We once received a letter from a subscriber who said that while Cinema Retro is his favorite film magazine, the content was best suited for a magazine titled Cinema Hetero. We confess to being guilty of over-emphasizing stories that tend to favor middle-aged, straight white guys because...er...our magazine is put together by two middle aged, straight white guys. However, our new web site has liberated us to expand our horizons and be more inclusive with our content. Let's face it...straight guys see hints of lesbianism in everything including the Ginger and Maryann scenes from Gilligan's Island. Are these just absurd fantasies or are there really intentional, latent homoerotic images in some of our most cherished films and TV series?
Journalist Diana Blackwell examines this scenario as it pertains to one of the most beloved war films of all time, the 1964 epic Zulu which recounted the legendary stand by a small number of British soldiers against an overwhelming number of Zulu warriors. In England, this is the equal of the American's Alamo - only with a happy ending. In this analysis, Ms. Blackwell examines latent homoerotic images in the film. Is this simply a case of a female perceiving homoerotic fantasies that don't reflect the intended content of a film or has she uncovered some hidden messages in oft-viewed classic adventure story? You can judge for yourself - but we think this article will tempt you to view Zulu again just to examine her thoroughly-researched conclusions. At the very least, Ms. Blackwell's article about Zulu gives an all new perspective to "keeping the British end up."
always seemed like a sexy movie to me despite its lack of love scenes or
romantic subplots.The sexiness has
little to do with Zulu’s few scenes
of women:the bare-breasted Zulu girls
aren’t onscreen for very long, whilethe
missionary’s daughter, Miss Witt, is buttoned-up in every way. 1
No, Zulu is sexy because of its men
and the subtly homoerotic quality of their interactions.
Ultra rare poster style
NOTE: FOOTNOTED INFORMATION IS IN PARENTHESES ()
This homoeroticism was mentioned in print for the first time by yours truly on the old discussion forum at www.rorkesdriftvc.com. Much later, the topic was broached on the imdb.com message boards by one “videokillerprods,” who focused exclusively on Bromhead, especially in his whisk-tapping moments. Both of these public mentions of homoeroticism in Zulu brought forth choruses of abusive jeering from red-blooded readers, some of whom were rational enough to protest that Zulu contains no gay love scenes.
While this is undoubtedly true, it is well to remember that good films can suggest a lot, and that homosexual acts need not be seen onscreen for them to be implied by and important to the action. A good example can be found in Lawrence of Arabia. We don’t see the Turkish Bey rape Lawrence, but we’re shown enough to make the mental leap, without which we won’t really understand the story. Zulu’s homoeroticism is even subtler, without the historical basis to guide our interpretations. Director Cy Endfield does not spoon-feed us anything, but sets up suggestive situations and lets us figure things out for ourselves.
Unfortunately, these filmic clues have seldom been identified or followed up on, perhaps because the audience for Zulu is largely heterosexual males, who are no more inclined to think about homoeroticism in this film than they are in any other context (i.e., not at all). Meanwhile, gay and bisexual men have so much real porn available to them that a G-rated actioner like Zulu hardly registers. For these reasons, and others, Zulu’s sexual subtext has gone pretty much unexamined.
So, to begin, let us take off our blinkers of prejudice as much as we can, and adopt a willingness to see things from a new and fresh perspective. For some people, that might mean setting aside homophobia; for others, attuning to visual symbolism.
Not so Far-Fetched
In the first place, there is no reason to assume that the isolated force at Rorke’s Drift would be immune to statistics: there would have been gay or bi men at the Drift. If low-ball estimates are correct, and homosexuals make up about 1-3% of the population, then there could have been as many as four or even five gay men at Rorke’s Drift.
