Thursday, 20 February 2014

'Zulu - the Greatest Historical Novel that Never Was' by A L Berridge

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. 

So what was it?

Strictly speaking it was the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in the Zulu War – but that’s not what the fuss was about. What we were all celebrating was the fictionalized version of that battle, and the fiftieth anniversary of the release of a film called Zulu.

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?’

All right, that sounds alarmingly ‘cultish’, but there are good sound reasons for the fascination. The 1960s were a golden age for historical films (Cleopatra 1963, Lawrence of Arabia 1962, Doctor Zhivago 1965) but Zulu was the first of the ‘British military’ genre, and its success immediately prompted a scramble for more. The Charge of the Light Brigade, Cromwell and Waterloo all followed within six years, but none hit the spot in the same way. What’s special about Zulu goes beyond its qualities as a film, and I don’t think its successors are to be found in the cinema at all. In fact I think they’re here, in the world of historical fiction. 

Perhaps even literally. The action-adventure school of historical fiction has been around for years, but the more realistic military genre only really starts with George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and takes off with Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe. And the idea for Flashman only came to GMF in 1966, two years after the release of a film he later praised highly in his ‘Hollywood History of the World’ – Zulu

He’s far from alone. I’m not aware of any significant writer in my genre who isn’t a fan, and down at the insignificant end I know how much it’s influenced my own writing. Yes, it’s a film, it’s a Hollywood epic, but I’d say it’s also historical fiction of the finest kind, and gave birth to the genre so many of us read and write today.

That’s why the piece of advice I give most often to aspiring historical writers is to study Zulu. I don’t mean as a film, as it’s usually done – but from the point of view of a writer. I know I’ve learned a lot from it myself and think even some of its most obvious lessons are worth restating.

Take the battle itself, for instance. It’s from Zulu that I learned the most important part of writing battles is the tension of the build-up – something the film does so successfully that Peter Jackson claimed it inspired the Helm’s Deep sequences in his ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. It’s from Zulu that I learned to sustain long action sequences by dividing them into individual little ‘chapters’, each with their own defining moments. It’s from Zulu that I learned action means nothing unless we’ve already been given characters to care about. All obvious stuff, but how often do we read books or see films that don’t seem to know it?

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 language. That too is both natural and totally authentic – a wonderful anecdote to those who think Victorians all spoke formally, correctly and without contractions. Even the idioms are right, from ‘the fuzzies’ to ‘oh, my eye’, and every single character has his own unique voice. In the whole film there’s only one phrase I’m unsure about (Hook’s “Stuff me with little green apples”) and one line I think sounds unnatural – Bromhead’s comment “That’s a bitter pill” on being shot at with their own rifles.

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.

But in the end it’s a film, and its job is ultimately to entertain. Few would disagree that it does that, but it’s in the way it does it that I think I can learn most as a historical novelist. Yes, world-building is important, and yes, historical context is crucial, but arguably the greatest aspect of Zulu is the way it can sweep away both. War is universal. When Hook says 'Did I ever see a Zulu walking down the City Road? No! So what am I doing here?' he may be making a historically relevant point about colonialism, but he is also speaking for almost any soldier in any foreign war.

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.


sue laybourn said...

I love this film so much. And I love this blog post. You've put into words why this film works as well as it does, and why it's stood the test of time.
I can also see, now, why your battle scenes in 'Into the Valley of Death' work so well and why the book is so 'cinematic'.
That's all you're getting from me. It's too early in the morning for anything more eloquent. Now I'm going to have to watch 'Zulu' for the umpteenth time. :)

Joan Lennon said...

The pace - so slow, so inexorable - has a feel all its own - oh, and the music! Great movie! Thanks for posting about this!

Anonymous said...

What an excellent article. It is making me think of the film with different eyes. It's never been one of my favourites, to be frank, but I think it's time to watch it again, taking in every aspect you write about. Thank you for shedding so much light.

Penny Dolan said...

I think you've made me into a "watch again" for the film, too.

Until now, I've rejected "Zulu", because it seemed to be one of the host of military films screened on tv over Christmas and Bank holidays, which added to my sense of unwanted jingoism - as well as resentment because I was there with the 20C cooks & pan-washers.

After your analysis, Zulu will definitely get another chance. Thanks.

alberridge said...

Thank you so much, everyone. You're actually being way too kind, because I posted this in such a hurry last night I missed out the really key paragraph about the relationships - which I've now hastily edited in. Oops...

Sue, I knew you'd be a Zulu fan - but I think that's the nicest thing anyone's ever said about any of my books. *Blushing furiously*

Joan - YES! How could I have forgotten the music? Barry builds tension in the same inexorable way as Williams does it in 'Jaws', but at an even more visceral level. The bass grind of 'keep going, keep going, hold on, hold on' and then those sudden high notes that make your stomach flutter with panic...

firstnightdesign - oh yes, please, please do watch it again. And do let me know how it goes, will you? I'm following you on Twitter, so you can send me a rude message if you hate it.

