Comfortable and Furious

Starring Debuts #23: Michael Caine in Zulu (1964)

Caine left it late to become a major player, wading through almost twenty bit parts and slipping into his thirties before Zulu catapulted him to stardom. In truth, his role as Victoria Cross recipient Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead is not among my faves, partly because he doesn’t get to do a lot. It is a notable example of him playing against type, though. Here he’s an officer and gentleman, effortlessly obliterating his Cockney accent and working class roots as he paces with hands linked behind his back while helping repel a 4,000-strong Zulu force in 1879 South Africa.

Bromhead might be resplendent in his red and white uniform, but he’s a snide lightweight, the sort of guy that’s happy for his men to do the work in the hot sun as he hunts cheetah. Everyone is addressed as ‘old boy’ and ‘good fellow’ while his insight doesn’t amount to much more than: “A chap ought to look smart in front of the men.”

However, once the Zulus slaughter 1,300 British troops at nearby Isandlwana he finds himself second-in-command at a tiny missionary station that’s smack bang in the middle of the war party’s ferocious path. “You’re all going to die!” a drunk, fleeing preacher blurts out. “Death awaits you all!” It’s not much of a pep talk, but a fair enough prediction given the Brits are outnumbered forty to one while the sound of the Zulus’ approaching feet is like a train in the distance.

We form the impression Bromhead is quickly gonna get his privileged, inexperienced arse handed to him, especially as he both misunderstands and has no respect for Zulu culture and the ‘fuzzies.’  Instead he finds his mettle, although I have to say not in the most memorable of ways. He doesn’t get any killer lines or scenes, but it’s clear Caine and his stiff upper lip are projecting something that viewers liked.

Zulu is a decent watch with its excellent cast, rugged scenery, vivid depiction of the natives’ culture and steady build-up to war, although the many scenes of fighting vary between the fairly good and the comically bad, the latter happening often enough to undermine tension. However, it was a big box-office hit and remains among the best-regarded of British films. Of course, some viewers like to argue over whether it is pro or anti-imperialist. Yawn. There’s only one question that ever needs to be asked of a movie: is it entertaining? With Zulu, the answer’s eighty-five percent yes.

As for Caine, Harry Palmer awaited.



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One response to “Starring Debuts #23: Michael Caine in Zulu (1964)”

  1. Ashley Goodman Avatar
    Ashley Goodman

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