Homo erectus? Bromhead (Michael Caine), the erudite and somewhat prissy officer who finds courage under fire
But even if all the soldiers there had been straight, they still might have had same-sex adventures. The idea of homosexual behavior among seemingly “normal” men in womanless contexts is nothing new or fanciful. Orwell reported that “among tramps of long standing, homosexuality is general” not because the tramps started out gay but because no woman would have them. Even those paradigms of masculine toughness, the cowboys of the old west, are now thought to have practiced homosexuality when their work kept them away from women for long periods of time. Sailors long at sea and prisoners(2) are also known for this. Far from being something unusual or implausible, a certain amount of guy/guy sex in womanless settings seems to be the norm.(3)
That military discipline and weaponry have a quasi-sexual symbolic function, in art and life, has been observed by many (and can be verified by examining contemporary gay erotica). Films like American Beauty and Lawrence of Arabia have dramatized the connections among repressed homosexuality, sadomasochism, and war. The Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima gives an intimate view of the psychology of these connections in his memoirs.
Using visual sensuousness to evoke the glory of heroism, Zulu poses its soldiers and warriors in breathtaking tableaux that celebrate the male form in struggle: especially grappling hand-to-hand or thrusting at each other with phallic bayonets and spears. Observers have often commented that the fighting in Zulu is intense and intimate but free of gross-out scenes. This hardly goes far enough: Zulu makes war look beautiful. By seducing the eye, Zulu draws us in and convinces us nonverbally of the nobility of both sides, (contributing to the film’s endearing flavor of decency). But this visual beauty cannot help but cast an even more romantic aura around Zulu’s several pivotal scenes of reconciliation between pairs of former antagonists.
Bromhead with Chard: a comforting embrace
One good example is the scene in which Bromhead cradles the wounded Chard. This beautiful “pietà” pose is viewed from below, “looking up to” Baker and Caine. The iconic beauty of the scene mirrors the spiritual beauty of the moment, when the former antagonists express their mutual respect as each urges the other to take command. Holding the bleeding Chard in his arms, Bromhead begins with upper-crust coolness (“Now listen, old boy, you’re not badly hurt”) but ends by admitting, feelingly, “We need you.” This exchange has a sequel in the after-battle confessions between Bromhead and Chard. Bromhead says he feels “sick and ashamed” and asks Chard if that’s how it was for him “the first time.” The underlying parallel between battle and homosexual sex in this scene has been remarked upon by Sascha at http://nzcricket.net/apollosucks/homoerotics.html.
More visually suggestive (in a manly, heroic way) is the interaction between Corporal Allen and Pte. Hitch. In scenes leading up to the battle, Allen rags on Hitch for minor infractions. But during battle, the two men are wounded at very nearly the same time, and both collapse off the ramparts together, their bodies somehow interlocked. They remain piled together where they fall, and on a metaphorical level they fuse into one, for they later ambulate and act only as a team.
Another example takes place in the makeshift surgery. Surgeon Reynolds looks up from the bloody altar table and shouts, “Damn you, Chard! Damn all you butchers!” A short while later the surgeon is seen holding Chard and tenderly daubing a wound on his face.
The most intensely homoerotic scenes in Zulu take place in the shadowy, intimate barracks. Here we find partial nudity and peek-a-boo, with Cadmus-like vignettes of sweaty guys in their underwear crowded together in beds in the dark. Into this charged setting are introduced such stock fetish material as medical situations, full of bodily exploration, humiliation, and pain; military uniforms (“…designed to be sexy; one of the compensations for the soldier’s life,” writes a friend who is into SM) ; and weapons (rifles, bayonets, and bullets are handled—fondled—a lot in this hospital).
The spark that ignites all this and makes it sizzle is Hookie. The most powerful personality in the barracks, and ultimately the most conspicuous hero of the battle, Hookie is also the film’s most developed and complex, even paradoxical, character. The lowest of the low yet the highest of the high, under arrest yet anarchically free, he’s surly and domineering yet alluring and well-liked by his peers (he’s the hub of his small milieu). He is explicitly eroticized by Zulu, both by the script and by the way James Booth plays the role.
