Thursday, February 12, 2015

HISTORY or HOLLYWOOD: Zulu (1964)


 
         "Zulu" is often mentioned when the most historically accurate war movie is discussed.  Let's see how it holds up to scrutiny.

1.       The Witts are visiting the village of Cetewayo and witness a mass marriage ceremony when word arrives about the Zulu victory at Isandhlwana.

2.       Chard is an engineer building a pont at Rorke’s Drift.

3.       Bromhead returns from a hunting trip and meets Chard for the first time.

4.       Word of the defeat at Isandhlwana arrives from a Boer named Adendorff.

5.       Rorke’s Drift is a supply depot/camp that is also the site of the Witts’ mission.

6.       Chard takes command because of his seniority of just two monthes.

7.       Witt claims Cetewayo is part of his parish and he wants to take the sick to safety.  Witt is an alcoholic.

8.       Adendorf describes the Zulu “buffalo horn” tactic.

9.       Bromhead suggests going into the hills and ambushing the Zulu.  Chard decides to defend the post by building walls out of mealy bags and wagons.

10.    A unit of Boer cavalry arrives, but refuses to stay and reinforce the garrison.

11.    Witt encourages the native troops to run away.  Chard arrests him and later sends him away.

12.    The Zulu sneak up and then stand clashing their spears on their shields.  They advance, but stop to take fire.  Adendorf explains that the Zulu leaders are determining the strength of the British garrison.  They then withdraw.  Adendorf estimates that there are 4,000 Zulu.

13.    A Zulu unit armed with rifles start firing from a ridge overlooking the camp.  It is implied that the Zulu are armed with Martini-Henrys taken at Isandhlwana.  The British return fire (including Chard with his pistol at 300 yards).

14.    The Zulu attack in waves.  Chard shifts men to hot spots.  Bromhead leads a reserve squad.  The fighting is bayonet to assegai.  Some of the Zulu break through the walls.

15.    Cpl. Schiess leaves the hospital to help and ends up saving Chard’s life.  Chard is wounded in the neck and is taken to the hospital where Surgeon-Major Reynolds is taking care of the wounded.

16.    The Zulu assault the hospital and set fire to the roof.  Bromhead climbs on the roof to fight.  The Zulu get into the hospital and the patients and soldiers cut holes in the walls to escape from room to room.

17.    Hooks is a malingerer, but becomes a hero in the defense of the hospital.

18.    At a crucial point in the battle, the cattle get loose from the kraal and blunt a Zulu attack.

19.    During the night, to the light of the burning hospital, the attacks continue.  The movie implies that the attacks are piecemeal and held off by gunfire.

20.    The next morning the two sides serenade each other.  The British sing “Men of Harlech”.

21.    The Zulu launch one last assault and the British retreat to the last wall.  Volleys end the attack.

22.    A calling of the roll leaves the impression that the percentage dead is high.

23.    The Zulu salute the British and then leave.

 

1.    The Witts are visiting the village of Cetewayo and witness a mass marriage ceremony when word arrives about the Zulu victory at Isandhlwana.  HOLLYWOOD  Otto Witt was a Swedish Lutheran pastor who had purchased Rorke’s Drift and established a mission.  His attempts to Christianize the Zulu’s on the other side of the border had been unsuccessful and he attributed this to the traditionalism of Cetewayo.  He actually favored the British invasion and would not have been a guest at a Zulu ritual on the eve of the battle.  Witt was at Rorke’s Drift the whole time and he had sent his family away.  He did not have an adult daughter.  The movie implies that when the King hears of the battle, he orders the attack on Rorke’s Drift.  Actually, Ceteswayo had given orders for the Zulu army to stay on its side of the border.

2.  Chard is an engineer building a pont at Rorke’s Drift.  HISTORY  Chard was assigned the task of constructing the pont and actually had been to the camp at Isandhlwana and returned the morning of the battle. 

3.  Bromhead returns from a hunting trip and meets Chard for the first time.  HOLLYWOOD  The two officers had met earlier and their relationship was not adversarial as depicted in the film.

4.  Word of the defeat at Isandhlwana arrives from a Boer named Adendorff.  HISTORY  Adendorf was one of several survivors who stopped at the camp and reported the disaster.  He was the only one to stay and was thus the only person to fight in both battles. 

5.  Rorke’s Drift is a supply depot/camp that is also the site of the Witts’ mission.  HISTORY

6.  Chard takes command because of his seniority of just two months.  HOLLYWOOD  Maj. Spalding         was in command and when he left to get reinforcements, he left Chard in command after checking who had seniority.  Chard was three years senior to Bromhead.

7.  Witt claims Cetewayo is part of his parish and he wants to take the sick to safety.  Witt is an alcoholic.   HOLLYWOOD  Witt left to go to his family after witnessing the Zulu army approaching from a hillside.  A Reverend Smith stayed for the battle.  He helped hand out ammunition and gave moral support.  There is no evidence Witt was an alcoholic.  

8.  Adendorf describes the Zulu “buffalo horn” tactic.  HISTORY  The Zulu’s are famous for using a tactic that involved double envelopment.  They did use this tactic at Isandhlwana, but the movie includes this scene to imply they used it at Rorke’s Drift when in reality it was mainly piecemeal frontal attacks.

