Fifty years ago yesterday, movie-going audiences in Great Britain were first introduced to actor Michael Caine, who starred as a rather posh infantry Lieutenant named Bromhead in a film called Zulu. The picture was a massive success.
Effectively a British answer to American westerns, Zulu was released on the 85th anniversary of the engagement it recounted –– a then-little-known battle for a small post in South Africa, called Rorke’s Drift. In that fight, a company of Welshmen from the 24th Foot fought off a Zulu Impi, despite being outnumbered 25 to 1. If you’re not familiar with the Anglo-Zulu War, don’t mistake that for some easy, saber-twirling feat; earlier the same day, a larger Zulu force had utterly annihilated the rest of the 24th on the slopes of Isandlwana.
Zulu captured the British (or anachronistically, Welsh) perspective on the defense of Rorke’s Drift, in a style that might have been termed a ‘boy’s own adventure‘. Stalwart and upstanding soldiers of civilization formed their thin red line behind mealy bags, and fired volleys, then used bayonets, to stave off the gallant noble savages –– savages who themselves sought only to defend their way of life. Both sides were lauded for their courage, the pointless tragedy of combat was expressed, and the audience could leave the theater with a sense of dignity.
In the parlance of 1964, Zulu was likely a progressive take on colonialism. The writers behind it were known communists, one of whom had fled the United States because of McCarthyism, so it would be ambitious to assume the film was an attempt at jingoism. Nevertheless, by today’s standards, I don’t think the word “progressive” could be used, since the film is ultimately about redcoats gunning down hordes of black men for whom the only speaker is (ironically, perhaps) a white Boer. The fact that those black men were portrayed by actual South African Zulus (including their Prince) during the age of Apartheid… well, I don’t even know where to start as to whether that’s offensive or not. But let’s just assume it is.
With all of that being said, and remembering (as usual) that the picture below is of me, my parents, and my great-grandfather Arnim, why is Zulu one of my favorite films? Shouldn’t I be offended by its glorification of the slaughter of “cowardly blacks”?
Maybe I should be… but I’m not.
I’ve explained before that my view of the British Empire is nuanced –– and it has to be, because I couldn’t exist if not for Britannia’s rule. To review: my family tree consists of freed slaves, servants, shopkeepers, merchants, fish mongers, fishermen, and some Scots. Represented among those ranks were whites, blacks, Indians and Chinese, all brought together in the Atlantic on the islands of Trinidad and Newfoundland. What those people had in common: none came from wealth or privilege, all had to work hard. Arnim ran a gas station, my dad’s dad bred German Shepherds, my mom’s dad –– my Chief Engineer –– sailed the seas, and my mom’s mom was a nurse.
No Lords, Ladies, Kings or Chieftains, just people who raised their lot through sweat, effort, and force of will. Many people in those days possessed similar determination, but I believe my ancestors were fortunate to exercise theirs under the flag of an Empire that, while vastly incorrect in many ways, offered them both education and opportunity. How else would a kid from Trinidad end up in Newfoundland, of all places?
Make no mistake: the bloodiest days of Empire were appalling in their violence, brutality, and cultural genocide. Millions paid with their lives for vacant notions of racial superiority, and privileges were not equal between races, or classes, or creeds. After two history degrees, I can tell countless horror stories from across the globe… and yet, still, I love Zulu.
For that to make sense, you must understand my context –– not just my family, but the country I now call home. Canada is a remarkable place, where cultural pluralism is real. It’s not perfect –– few societies ever are –– but when you look across the world, and see neighbors killing neighbors for sake of a different color, or religion, or nationality, Canada can’t help but seem special. In the midst of a bitter Polar Vortex, strangers of all creeds and colors are helping each other shovel their driveways. Hindus defend the institutions of Christmas. We’re all figuring out how to skip work to watch the Olympic hockey final.
This is happening because, by and large, we’re a nation of regular, hard-working people who’ve decided not to allow any horrors from our pasts to chain our futures. This forward-vision is not unique to Canada –– as I say, my family hails from Trinidad and Newfoundland –– but under the maple leaf, we’ve gotten pretty damned good at it. And honestly, I think the British Empire deserves some credit.
How is it that a black man, similar to those Michael Caine fought off with volley fire, could one day have a white granddaughter-in-law? How is it that an Indian woman, whose subcontinent was conquered by the British, could be part of the same family as an Irish Catholic Newfoundland nurse? The racial-purity jingoists may never have meant it to happen, but that’s what their global ventures unwittingly unleashed.
Though they may have been the result of greedy or misguided agendas, Imperial missions introduced ordinary, everyday Britons to ordinary, everyday Africans, Indians, Chinese and more. Those people were told to fight each other, and sometimes to hate each other, but humans can be a remarkable species: when we see each other up close, it doesn’t take long for some of us to recognize each other. Obviously not everyone, and not all at once… but enough to start eroding the simple divisions that are supposed to separate us. I think that’s why American Jim Crow racism, and South African Apartheid, had to be so strictly enforced; the only way to preserve an artificial division between free, intelligent beings is to systematically dehumanize one side, the other, or both.
But the common bonds of humanity are too strong, and even a history of murdering each other on battlefields, over lines on a map and holes in the ground, hasn’t stopped some of us from already coming together as family, barely a century later.
One of the underlying themes of Zulu is that the Welshmen and the warriors were as alike as they were different. They spent their strength against each other, and in the strange way of war, came to respect each other. How accurately this is portrayed in the film is questionable, but dated though its presentation might be, the message remains most worthy.
Just 135 years ago, a bunch of people who looked like my mom’s family, massacred, or were massacred by, a bunch of people who looked like my dad’s family. It was brutal, and bloody, and just another step in a long cultural clash that we cannot overlook…
But despite all the potential for hatred, my family still exists.
That gives me hope for humanity. It makes me believe that few divisions can be so deep as to be unconquerable –– if we decide to move past them, and to use our strength in tandem, instead of against each other. It is for us –– all of us –– to decide our futures. There is no rule requiring us to hate each other for trivial reasons; there is no biological necessity to clash with those who look different, or pray different, or have different chromosomes. If the world seems to expect those divisions of us, we must simply demand better of ourselves, and in so doing, build new families that reflect what we want our future to be.
Reading international headlines this week… any week… might make that seem impossible. It isn’t. If you doubt me, just remember: I wouldn’t exist to say it, if it wasn’t true.