The part of Hookie, as written in the final shooting script, is simplistically hostile, full of moans, hateful glares, and explicit speeches. Booth cools Hookie way down, to a simmer that only occasionally boils over. This enhances the pleasing contrast between his long passive period and his in-your-face fighting scenes. It also gives the whole character of Hookie greater emotional subtlety and range, and in the process deepens the sketchy back-story.
Hookie (James Booth) exerts butch tactics on the more sensitive types around him
In no other film does Booth inhabit a role so completely, or bring to it such a vital blend of sparkle and gravitas. For once—perhaps the only time, despite his many comedies—he is actually funny. For once, Booth seems completely grounded, centered, and self-assured. He comes off powerful, dangerous, sublime, sexy. Booth projects Hookie’s fictitious charisma physically, by means of a particular body language that Booth adopts for this role and no other.(4) His loose, slouching swagger (which reminds Karl Hegman of a big cat) sends clear nonverbal signals of coiled power, animal sexuality, and lawless freedom.
A “trickster” with his shell-game, Hookie could be a stand-in for director Cy Endfield, amateur magician and master of sleight-of-hand. Hookie is an outsider, a “criminal,” as was Endfield, a blacklisted Jewish communist. Hookie was exiled from his home in London to go work in South Africa. Endfield was forced to leave his home in the US to go work in England. But if Hookie is Endfield’s alter-ego in Zulu, he’s a highly idealized alter-ego—not much like Endfield, but possibly what Endfield would have liked to be like. The homoerotic musk suffusing the Hookie-in-the barracks scenes could constitute some kind of metaphorical statement on Endfield’s part.
Hookie is the only character in the film(5) who is known to have a woman in his life: he’s married. He is made to walk in on Miss Witt with his pants down, inadvertently exposing himself to her (and reversing the movie convention that compromises feminine modesty before the masculine gaze). He goes on to flirt briefly with Miss Witt, who gives subtle signs of being attracted to him, and ashamed of her attraction. In conversation with her, his toes—bared, then upright, then subsiding back into his sock—are tinged with phallic symbolism. But Hook never lays a hand on Miss Witt, nor does he say anything improper to her. Though he shows signs of feeling sexual interest in women, he gives no sign of taking her very seriously or of wanting to pursue her.
Much more serious and, in several cases, much more physical, are Hook’s relationships with men. In the bawdy “boil” scene, Hookie is at his most fetching, a luscious himbo who naively imagines he can con the shrewd, cynical surgeon. Though elsewhere shown to be quick-witted, streetwise, and intelligent, here Hookie is made to seem a little dopier and more oblivious than is his wont. Traditionally movies practice this kind of intellectual foot binding on voluptuous female characters, but the effect is the same in Hookie’s case: to make an already attractive character still more desirable by making him less intimidating, more haveable.
Now, the boil scene doesn’t add up, when you think about it. If Reynolds knows Hookie is malingering, why doesn’t he throw Hookie out of the hospital? And if a cunning rascal like Hookie had successfully duped the authorities, would he call unnecessary attention to himself with trivial complaints?
Never mind. Logic isn’t the point here, and the boil scene works perfectly well without it. The boil scene establishes the brandy story arc, explicitly associating brandy with heroism. The boil scene also punishes Hookie for his ugly behavior earlier with Maxfield and Howarth: there he bullied those weaker than himself; here he is bullied by a sadistic superior. This satisfies our wounded moral sense, freeing us to like Hookie again. And it creates a porn-flimsy pretext for showing us Hookie in a physically compromised, titillating situation, while giving us “permission” to enjoy it.
