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Zulu - a great film at last with first-rate DVD and Blu-ray releases (updated),
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Zulu is one of the greatest historical action movies ever made, and one of the great war movies. It is based on what historian Michael Glover terms "the most highly decorated battle in British history", the defence of Rorke's Drift during the Zulu War of 1879. Eleven of the defenders received Britain's highest award for military valor, the Victoria Cross--the rarely awarded counterpart of the US Medal of Honor. The movie is a landmark in the art of cinema for its extraordinary combination of location, cross-cultural engagement, a real story, good script, fine cast and great production team. This 1964 film never looks tired, despite my many years of rerunning it in 16mm, the Criterion laserdisc, later the Front Row Entertainment Inc. DVD, and then the Paramount DVD and Blu-ray discs. Anecdotally, military colleges have used Zulu to show the power of directed massed musketry, and leadership and teamwork in combat.
Zulu is the greatest achievement of the career of British actor Stanley Baker, who co-produced with US-born, formerly blacklisted director Cy Endfield. Nothing else in the genre really measures up, including Endfield's so-called "prequel", Zulu Dawn, or other epics based on British colonial wars, such as Khartoum. It was filmed on location in the grandeur of Natal, South Africa, with descendants of the Zulu warriors who took part in the original action portraying their forebears. The prominent Zulu politician and traditional chief, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, plays the Zulu leader, his distant relative Cetewayo. Mass Zulu participation in the project guaranteed the uplifting dignity and authenticity of cross-cultural characterisations of the film. Early magnificent scenes with masses of Zulu extras show the Zulu royal kraal, with a mass wedding of warriors in progress as news arrives of the annihilation of a strong British force at Isandhlwana. These unique scenes probably never could be filmed again because of social and cultural change. The nearest conceptual comparison in the war genre that comes to mind is the cross-cultural aspect of Tora! Tora! Tora! [Blu-ray Book]
Stanley Baker believed so strongly in Zulu, despite difficulties in raising finance, that he sank much of his own money into it. Playing a British Army engineer officer thrust by events into leading a desperate defensive action following the disaster of Isandhlwana, he heads a strong cast, including a young Michael Caine as an upper crust infantry officer. There are wonderful cameo roles by Jack Hawkins as an alcoholic missionary; Nigel Green as the imperturbable Colour Sergeant Bourne, always ready with a calming order or a bayonet; James Booth as Private Hook, portrayed (controversially to his descendants) as a malingerer who is perhaps the least likely Victoria Cross winner; Patrick Magee as Surgeon Reynolds, continuing up to his elbows in surgery even as Zulus try to break in. The narration by Richard Burton is very fine, and in character with the Welsh origin of the British soldiers. Welsh and Zulu singing on the cinematic battlefield is spine-tingling. As John Bender says in his attached comment, the musical score by John Barry enhances the grandeur and drama.
Michael Glover's 1997 book, Rorke's Drift (Wordsworth Military Library) is recommended reading for anyone with a detailed interest in the historical background. Amazon stocks several other titles related to the Zulu Wars that I can't vouch for, but that other reviewers have rated highly.
Alan and Peter Critchley launched in 2000 an informative 'Rorke's Drift VC, 1879' military history enthusiasts' website which can be found by online searches. The website has extensive information I've seen nowhere else about the actual historical personalities portrayed in the film. This includes a magazine article published in 1905 about the account Alfred Henry "Harry" Hook VC (1850-1905) gave of the battle of Rorke's Drift; an account of the battle by Surgeon-Major James Henry Reynolds VC (1844-1932) published in 1928 by the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps; and a transcript of a radio broadcast in 1936 by Lieutenant Colonel Frank Bourne OBE, DCM (1854-1945) - who was the real Colour Sergeant Bourne played by Nigel Green in the movie.
The filming location used the escarpment of the Drakensberg mountain range as a backdrop - a more picturesque setting than the actual battlefield. The actual site of Rorke's Drift, only about 100 miles northeast of the filming location, can be seen in satellite imagery and visitor photos in Google Earth at coordinates 28°21'0.00"S, 30°32'0.00"E . Although the actual battlefield was not in the film, it is a tribute to the production that fans of the movie may be surprised by how familiar and understandable the terrain appears.
