BATTLE LINES: ZULU (1964)

February 18, 2014

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In the closely watched race of American directors most misidentified as European, Cyril (Cy) Endfield finishes close behind Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin. Dassin is well-known for his French heist film Rififi, Losey for his Pinter adaptations,  and Endfield for his English colonial war picture Zulu (1964). All had their Hollywood careers annihilated by the blacklist, and their national identity with it, having to flee overseas to continue working. In Endfield’s necessarily vagabond career, his most lasting working relationship was with Welsh tough guy actor Stanley Baker, with whom he made six features, including the cynical two-fisted action films Hell Drivers and Sands of the Kalahari (I wrote about the latter here). Zulu was the one Endfield looked back on most fondly, though, with a script he carried around for four years before he could get it made in the manner he wanted. It is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time through Screen Archives Entertainment, in something approximating its original glory. The film depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, when 150 British colonial troops defended a garrison against thousands of Zulu warriors, as a grim procedural – heroism rendered nauseous and ashamed.

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Endfield was a polymath with a gift for card tricks and inventions as well as directing – he impressed fellow magic lover Orson Welles so much he was hired as an assistant at Mercury Productions. Later he invented a portable word processor called the Microwriter, and a computerized pocket organizer called the Agenda. A tinkerer since birth, he clearly shared Welles’ viewpoint that the movie set was “the biggest toy-train set any boy ever had.” The product of Scranton, Pennsylvania, he became attracted to magic when he was 12 or 13. Endfield told Jonathan Rosenbaum that, “the element that attracted me was the dexterity aspect of it.” After seeing a magician at summer camp he designed his own card tricks and gained notoriety by describing the tricks in magazines. He would continue to hone his gift even while attending Yale (where he joined the Young Communist League) and moving to NYC to pursue a career in theater – which was just a bigger stage for illusions. He was aligned with the New Theatre League, a left wing federation of small theaters and theatrical groups organized in 1935. Its main role was to distribute scripts of “Living Newspapers” to its affiliated groups in support of nationwide political campaigns, whether in aid of Spanish Democracy or boycotting the Hearst Press. Everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Brecht lent a hand in the cause. This is the period that probably landed him on HUAC watchlists. He denied ever becoming a member of the party into the 1990s, which Rosenbaum discovered to be false, a lie presumably made so not to scare off any future employers.

Of his Hollywood work, the easiest to see is Try and Get Me! (aka The Sound of Fury, 1950), one of his most explicitly political films made right before his exile. A furious noir about a botched kidnapping, it poses violence as the natural state of American life, ending in a lynching scene of infernal grotesquerie. A theater manager showing the film told Endfield “I never have a performance when I don’t get two or three people coming around to tell me it’s a disgrace to run this kind of anti-American picture.” Named a communist in a HUAC report, Endfield fled the country before he had to start naming names. For the first few years in England he used a front for his films, using his friend’s name Charles de Lautour, for two films, and used it as a co-directing credit on a third, Child in the House (1956), which would be the first pairing of Endfield and Baker. It is an uncharacteristic kitchen sink drama for the duo, who would spend the next five on various self-destructive adventures throughout the British Empire.

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Hell Drivers (’57) finds Baker as an ex-con trucker vengefully taking down his former mob boss’ rackets, while Sea Fury and Jet Storm (which I regrettably have yet to see), involve explosive tankers and a grieving father who threatens to take down an airplane. Zulu is their largest scale operation, for which Baker formed his own production company, Diamond Films. Baker, now an established star, was personally invested in the project, proud as he was of the Welsh character of the company that defended the outpost. Though it was made up of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh soldiers, B company of the 24th regiment was based in Brecon, South Wales, and so retained a Welsh character, which was exaggerated in the film. Baker brought Endfield’s script to producer Joseph Levine while he was filming Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), who quickly agreed. It was shot on location in South Africa, with the cooperation of the Zulu nation. Chief Buthulezi acted as the Zulu leader in the film, and in his autobiography Michael Caine says a Zulu princess acted as a consultant on their war strategy from the period.

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It is subject matter fraught with racial tension, a fabled British military victory that involved the slaughter of thousands of black colonial subjects. Endfield avoids a triumphal tone, stripping it of context, and presents it as an abstract depiction of the human condition – as abject as that in the finale of Try and Get MeThe film has had a noticeable cultural impact in the black community. Afrika Bambaataa recalled watching Zulu as a kid, and named his youth organization and hip hop incubator the “Zulu Nation” after their model. He had kids battle each other “in a nonviolent way, like rapper against rapper rather than knife against knife.” Bambaataa remembers the impact the movie had him, how the Zulus, “fought like warriors for land that was theirs.”

Endfield utilizes all of his technical facility in filling the 70mm frames, using dollies down the lines of interchangeable soldiers. The script aims to collapse class difference in the arc of the relationship between Stanley Baker and posh English lieutenant Michael Caine, who was here cast in his first major role. Baker recommended him to Endfield after seeing him in the play Next Time I’ll Sing to You, then all the rage on the West End. Caine was supposed to audition for the role of the Cockney sergeant, but Endfield had already cast the part, but liked Caine’s blonde-haired blue-eyed looks for the high-horse lieutenant. The class lines between Baker and Caine collapse along with the outpost’s initial defenses. As does any lingering racial resentments, as both sides’ troops are gutted, exhausted, and respectful of the other side by the end of the Brits’ bloody Pyrrhic victory.

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