Chard (Stanley Baker): a reluctant hero
The boil scene foregrounds the bed throughout, maintaining a constant sexual symbolism while discreetly hiding everything below shoulder level. First the surgeon orders Hookie to take off his “vest” or undershirt. Hookie warily complies. Though Hookie complained of pain in his arm, Reynolds examines his back, standing behind Hookie and visibly jabbing his right shoulder blade with a vigorous “finger-fucking” action. Then Reynolds lulls Hookie into complacency with idle chatter (which includes calling Hookie’s boil “fine” and “handsome”(6)) only to produce, quite suddenly, his small, sharp scalpel, held at the angle of an erection. Hookie sees where things are headed. Eyes popping with alarm, he hastily covers his bare flesh and draws away from Reynolds. But Reynolds slams Hookie against the bed, yanks his shirt back up, and drives the scalpel home while the unwilling Hookie flinches and whimpers. This is a bodice-ripping scene in beefcake mode, with the lancing of Hookie’s boil serving as a visual metaphor for anal rape. Because Reynolds rattles off the drawbacks of army life as he does this, the scene is also suggestive of how Hookie’s “getting screwed” in the army.
Hookie’s shell game—which of three inverted cups “has got the bullet”—is also a metaphor for the main sexual puzzle inherent in the first scene: namely, which of these guys is Hookie bedding? Howarth? Maxfield? Hughes? All of them? Eventually we get the idea that Hughes is Hookie’s best friend, that Howarth is Hookie’s bitch, and that something very strange is going on between Hookie and Maxfield.
When 612 Williams appears and announces, “You an’ me, Hookie. Mr. Chard’s orders. In this room.” the lilt in his voice suggests what his subsequent actions confirm: he has a crush on Hookie. But Hookie resists the pairing: “Hey, what are you talking about?” When Hookie bends over to tie his shoe, Williams chirps, “Me an’ Hookie’s going to fight in here, aren’t we, Hookie,” and taps Hookie’s out-thrust buttocks with the tip of his bayonet—symbolically, an overture towards sodomy. But Hookie bottoms for nobody, certainly not for a shrimp like Williams, and scornfully retorts, “You’re jokin’!”
Hookie and Maxfield
By far the most developed homoerotic subplot centers on Hookie and Maxfield. This relationship is complicated and emotionally intense from their first screen moment together till Maxfield perishes in the flames. On the most obvious, “army” level, the subplot concerns a disciplinary conflict between a strict NCO and a rebellious private. But on a more visceral, personal level, Hookie and Maxfield’s love/hate relationship consists of an unresolved grudge and a sexual power struggle (both men are dominant butch tops).
All of this is conveyed in very subtle, often physical ways. Let’s get specific.
Throughout the whole film, Maxfield never speaks to anyone but Hookie. He regards Hookie as his personal project, declaring (strangely), “They gave us you because you are no good to anyone except the Queen and Sgt. Maxfield” and vowing, “I’ll make a soldier of you yet.” Does Sgt. Maxfield want to make a soldier out of anybody else? Evidently not.
Surprisingly, Hook reciprocates Maxfield’s attitude of exclusivity by claiming sole responsibility for the ailing Maxfield’s welfare. He tells Miss Witt, who is feeding water to Maxfield, that Maxfield “doesn’t need” her help because “I’ll look after him.” This sounds like a joke, but Hookie twice proves he’s serious—once when Maxfield faints, and again when Maxfield needs Hookie’s help in the burning hospital.
When Hookie quietly announces, “I’m getting out,” Maxfield suddenly becomes lucid and aggressive. “Private Hook!” he barks. Hookie, engaged in dressing, with his back to the sergeant, casually replies, “Yeah?” Maxfield demands more formality. “Yes, Sergeant” he enunciates, expecting Hookie to repeat the words. Hookie says nothing and gives him a “you’ve-gotta-be-kidding” look.
Spanish publicity flyer
Why is Hookie so pointedly familiar with Maxfield, refusing to give him his title? He calls Margareta Witt “Miss.” He calls Surgeon Reynolds and Colour-Sergeant Bourne “sir.” Even Bromhead, whom Hookie disparaged earlier, was “Mr. Flamin’ Bromhead.” (emphasis added). Apparently Hookie isn’t rebellious about titles in general—only Maxfield’s title. The implication is that Hookie feels he knows Maxfield too well to stand on ceremony. As if to underscore this point, Maxfield replies, “I know you, Hook.” And Hookie shoots back, “Yeah, you ought to.”
