presented as an immoral wastrel."
My quarrel with the two views cited above is that they both seem to me to constitute unfair and irresponsible comment. In general, what both reviewers seem to me to have done is mix up indiscriminately two critical considerations that must be kept separate if a valid judgment is to be arrived at: 1) the appraisal of the film itself and 2) a consideration of its possible effect on an audience.
The chap in Films in Review strikes me as suffering from an intense nostalgia for a world that never was. Mr. Crowther's critical lapse is probably motivated by genuine concern lest Zulu's dramatization of racial warfare in another era prove unwise "with so much racial tension and anticolonial discord in the world." Nevertheless, Mr. Crowther needs to be reminded that he is using the stock argument of the would-be censor, and if this criterion of prudence were applied at all consistently or stringently, it would necessitate the rejection of most of the worth-while films ever made.
Why do I keep sounding off like a broken record about critical standards? Because I think that sound and effective criticism is absolutely essential in the contemporary world. In a closed, immobile, homogeneous, half-illiterate society, censorship may have been efficacious. In today's revolutionary era, it is simply and ludicrously inadequate. What we need, as Sidney Hook observed in a recent New York Times article, "Pornography and the Censor," is not "the censorship of vigilante groups but severer standards of criticism that will expose the shoddy, the vulgar, the cheap and sensational...in literature."
Roughly 90 per cent of what passes for film criticism in this country today is incompetent and without merit. (I do not mean to include Mr. Crowther in this indictment.) Until a substantial number of people, however, demand honest, competent criticism and learn to recognize it when they see it, the public, society at large, and to a certain extent the Church will continue to be manipulated to their detriment by the least scrupulous of commercial film operators. [L of D: A-III]