This film originally was released in 70mm. It deserved the very best frame-by-frame and soundtrack digital restoration and DVD transfer that technology can provide, working from original material. It finally received that treatment, first with Paramount and MGM DVD releases about 2002, then with Paramount's Zulu [Blu-ray] in 2008. See attached expert comment by John Sellars dated Sep 29, 2011 10:10:40 AM PDT for technical background drawn from his work on these transfers. I could not now recommend any releases of Zulu other than these from Paramount and MGM. The Paramount Blu-ray release of Zulu is magnificent in every respect. Colour is vibrant; detail sharper than any previous video release; sound excellent. Extra features and interviews, including extended commentary by second unit director Robert Porter, round off a Blu-ray disc that every enthusiast for this great film will want to own.
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Showing 1-10 of 14 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 18, 2008 11:03:21 PM PST
Dusty Roads says:
Good show for [somebody] to be thoughtful enough to mention about quality of the transfer to dvd format. Thanks for your point of view. Don't know if it will enter into my decision or not. But at least its' something to think about.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 25, 2010 5:01:46 PM PDT
J. Matlock says:
I agree. One of the first things I look for in reviews is the quality of the transfer, especially if there are multiple DVDs available.
Posted on Nov 11, 2010 6:48:20 PM PST
Thanks for the positive feedback to my review of 'Zulu'. I owe Sir Michael Caine an apology: I was premature in writing in 2002 of him 'enjoying the afterglow of his prolific career in cinema'. He has confounded any notion that he might deservedly be resting on his laurels by doing some of his best work in film either as a lead or support actor since 2002, including -- for my taste -- 'The Quiet American' (2002), 'The Prestige' (2006) and 'Harry Brown' (2009). I'm looking forward to seeing him in 'Inception' and the several other current films in which he is involved.
On the quality of transfer matter, Paramount brought out a high quality DVD of 'Zulu' around mid 2002. It is time now for a fully stacked Blu-ray release of a full digital restoration of this great film.
Posted on Dec 4, 2010 5:36:57 PM PST
This review, although good, pertains to DVD, not the Bluray transfer. Perhaps you can come back with an amended comment once you actually see the new transfer.
Posted on Dec 29, 2010 6:02:17 AM PST
Chet Diestel says:
Everything a thorough and well-researched --- not to mention finely-written --- review should be. And the author has provided a few extra treats beyond his excellent review in the form of a follow up of what happened to the principle actors, as well as the director, post movie as well as recommending an excellent book on the battle to further our knowledge of what we have just seen on film. Well done!!!
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 2, 2011 10:31:32 AM PDT
I recently acquired Paramount's Blu-ray release of their 2008 digital restoration of 'Zulu'. It is first class -- almost everything I had hoped for in a state-of-the-art Blu-ray release of this great film. Engrossing special features including cast interviews and insightful commentary by second unit director Robert Porter. The Blu-ray release is highly recommended. I'll let my previous remarks stand about the outstanding quality and importance of this film.
Posted on Sep 29, 2011 10:10:40 AM PDT
John Sellars says:
I did the HD transfer for the Paramount and MGM DVD and Blu-ray. This movie was not shot in 70mm (actually no movies are shot in 70mm - it is 65mm in the camera and released in 70mm so as to have room for the soundtrack) It was transferred from a 35mm 8 perf VistaVision interpositive (made from the original negative).
In reply to an earlier post on Sep 29, 2011 10:08:37 PM PDT
Love your work, John. Thanks for the technical background.
Posted on May 26, 2012 9:27:49 AM PDT
Charles Howard says:
Good review, like a lot of civilians though the Medal Of Honor has nothing to due with congress. To award a medal or not is decided of the awards board at the Pentagon. SSG Howard (USA,RET)
In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2012 10:14:16 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 27, 2012 11:28:38 AM PDT
Interesting issue of correct nomenclature which appears to have been muddied by long and extensive popular usage - including official usage, and usage by many historians.
For example, the website of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society at http://www.cmohs.org/society-history.php states that its charter was signed into legislation with that name in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower was, of course, an ex US Army five-star general.
However, I see that the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and the relevant official military web pages, such as http://www.army.mil/medalofhonor/ all use the nomenclature Medal of Honor when referring specifically to the medal in either of its three variants for the US Navy and Marine Corps, Army, or Air Force. "Congressional Medal of Honor" appears to have entered common usage because the medal originated from legislation signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862 creating the award "in the name of the Congress".
I know enough about the military to know not to argue with senior NCOs, serving or retired, about accuracy details of service culture of which they - not generals or politicians, and certainly not historians - are expert chief guardians. I'll correct the term in my review. Thanks for the correction. Colour Sergeant Bourne would have required no less. ;-)