Later, when the immobilized Maxfield screams for Hookie’s help, he again says, “I know you.” Significantly, when pleading for rescue, Maxfield appeals not to rank or duty but to the intimacy that exists between the two men, using a word that can have carnal implications: “I know you.”
When Hookie picks the unconscious Maxfield up off the floor, he holds him by the shoulders for a few moments and simply gazes down into has face as Maxfield’s head rolls backward. In most movies, if a guy did this to a woman, the scene would culminate in a passionate kiss. Hookie does not kiss Maxfield (yet); he merely stares into his face. But why? And why for such a long time?
When Hookie picks Maxfield up from the floor, he throws Maxfield over his shoulder so that Maxfield’s buttocks are right beside his face. While speaking, Hookie points toward Maxfield’s buttocks with a gesture that, if carried further, could result in digital-rectal penetration. Then Hookie slaps Maxfield on the rump.
A kiss in bed
The script required Hookie to kiss Howarth twice (expressing his joy over the arrival of the cavalry). Booth eliminates these kisses—in fact, he plants his hand smack over Howarth’s face and pushes him away from the window. But he introduces a kiss that was not in the script when he puts Maxfield to bed. Watch closely: Hookie tucks him in, kisses the top of his head, and grins up at Miss Witt. (She becomes horribly offended and leaves. Hell hath no fury….)
History of bondage
Twice we are told that earlier, in Brecon, Maxfield arranged for Hookie to undergo twenty-eight days of Field Punishment. This is a type of outdoor rope bondage (no, seriously) adopted by the British military in 1881 as a more humane substitute for flogging. (The Battle of Rorke’s Drift took place two years before the advent of this measure, in 1879…but minor inaccuracies occur throughout Zulu.)
Like caning in British public schools, Field Punishment in the British Army screams kink in a laughably clueless, pre-Freudian way. We don’t know whether Maxfield wielded the ropes himself, but regardless, Field Punishment would have given the obsessive-compulsive sergeant a satisfyingly physical and socially acceptable way to control and possess the free-spirited private.(7)
Since Field Punishment entails a loss of income, Maxfield compensates by sending Mrs. Hook money out of his own pocket. This kind gesture would seem to be atypical behavior for an NCO and indicative of Maxfield’s special affection for Hookie.
Why does Hookie resent Maxfield’s generosity, when a month without wages would have been a hardship for the Hooks? Is it pure, misogynistic sadism on Hookie’s part—he wants his wife to suffer, for no particular reason? A lot of people seem to think that’s what’s going on, and find the idea either funny or depraved.
But Hookie never says exactly why the money bothers him, seeming to treat the matter as prima facie offensive, so we are free to consider more plausible bases for his feelings. We can easily imagine it offended his sense of honor. We can also easily imagine that Hookie didn’t want his wife to know about his relationship with Maxfield.
The confrontation between Hookie and Maxfield in front of Miss Witt is further eroticized by background visuals. As Hookie and Maxfield argue, we see 612 busily making a loophole, more or less at our eye level, by stabbing the wall with his bayonet. (If you don’t think these probings look sexual in their symbolism, try watching them in slo-mo.)
Underestimated by the British military, Zulu warriors launched a major, highly disciplined attack that left the main component of the British command slaughtered
In addition to everything else, Booth departs from the script in ways that make his relationship with Maxfield seem more intense and more physical. The script calls for Hookie to show his readiness to abandon the barracks by packing his duffle bag; Booth changes this process to dressing, so that he can fiddle with his fly (for the second time, and seemingly forever).(8) The original script called for Hookie merely to look at Maxfield and say, “You lucky bastard;” Booth bends down low over Maxfield’s supine, bedded body, almost as if to mount him, while he speaks. The original script read, “Where’s that bloody sergeant?” Booth changes this to “Where’s my bloody sergeant?”
