Last month saw an important historical anniversary. 22nd January 2014 was celebrated with features on the BBC and in every national newspaper, and marked in special blogs and posts on internet sites worldwide.
How can that be? Would we celebrate the anniversary of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan over that of ‘D’ Day itself? How can any reproduction – film, novel, documentary, anything – ever be more significant than the events it reproduces?
Well, obviously it can. Few would have even heard of the historical King Arthur without the literature of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and no-one would remember Lisa del Giocondo if da Vinci hadn’t painted the Mona Lisa. We can all dream of achieving such heights, but I think we’d all agree the benchmark is set pretty high.
|A high benchmark|
Yet Zulu has hit it. An ordinary commercial war film with no special effects, no sex, and virtually no blood, yet article after article discusses both its significance and its enduring grip on the British imagination. Zulu has done what we’d all like to do, and for that alone I think any historical writer would want to study it.
|Zulu Exhibition at Cardiff Castle|
Many of us already have. Indeed, in the world of military fiction and re-enactment, familiarity with the film is an essential password to prove one is serious in one’s love of the genre. My own first re-enactment ‘gig’ was set in the Thirty Years War, but the ice was only broken with my new comrades when I was able to answer correctly the simple question ‘Which Victoria Cross winner at Rorke’s Drift was actually Swiss?’
|Build up is all...|
Or the world-building. True, a modern writer wouldn’t get away with that long opening sequence of Zulu dances, but once the action moves to Rorke’s Drift we are absorbed so quickly into the equally alien world of the Victorian military that we’re hardly even aware it’s being done. Since I’ve been studying Crimea I’m amazed at the authenticity of detail that’s so casually included here – from the overt Christianity of some British soldiers to the subtle rivalry between ‘regular’ Army and Engineers. Zulu is an object lesson in how to be accurate without letting your research show.
Or the relationships! The totally egregious character of Miss Witt is there only to add misleading sex interest to the truly appalling trailer, but there are three strong character relationships within the defenders, any one of which could sustain a novel all its own. The breaking down of the class rivalry between Chard and Bromhead, the almost paternal love-hate bond between the dying Sergeant Maxfield and the recalcitrant Private Hook, and its simple echo in the journey travelled by Corporal Allen and Private Hitch. When Allen and Hitch are wounded, Hitch asks the martinet corporal if he can now undo his tunic button - and the corporal reaches to do it with his own hand...
|Wounded Corporal Allen and Private Hitch|
|Kerry Jordan as the cook|
Or even just the humanity. The most obvious example is the proper respect shown to the Zulus (‘I think they’ve got more guts than we have, boyo!’) but I love the way we’re given insight into so many different little characters – such as the cook who’s laboured under the hot sun to make soup for a hundred men, and is then ordered to throw it on the fire. Zulu taught me what can be done with minor characters, and I try to remember it every time.
|Stanley Baker as Chard|
Not everything works, but I think we can learn from the flaws too. The character of Chard, for instance, does sometimes slip into modern attitudes – being anti-war, anti-colonialism, and sympathetic to the plight of the Boers – and every time he does it the film seems to ‘jolt’. It doesn’t ‘feel’ right, and a viewer will know that even if he’s never thought about historical fiction.
Then there are the ‘liberties taken with the truth’. The most obvious ones are making the Zulus salute the British as ‘fellow braves’ (which they didn’t), and the 24th (Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot a mainly Welsh regiment (when it wasn’t) – but there’s still a dramatic truth in both these things and at least they do no harm. Besides, take the Welshness away and we lose not only one of the best scenes of the film, but one that's been described as one of the greatest cinematic scenes of all time. 'Men of Harlech' has never been the same since.
What I do mind are the ‘liberties’ taken with real people, and I learned an important lesson when the descendants of Henry Hook VC complained about the appallingly unfair depiction of his character in the film. People do care when their ancestors are smeared, and I saw it again when the descendants of Murdoch complained about the way he was portrayed in Titanic. There is simply no excuse for this. If we need a villain and there wasn’t one – then are we really incapable of making one up?
|James Booth as Hook The real Hook|
There’s one other real person I mind about – but you won’t see him in the film at all. His name was Private Joseph Williams of the 24th Regiment of Foot, and he actually performed the single most heroic action of the entire battle. When the Zulus began to spear their way through the outer door to the hospital, Joseph Williams left his loophole to brace the planks with his own body, and held the entrance alone while patients were carried to safety behind him. He was killed and cut to pieces, but if the VC had been awarded posthumously he would most certainly have ben qualified to receive it. It saddens me that Zulu didn’t recognize him either.
As does Colour Sergeant Bourne in one of the most crucial scenes of the film. Nervous young Private Cole asks him, ‘Why is it us, sir? Why us?’ to which Bourne replies, ‘Because we’re here, lad. Nobody else. Just us.’
|Gary Bond as Cole|
And that’s it. A soldier doesn’t need to know the rights or wrongs of the war he’s fighting – and neither ultimately does a reader. In the end there are only men we care about who must fight to survive. Not 1879, not history, but this moment, here and now.
That for me is the biggest lesson of Zulu. I’ll spend forever getting my research right and weaving my story in and out of specific and real events, but the best kind of historical novel is one where you can throw away the history – and still have a story.
A.L. Berridge's website is here, and is nowhere near as good as watching Zulu. Have a look at the scene above instead.
And the answer to the question is (of course) Frederick Schiess of the Natal Native Contingent, from the Swiss Mounted Police.