In Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember, just as the extent of the Titanic’s plight is becoming known to the ship at large, a group of young cabin boys are seen milling about, debating their course of action. When a chief steward happens by they pounce on him for advice, but spotting the smokes in their hands he only barks at them, “Put those cigarettes out at once! Don’t you know the rules yet? I’ll have you on the captain’s report!” Even as the boys’ angry faces show that the habit of servitude is nearing its end, they’re still startled enough to drop their smokes.
That scene came to mind a couple nights ago while I was watching—for the fourth or fifth time—Cy Endfield’s Zulu. (It’s still one of the best action pictures I know of.) Just before the warriors launch their first attack on the tiny British compound, the colour sergeant (a magnificent Nigel Green) spots one of his men with an open tunic and matter-of-factly orders him to button up. When the soldier reacts with incredulity—4,000 Zulus are, after all, about to drop into their laps—the sergeant lowers his voice and admonishes him in a whisper: “Do it up! Where do you think you are, man?”
All of the men in these two scenes believe they’re about to die, but where the chief steward is clearly a popinjay in thrall to the company book, Colour Sergeant Bourne’s order, though no less futile on its face, comes across as reassuring. (Indeed, the soldier does his tunic right up.) There’s nothing of the prig about Bourne; if asked why he’d care about a trifle at a time like that, he’d surely have something to offer beyond “I saw it in the manual”. What that thing might be—whether it’s presence of mind, psychological reinforcement or regimental pride—might well be alien to me, but it’s not simply an empty form.
Context. It wins every time.