The mesmerizing confrontations between Hookie and Maxfield derive their tension from what is not said, from the dark and mysterious core of the relationship. Why does Maxfield ride Hookie so hard, showing no favoritism, but never in the whole film speaking to anyone but Hookie? Why does Hookie seem so impudently bored by it all? Why does Hookie keep gravitating back to Maxfield, throughout the film--touching him, crouching over him in bed, and talking to him even while Maxfield is asleep?
None of it really makes any sense…until you read between the lines and retroject a history of passion, or at least sexual tension, between the two men. Now watch everything snap into clear focus: Hookie’s insolence, Maxfield’s harsh formality toward Hookie, and above all the intensity and physicality of the relationship between the two men—all feel natural and inevitable.
Tears and Brandy
Although Zulu never explicitly tells us that Hookie reciprocates Maxfield’s implied love, it proves Hookie’s love through action. Hookie fights most heroically in an effort to rescue Maxfield, the object of his love and hatred (just as Williams fights most heroically to rescue Hookie, whom he obviously adores).
According to the original shooting script, Hookie “is crying” during the brandy scene, which is “a toast.” The script does not explicitly mention Maxfield, and certainly the grandiose quality of the brandy scene transcends this plot twist, but it’s easy to believe that Maxfield is at least one of the things Hookie’s toasting. Hookie’s love and grief are underscored when he stands at the darkened ramparts, brooding over Maxfield’s death, and asking Williams, “Do you think he wanted it that way?”
There is a stench of punishment about Maxfield’s death. Since he is the superior officer, he bears greater responsibility than Hookie for any shared sexual misconduct. It is, or used to be, a common convention of our entertainment narratives that sexual transgressors be punished with death. (Consider Midnight Cowboy, Jules and Jim, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Rent, Brokeback Mountain,etc. etc.). Maxfield’s death releases Hookie from his problematic “bondage” to his sergeant and frees Hookie to look back on their love/hate relationship with visible grief.
Moreover, once Maxfield is dead, and Hookie has expressed his grief, the Hookie subplot pretty much ends. The historical Pte. Hook was by no means done with his heroics at this point: he went on to help carry hospital patients to safety, and he participated in the water cart rescue. Zulu doesn’t depict these episodes at all, despite their obvious dramatic potential. Though they would have contributed to the film’s accuracy and the heroism of Hookie, they don’t relate to the Maxfield subplot (which is over in any case by that point), so Zulu dispenses with them.
But Zulu does return to Hookie briefly twice: once during the after-battle roll call, and once during the VC roll call. The point of these glimpses seems to be to show that Hookie has reverted to his unsavory ways post-crisis. Thus he dwindles back down from a demigod to a comical ne’er-do-well. (The real Hook was neither, which shows where the film’s priorities lie. Storytelling usually trumps accuracy.)
But even if all this is true, what difference does it make? How does it, how should it, affect our view of Zulu, if at all?
Was there an organized or conscious effort by the makers of Zulu to produce homoerotic effects? Several of the actors in Zulu were real-life homosexuals, according to no less an authority than Sheldon Hall.(9) Endfield famously sympathized with underdogs, and could reportedly create cinematic effects “out of nothing.” (10) There’s a publicity photo of Williams and Hitch embracing in the river, which looks like an ad for gay vacations.(11) And let’s not forget that exchange between Chard and Bromhead, in the final shooting script but not in the film, which suggests that Bromhead may have preferred men.(12) Was homoeroticism Zulu’s underlying subject matter—it’s real theme?
No, probably not. In fact, the truth is probably the reverse. Despite some misleadingly lurid publicity blurbs (“In the heat of battle, the flash of passion!”), the extant film tries for the most part to avoid any obvious romantic or sexual content, whether hetero or homo, even where such elements rear their heads in the various scripts. The film’s makers took Zulu in this sexless direction themselves. Then censors went over Zulu with a fine-toothed comb and removed anything they deemed racy or even suggestive, except for the topless Zulu girls, who were accepted in the same spirit as National Geographic.
True, a Zulu warrior seizes Miss Witt around the waist, apparently with matrimonial intentions…but the Zulu king has the upstart killed on the spot. True, a hospital patient tears open Miss Witt’s bodice while demanding “a little kiss”…but she gets away safely with no kiss and buttons herself back up. And that’s it.
