Zulu Dawn and Every War Ever

Zulu DawnWhen I was a kid, I loved the film Zulu. I still do. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to be painfully aware of its ethnocentrism. So when I saw that Zulu Dawn, the film about the events that led up to the Anglo-Zulu War, was available for Instant Watch on Netflix, I was very pleased. Cy Endfield, the man who directed Zulu, was lead author of the screenplay for Zulu Dawn. And as much as there are historical inaccuracies in Zulu, it was exceptionally accurate for its time. Zulu Dawn, produced in 1979, is still considered historically accurate.

I’m not that interested in the film itself. It isn’t that well made. The dialog scenes are not recorded well, and it is hard to understand what is being said without subtitles. The battle scenes that make up most of the second half of the film are well done, but not all that important if the viewer doesn’t understand what went before. I think it is a problem of direction. And I say this with due respect to the director, Douglas Hickox, who made one of my very favorite films, Theatre of Blood. (Admittedly, from my perspective, it would be hard to go wrong combining Shakespeare and gore.)

For those of you not familiar, I guess I should clarify. The film takes place in 1879 in British South Africa. The colony there is surrounded by Zululand. But the Zulus and the colonists are happy doing their own things. They get along fine. Unfortunately, Sir Henry Bartle Frere and Lord Chelmsford (Peter O’Toole) want to start a war. So Brere sends a letter to Cetshwayo, King of Zululand. It says, more or less, we don’t like how you run your country so do things our way. Or else.

Cetshwayo responds: screw you. But he says he won’t do anything as long as they don’t come into his territory. Anyway, Cetshwayo has more important things to do: it’s harvest time. But of course, Chelmsford (who is also a general) uses this as a pretext to invade. Chelmsford thinks that the Zulu army is just going to move around and refuse to engage him. But he’s wrong. And the locals tell him so. Colonel Durnford (Burt Lancaster) tell him that Cetshwayo wants to push the conflict so he can get to the harvest. But the general doesn’t believe him. What’s more, rather than trusting Durnford’s intelligence about where the main Zulu forces are, Chelmsford splits up his army and goes after what turns out to be a Zulu feint. Need I note that the insightful colonel is where the big attack comes and the foolish general is where all is calm?

What I was most taken with was Cetshwayo. This isn’t in the movie, just history. He knew that he was screwed. Even though he needed to defeat the British and get on with what really matters in life (eating), he knew that a British defeat would only make the British attack them all out. He was doing his best to avoid this, however. He gave strict instructions that his people should not cross the river into the colonial land. So he was extremely angry at the following attack on Rorke’s Drift that is dramatized in Zulu. But as he predicted, the British later attacked with a well-armed force of 15,000 men and deposed him.

The postscript is that the British actions threw the region into civil war. Only four years later, the British tried to put Cetshwayo back in power, but it was too late. As they say in the military, it was FUBAR. And one way or another, it stayed that way for over a hundred years.

I don’t mean to be too hard on the British. For one thing, it wasn’t the people generally (or even the government) who wanted the war. But that’s how it usually is, right? Very few people in America wanted the Iraq War—at least until it was sold to them. But what we see in both wars is what we see in all wars: going in it seems like a great idea; coming out it seems like a catastrophe. And only this week, we had a liberal historian calling for a new glorious war in North Korea. Will we ever learn?[1]


[1] No.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Best Exotic Marigold HotelLast night, I finally watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Normally, when I see a trailer for a film, I am filled with scorn. Trailers are very predictable and usually turn even good films in a mush of cliches. But that wasn’t the case with this film. Probably it had something to do with the cast: I’m fond of them all, most especially Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith. So I went in with great hopes and thusly great concern that I would be disappointed. I was not.

The film tells the story of a small group of retired people from England who for various reasons come to a retirement hotel in Jaipur, India. Once there, they find that the hotel is not all that was promised—it is run down and dirty. The owner, Sonny, is a man with great dreams. He tells them his philosophy of life (also of the film), “Everything will be all right in the end; if it’s not all right then it’s not yet the end.” Most of the guests get used to hotel and slowly grow to the love the people and the place. Yes, it is an entirely typical scenario for a film. But that isn’t really bad because it is mostly interesting for the characters.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not a great film, but it is highly entertaining and I loved it. It is hard to say why the film works so well. It contains a lot of different plot strands and it cross cuts between them in what I would think (from a technical perspective) would not work. It seems too regimented without a central thread to hang everything on. What’s more, the third act is a bit of a muddle with many of the characters seemingly waiting around for a resolution. And yet it not only works, it is captivating.

Clearly, the film has a lot going for it on a technical level. It has a great cast with a director (John Madden) who is used to directing great actors. But I think the script itself is better than one might think with such a tired setup. The core of the film is the lives of the characters, and everyone of them is interesting. The biggest problem with films that cut from one story line to another is that the viewer is often disinterested in one or more of the stories. This just isn’t the case here. I found I was even deeply involved with the most dislikable character, Jean (played brilliantly by Penelope Wilton). That isn’t to say that everyone will see the film the same way I did. However, it is clear that all of the stories work.

There is one standout scene that I think describes the film. Muriel (Maggie Smith) is a casually racist woman who has come to India for hip replacement surgery. She becomes close to the hotel maid. They don’t talk, because the maid cannot speak English and Muriel sure the hell can’t speak Hindi or any of the other languages of India. But they still manage to communicate. She asks Muriel (through a translator) if she has children. Muriel goes on to tell her story as a domestic and how she always took care of other families. The translator soon gives up translating. Muriel gets more and more emotional as she explains the effect of losing her job, “Because they said I was no longer useful to them. They thanked me for my service as if that was all it was. I found a flat in the end. My problem was what to do with all the time I had. I mean the flat—it’s so small, I can have it spotless in half an hour. And then, you know, what am I supposed to do? For the rest of the day?” It wasn’t necessary for the maid to have those words translated.