Penny - Yes, you're right, and the jingoism is a real problem. Not in the film itself (which is the opposite) but a lot of the people who rave about it do so in an Empire Flag-Waving way which is enough to put one off for life. I do hope you try it again, as I can 100% guarantee that you of all people will see past the red coats to the human drama beneath.

Washing up, though. Can't argue with that one...

Unknown said...

Thank you for this marvelous post, I think it's a must-read for story-tellers of any kind. I really enjoyed it, even though I haven't seen the film, and know virtually nothing about it.

Victoria Prescott said...

I typed a comment then lost it, so I hope this doesn't appear twice.

Another area where I think the film succeeds brilliantly is in the use of landscape, and even the baking blue sky, to show how isolated, and how very far from home, these men were. I think it can be difficult to convey that, sometimes.

The one thing I don't find convincing is Michael Caine's accent!

Two other films which I think are worth studying from a storytelling point of view are Casablanca and Stagecoach. Casablanca for the music and range of secondary characters, and Stagecoach for the way in which virtually all the characters grow and change throughout the film.

Mark Burgess said...

Thank you Louise, wonderful post and you've made me want to see the film again.

Anonymous said...

This was an excellent and thought-provoking article. Thanks so much. I know what I'm going to be watching again tomorrow. Two other changes I regret are that Commissary Dalton was not given credit in the film. He was the one who suggested staying put. And the fact that Colour-Sergeant Bourne was only 25 at the time, probably the age of the frightened young soldier he comforts in the film. His nickname was 'The Kid.'

J D Davies said...

Terrific blog, Louise. Growing up in Wales in the sixties, Zulu was as iconic for us as Braveheart has been in Scotland in recent years - indeed, it was the first film I saw 'under age' for the certificate it had (thanks to my dad and the blind eye of the cinema staff). As you say, it's ropey history in many respects but brilliant story telling.

alberridge said...

And again, thanks so much for all these great comments.

Ivan - please watch it! You're absolutely right, and it's great for any kind of storytelling, even those who wouldn't normally be interested in 'military'.

English Historian. Yes indeed, I'd second both Casablanca and Stagecoach. Stagecoach gets less attention, but arguably it's the template for the character treatment in all the 'disaster' type movies that were to follow in the 1970s.

Mark - good to see you! Go on, have a look at that one scene, and I bet you want to see the rest again too.

Martin - thank you so much. I didn't know what about Dalton, and it's fascinating. Did Chard listen to him, or was the decision made independently? I think the film does at least get one of Dalton's lines right, though - the 'Pot that fellow' is from an eyewitness account.

David - thank you and phew!! I was worried I'd upset some Welsh readers by the reference to the Warwickshire, but it's certainly true that at least 40% of the regiment at that time was Welsh - and so, of course, were many of the VC winners. I've been in love with the accent ever since...

Susan Price said...

'Men of Harlech will never be the same again.' - I was once on a train, going to Gateshead, in a carriage with a Welsh rugby team. One of the many songs they sang - beautifully - was Men of Harlech, with the bass section chanting, 'Zulu! Zulu! Zulu!' - They were all probably too young to have been born when the film was made. A nation's historical sense of itself being remade by a film.

Intercostal Clavicle said...

A really excellent article! Zulu is one of my favourite films for precisely the reasons you described. It's an interesting study in character over rigid historical accuracy.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

There will always be places on the map that aren't merely points of reference. Rorke's Drift is one of them. The Battle of Rorke's Drift comes alive not just in the film ZULU but in the magnificent storytelling of David Rattray and his re-enactment of the battle. Rorke's Drift is on the Rattray farm.
For anyone interested in the power of storytelling get hold of a copy of the audio cd's entitled: The Day of the Dead Moon, where David Rattray recounts both the Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. It will send shivers through you.
I was fortunate enough to hear David speak at the Royal Geographic Society of the 139 soldiers who held off 4000 Zulus. Their average age was 23, their average weight 63 Kg... skinny young boys hardly out of their teens.
By some twist of fate David Rattray was murdered some years ago on his farm at Rorke's Drift but his legacy of telling it how it was... lives on.

Leslie Wilson said...

I must have seen this film at least fifteen times! I was doing a summer job as an usherette, and Zulu was on, along with Dr Terror's House of Horrors. Maybe it helped form me as a storyteller. The admission certainly gives away how old I was, though the film had been around for about nine years before I got to see it: that happened in those days. I did get something out of it every time I saw it (didn't from Dr Terror, repeated viewing just laid bare the inconsistencies and ridiculousnesses). Being a teenager, I did enliven it by falling in love with one of the actors - Caine, rather than Baker, though it was clear to me that Baker was meant to be the more admirable character. What can you do? He wasn't my type... I found this blog really interesting. Bits of the film still come back to me, especially bits of the dialogue, oddly enough one popped into my head on Saturday, when I was gardening, the bit where Hitch gets wounded. I had just been attacked by a rose bush. However, this is probably less a function of the memorability of the dialogue than a function of having seen it over and over again. Alas, I can also remember bits of Dr Terror. 'This town hasn't got room for two doctors. Or for two vampires...'turns into vampire and flits off into the night.