So pure is Zulu that most fans are shocked the first time they hear about deleted elements like a projected romance between Chard and Miss Witt. Also purged were an extended scene of quasi-flirting between Margareta and a wounded soldier, and any references to sweethearts back home (save only for the glaring exception of Mrs. Hook). Chard doesn’t question Bromhead’s manhood, and Hitch and Williams don’t cuddle in the river (despite the “gay vacations” photo). Zulu remains bracingly focused on its tale of heroism.
Zulu is consciously aimed at a general audience and its chief subject matter is bravery in battle (not homosexuality or even male bonding). On its surface, Zulu is so innocent, so thoroughly suitable for children (in spite of the violence, but that’s another matter), it could have sprung from the pages of Boys’ Own. Any homoeroticism Zulu may possess is subtle enough that most people can watch Zulu over and over without quite seeing it.(13)
Had there been any conscious gay agenda in a project involving this many people, the secret would have leaked out long ago. But no such revelation has occurred, nor is it likely to at this late date, and to expect otherwise would be unrealistically revisionist. When Zulu was filmed, in 1963—before Stonewall, before the advent of any sort of movement for gay empowerment—gay themes were considered risky, distasteful, and to be avoided by entertainment with any aspirations to popularity, to a degree that may be hard for today’s post-Will-and-Grace audiences to imagine. To take a patriotic family film like Zulu and load it with gay innuendo would have been unthinkable. But even if somebody had thought of it, Stanley Baker probably wouldn’t have risked self-sabotage in that way, especially after struggling for so long to make his project a reality.
Nor did James Booth ever give any indication that he wanted to be identified with gay roles or causes or that he wanted his character in Zulu to be perceived as gay or bi. He has admitted he did no research and played Hook as written. Asked about the essence of the Hookie character, Booth called him “a rebel.”(14) Nowhere has he said anything about a putative gay or bi dimension to the role.
Given all this, it seems likely that Zulu’s homoeroticism comes about more or less accidentally, as an epiphenomenon of the mingling of other elements that were introduced intentionally. Manly virtue, physical prowess, visual beauty, earthy humor, interpersonal drama, and military glory form a rich culture medium in which homoeroticism might easily seem to emerge as if by spontaneous generation, like mold spots in the shape of two soldiers cuddling in the river.
Regardless of where Zulu’s homoeroticism comes from, I’m glad it’s there because I think it supplies something necessary that the film would otherwise lack. Zulu has no important female presence, and hence no easy opening for a conventional love story. It has tons of action but that alone isn’t enough to win our hearts. We won’t love a movie’s characters unless they love. And while it’s all very well to love a calf, or love singing, or love your family’s military tradition--all of which serve as motivators in this film--what really moves us is love between people.
Zulu’s understated homoeroticism, flying below the radar of so many fans and critics, convinces us nonverbally, in our guts, that these guys care about each other, and that makes us care about them. It satisfies our yearning for the intensity, the nobility, the selflessness of love. Which may be one of the reasons for the passionate reactions that Zulu and its characters inspire.
1. The final shooting script goes far out of its way to de-eroticize and belittle Miss Witt, with numerous characters commenting openly on her aura of frigid virginity. Though these lines were cut (except for one: Hookie’s “Know what she needs”) the extant film cruelly patronizes and humiliates her. She’s so prudish that even her pompous windbag dad has to correct her at the wedding. She’s picked up and carried like a mealie bag by Sgt. Windridge. She’s manhandled by that horny bastard in Schiess’s room. Her most serious, idealistic sentiments provoke only contempt and amusement among the men. The gratuitous invention of the Miss Witt character by Zulu’s makers has been explained as an attempt to add sex appeal to the film, but that ignores what she’s actually like. It might be truer to say her presence reverses convention by making sexuality a masculine province.
