Low life

The film that shaped my vision of the world

29 February 2020

9:00 AM

29 February 2020

9:00 AM

Joyce Marriott of Pyrton, Oxford, has written a letter to the Times on the subject of how a person’s imagination can be unduly influenced by one particular film. The film Old Yeller, she says, had such a powerful effect that for the past 30 years she has devoted her life to animal welfare, dogs particularly. ‘Such is the power of movies,’ she concludes.

Although I haven’t seen Old Yeller, I agree that a film can sow seeds in the imagination which prosper and flourish and eventually overrun it. My own imaginative Japanese knotweed was sown by the first film I ever saw, aged seven, on the big screen at the Ritz cinema in Southend-on-sea in 1964: Zulu, starring Stanley Baker, written by John Prebble and Cy Endfield, directed by Cy Endfield and produced by Stanley Baker and Cy Endfield.

Zulu is basically one long battle scene, a dramatic retelling of the defence of Rorke’s Drift by a company of South Wales Borderers against 4,000 Zulus, the untested section of the massive Zulu impi which earlier in the day had wiped out an invading British army column. It was a unique triumph of the short stabbing spear over the Martini-Henry carbine with an effective range of 400 yards. The final scene shows four rows of red-coated infantry in a redoubt shooting down hundreds of semi-naked Zulu warriors at point-blank range. The film could easily be dismissed as mad jingoistic nonsense, perhaps even a foundational myth of the moronic, white-supremacist generation who tipped the vote in favour of exiting the European Union. As a seven-year-old, I’d never dreamed of such violence.


But notice this: Baker was a lifelong socialist; Prebble was a communist party member and Endfield a Young Communist League worker at Yale. In 1951 Endfield was blacklisted by Hollywood and came to England to continue making his politically charged films. Prebble wrote revisionist history. And the more I watch Zulu, the more convinced I am that it is essentially a film about the rigidities, complexities and fluidities of the British class system. I also think this is why the film is still popular. Watching Zulu, we lower-middle-class, old, white people recognise and laugh at the same interclass antagonisms mitigated by mutual grudging respect that we recognise and laugh at in Dad’s Army, and hardly see anywhere else. All gone now of course.

At seven years of age I failed to notice this class business. The aplomb and independence, for example, with which Colour Sergeant Bourne handled his own class predicament as the medium of communication between ‘the lads’ on the barricade and the gentleman officers. (‘Nobody told you to stop working!’) And certainly not the nature of the tension between the nihilism of Private Hook and the false consciousness of his working-class fellows. Nor the historic challenge to the Victorian landed gentry, exemplified by the lisping Lieutenant Bromhead (for whom the situation is desperate but never serious), by the rising technocrat class in the shape of (big girl’s blouse) Lieutenant Chard. Nevertheless I think a large part of my imagination was moulded in that one film by the impression made by John Prebble’s dialogue and Cy Endfield’s class-conscious vision.

Rather thin stuff on which to base an imaginative understanding of the world, you twit, you might say. Well, it’s a step up, let me tell you, from the pop song lyrics and advertising jingles that occupy the rest of the space. And even as the most feeble caricature of reality, I would argue that Zulu is a more subtle interpretation of British class relations and imperialism than the paradigms and simplicities of, say, something bleakly didactic written by some middle-class leftist luvvie and shoved out by the BBC.

The thing that entranced my child’s eyes, apart from the cook getting a spear in his back and haemorrhaging blood from his mouth, which overflowed down his chin, was the scenery. And above everything else it was the revelation of the ways and manners of an unsurmised and different civilisation — the Zulus. Their bravery, their nakedness, their blackness — their harmonised singing, especially — thrilled me. ‘They are a great, great people,’ says missionary and religious maniac Reverend Witt, played by Jack Hawkins, of his parishioners. I would claim that it was there, at the Ritz cinema overlooking Southend pier, that I fell in love with Africa.

It was a dramatised, cinematic, fictional image I had fallen in love with, I knew that. (Later I read that the singers and dancers at the unforgettable mass wedding ceremony at the beginning of the film, for example, were professional performers bussed in from the night clubs of Johannesburg.) But the shock and thrill sustained by the seven-year-old boy in a dusty velveteen cinema seat has reverberated undiminished through a lifetime of reading about sub-Saharan Africa and going there as often as possible. I’m now up to 18 countries out of 55. Such indeed, dear Joyce Marriott, is the power of movies.

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