Otherwise, the film is more than competently made. The art direction and costume design provide a very celebratory mood. There is lots of moving camera work and some very planned (and subtle) cuts. The music is a bit too emotionally forcing for my tastes, but then, it usually is. It looks shockingly good for its $10 million budget. Bottom line: it is a highly entertaining film made for grown-ups.

True Friends of the Bible

The Empty TombWhen we find we must spend time disabusing students of Christian origins of the red herrings strewn about with gleeful abandon by apologists, we critics of traditional supernaturalism find ourselves in a strange and seemingly ironic position. We view ourselves, contrary to the perspective our own critics and debating opponents have on us, as the true champions and friends of the Bible. We are viewed as insidious villains seeking to undermine the belief of the faithful, trying to push them off the heavenly path and into Satan’s arms. But this is not how we view ourselves at all. Whatever religious or nonreligious convictions we have, we find ourselves entering the field, as we see it, as the champions and zealots for a straightforward and accurate understanding of the Bible as an ancient text, and of the resurrection accounts as natural accoutrements of such literature. In our opinion, it is the fundamentalist, the apologist for Christian supernaturalism, who is propagating false and misleading views of the Bible among the general populace. We are not content to know better and to shake our heads at the foolishness of the untutored masses. We want the Bible to be appreciated for what it is, not for what it is not. And it is not a supernatural oracle book filled with infallible dogmas and wild tales that must be believed at the risk of eternal peril.

There was a generation of Bible debaters who naively took for granted that the Bible made the claims that its misguided proponents made for it. But we belong to a newer generation. We do not hate the Bible or view it as another version of Mein Kampf, as some critics of religion have. We do not seek to debunk it, for it is not bunk, any more than the Iliad or Beowulf is bunk. To frame the issue in such terms is itself a foolish fundamentalism in reverse. The arguments of this book are not attempts to debunk the Bible but to understand it better as what it is: a great ancient text of mythology. When we attack the arguments of apologists, we believe ourselves to be doing the same sort of thing our Classicist colleagues would be doing if they had to reckon with an eccentric movement of apologists for the Olympian gods, zealots who wanted to convince people they must believe in Zeus and Achilles. Classicists would rally to the cause precisely because they loved the old texts and did not want to stand by and allow them to be distorted and made to look ridiculous by grotesque demands that they are literally true!

—Robert M. Price
The Empty Tomb (pp. 15-16)

Light Waves and Birthdays

Christiaan HuygensHelen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan was born on this day back in 1866. I didn’t realize it, but Keller outlived Sullivan by 32 years, but I suppose she was more critical at the beginning than the end. The great Shakespearean actor John Gielgud was born in 1904. And you thought he was just the butler in Arthur. Rod Steiger, actor in On the Waterfront and my favorite Sergio Leone film Duck, You Sucker! was born in 1925. Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson was born in 1929. And Richard Jeni was born in 1957.

Game theory economist Thomas Schelling is 92 today. Loretta Lynn is 81. Honest cop Frank Serpico is 77. Julie Christie is 72 (I loved her is McCabe & Mrs. Miller). And baseball great Pete Rose is also 72. Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling is 59. And actor Robert Carlyle is 52.

But the day belongs to the creator (more or less) of the wave theory of light. On this day back in 1629, Christiaan Huygens was born. But like many of that day, he did a lot more. I don’t feel like going into it, but click over. He was a very interesting guy.

Happy birthday Christiaan Huygens!

Jeremi Suri Calls for War

Jeremi SuriJeremi Suri wrote a remarkable op-ed in the New York Times on Friday, Bomb North Korea, Before It’s Too Late. What I find so interesting is that Suri is not some Fox News shouter. He seems to be more or less a liberal, or at least what passes for one in modern America. He is also a history professor at University of Texas, Austin—despite what many people seem to think, one of the best schools in the world.

Let me see if I can break down his argument: (1) North Korea is going to launch a missile; (2) we should bomb it first; (3) Obama should state that this attack on a sovereign country is defensive; and (4) we will never have trouble with North Korea again! He also “knows” lots of stuff: “precise satellite reconnaissance” tells us where the missile is; “civilians face serious danger” from North Korea; the strike would “preserve regional stability”; it is “unlikely that Mr. Kim would retaliate by attacking South Korea”; and most shockingly of all, “the Chinese government would do everything it could to prevent” a counter attack from North Korea.

Suri goes on to admit that, well, maybe North Korea would counter attack, just to save face. But then he write—and this is important—”Under these unfortunate circumstances, the United States and its allies would still be better off fighting a war with North Korea today, when the conflict could still be confined largely to the Korean Peninsula.” You got that? He’s offering Bush’s great Iraq War justification, “We’re fighting them there, so we don’t have to fight them here.” I am shocked that an otherwise reasonable person would make this argument today.

What is most naive about Dr. Suri’s argument is that other countries will accept our assurances. The North Koreans are supposed to believe that we aren’t seeking regime change. The Chinese are supposed to believe that we aren’t going to occupy the Korean peninsula. And the world is supposed to believe that our attack is defensive. I have three answers to this assurances. First, attacking North Korea will make its government look bad and potentially cause a coup or some other form of destabilization. Second, if we go to war and win, we will have to occupy the Korean peninsula, at least for a while. Third, we said the Iraq War was purely defensive too.

It is only too easy for pundits and academics to call for war. They don’t have to fight and die. But given all that this country has been through the last 15 years, I can’t understand where Jeremi Suri is coming from. If bellicose rhetoric was a reason for war, we would have had World War III in the 1950s. People like Suri are dangerous. They need to be countered.

H/T: The Reaction