2. And how. “According to Stephen Donaldson, president of Stop Prison Rape, more than 290,000 male prisoners are assaulted each year. Prison rape, says Donaldson in a New York Times opinion piece, “is an entrenched tradition.” Donaldson, who was himself a victim of prison rape twenty years ago when he was incarcerated for antiwar activities, has calculated that there may be as many as 45,000 rapes every day in our prison population of 1.2 million men. The number of rapes is vastly higher than the number of victims because the same men are often attacked repeatedly. Many of the rapes are “gang bangs” repeated day after day. To report such a rape is a terribly dangerous thing to do, so these rapes may be the most underreported of all. No one knows how accurate Donaldson’s figures are. They seem incredible to me. But the tragic and neglected atrocities he is concerned about are not the kind whose study attracts grants…If he is anywhere near right, the incidence of male rape may be as high [sic] or higher than that of female rape.” -- Christina Hoff Summers, Who Stole Feminism?, Touchstone, 1994, p. 225
3. For dramatic confirmation of the strange blur between straight and gay, see On the Down Low -(J.L. King, Harlem Moon, 2005). This book by a black man exposes the fact that the primary way black women in the US get AIDS is through intercourse with “straight” husbands who are having sex with other men secretly (or “on the down low”). These guys don’t think of themselves as gay. And they don’t want you to think of them as gay either. Or bisexual. They are straight men who have sex with other straight men. (Whatever!)
4. So far as I can tell, Booth’s characterization of Hookie is unique in his body of work. Nowhere else does Booth look, talk, walk, or act like this. That Hookie is not just James Booth playing himself makes him all the more admirable as an example of the actor’s art, but it also means that Hookie’s many fans are inevitably disappointed when they search through Booth’s work for similar characters and find none. (The only other example of body language that comes anywhere close to this feeling of carefree power occurs in Bruce Almighty when Jim Carrey has just been made God for a day.)
5. The final shooting script describes Bromhead as having a sweetheart back home. The final shooting script also suggests, ever so indirectly, that Bromhead might actually prefer guys. Prompted by Chard’s musings about Miss Witt’s probable lack of sexual experience, Bromhead refuses to speculate: “You might be the better man…there.” (See Hall, , Zulu: With Some Guts Behind It p. 101) Neither element figures in the extant film, which presents Bromhead quite sexlessly.
6. Reynolds’s ironical remark is an example of the poetic device of synecdoche, which uses a part of something to stand for the whole (or vice versa). The “fine, handsome” quality Reynolds attributes to Hookie’s boil properly belongs to Hookie himself.
7. It’s all nonsense, of course—the real Hook conducted himself admirably in the army and never to anybody’s knowledge had to endure such a punishment. Nor is there any evidence of a love-hate relationship with Sgt. Maxfield. The gratuitous introduction of these elements endows the scene with a double meaning, innocent on the surface but titillatingly suggestive underneath.
8. Obviously this is a big improvement. Packing his duffle bag? How dorky is that?
9. Hall said that in private conversation, not in print.
10. Hall, Zulu: With Some Guts Behind It, p. 84
11. Hall, Zulu: With Some Guts Behind It, p. 57.
12. As mentioned above, Chard impugns Bromhead’s experience with women and Bromhead acknowledges Chard may be his superior in that department! But Bromhead was also given a girlfriend back in England (Hall, p. 99), which Chard was not (Hall, p. 93).
13. For a long time—the first few dozen viewings—I didn’t see it either, on any conscious level, although I felt the film to be sexy. But once I did see it, it seemed really obvious, like the hidden face in a picture puzzle or the answer to a riddle.
14. See http://jamesbooth.org/exclusive_email_interview_with_j.htm
TO COMMENT ON THIS ARTICLE, WRITE TO: CINEMARETRO@HOTMAIL.COM
Diana Blackwell is a freelance critic.She runs the world's only James Booth fansite: www.jamesbooth.org. Her reviews and features have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Women's Review of Books,Trouser Press,Matter, Nit & Wit,Vegetarian Times,The Animals'Agenda, and many others.