9.  Bromhead suggests going into the hills and ambushing the Zulu.  Chard decides to defend the post by building walls out of mealy bags and wagons.  HISTYWOOD  Bromhead and Chard did consider evacuating the post, but it was Assistant Commissary Dalton who insisted that leaving in a column with the wounded would play into Zulu hands.  The British did construct walls out of mealie bags, biscuit boxes, and overturned wagons.  This process had already been started by Bromhead and Dalton by the time Chard returned from the pont.

10.  A unit of Boer cavalry arrives, but refuses to stay and reinforce the garrison.  HISTYWOOD  A unit of Durnford’s native cavalry (they would have been mostly black) did arrive and was posted forward, but they withdrew when the Zulu approached because they were low on ammunition and felt the situation was hopeless.  They were not led by Stephenson, he was the leader of the native infantry that runs away.

11.  Witt encourages the native troops to run away.  Chard arrests him and later sends him away.  HISTYWOOD  Witt had nothing to do with this incident.  They deserted soon after the cavalry left.  Two British officers (including Stephenson) went with them and one of them was shot in the back by a British soldier.  These soldiers would not have been in uniforms, by the way

12.  The Zulu sneak up and then stand clashing their spears on their shields.  They advance, but stop to take fire.  Adendorf explains that the Zulu leaders are determining the strength of the British garrison.  They then withdraw.  Adendorf estimates that there are 4,000 Zulu.  HOLLYWOOD  In the first attack, the Zulu did not attempt to surround the camp.  They came straight on and the British opened fire at 500 meters and the Zulu returned fire.  The Zulu were quiet.  They came on steady until about 50 meters out when they were enfiladed by volleys from wall by the storage building.   This blunted the attack and some of the Zulu regrouped and made a dash for the front of the hospital where some crossed the barricade and there was some bayonet to assegai contact.  This lasted only several minutes before the Zulu retreated to the brush.  Smaller attacks followed.  Adendorf’s estimate is a good one.

13.  A Zulu unit armed with rifles start firing from a ridge overlooking the camp.  It is implied that the Zulu are armed with Martini-Henrys taken at Isandhlwana.  The British return fire (including Chard with his pistol at 300 yards).  HISTYWOOD  The Zulu did fire from the hillside.  It was basically a nuisance due to the inaccuracy of the motley weapons the Zulu had.  They were not armed with captured Martini-Henrys.  The movie implies the Zulu were the army coming on after its success at Isandhlwana when actually the force was the Zulu reserve which had not tasted blood in that battle and wanted some glory of its own.

14.  The Zulu attack in waves.  Chard shifts men to hot spots.  Bromhead leads a reserve squad.  The fighting is bayonet to assegai.  Some of the Zulu break through the walls.  HISTYWOOD  The movie accurately reflects the intensity of the fighting, but exaggerates the number of bayonet and assegai wounds.  Most of the deaths were caused by bullets.  Eventually, Chard withdraws to the wall by the storage building abandoning the hospital.

15.  Cpl. Schiess leaves the hospital to help and ends up saving Chard’s life.  Chard is wounded in the neck and is taken to the hospital where Surgeon-Major Reynolds is taking care of the wounded.  HISTYWOOD  Schiess is one of the heroes of the battle.  He was in the hospital with blisters and was subsequently shot in the foot, but at one point he left the hospital to kill several Zulu who had approached the wall.  I found no evidence that he saved Chard’s life or that Chard was wounded and went to the hospital.  Reynolds did do great work with the wounded, but it is unlikely that he was not cynical as portrayed in the movie.  He even left the hospital area occasionally to deliver ammunition.  His fox terrier Dick was by his side throughout the fight. 

16.  The Zulu assault the hospital and set fire to the roof.  Bromhead climbs on the roof to fight.  The Zulu get into the hospital and the patients and soldiers cut holes in the walls to escape from room to room.  HISTORY  The Zulu did concentrate on the hospital and managed to capture it after several assaults.  Bromhead fighting on the roof is pure Hollywood, but the depiction of the chaotic fighting in the hospital is a strength of the movie.

17.  Hooks is a malingerer, but becomes a hero in the defense of the hospital.  HISTYWOOD  The character assassination of Hooks is the biggest canard in the movie.  He was actually a good soldier and a teetotaller.  He was assigned to help defend the hospital.  His family was incensed with his portrayal.  As far as his actions once the battle began, they are well done.  By the time Hook escaped from the building it was dark and Chard had withdrawn to the inner perimeter.

18.  At a crucial point in the battle, the cattle get loose from the kraal and blunt a Zulu attack.  HOLLYWOOD  The Zulu captured the kraal after several attempts, but I found no reference to patriotic cattle helping the Brits.

19.  During the night, to the light of the burning hospital, the attacks continue.  The movie implies that the attacks are piecemeal and held off by gunfire.  HISTORY  The movie downplays the numerous attacks during the night by the light of the burning hospital.  These assaults were held off by rifle fire.  The attacks died down after 2 A.M. and there were only desultory shots ceasing around 4 A.M.   

20.  The next morning the two sides serenade each other.  The British sing “Men of Harlech”.  HOLLYWOOD  Pure bull shit.  It was not even a Welsh regiment so they would not have sung that particular song.

21.  The Zulu launch one last assault and the British retreat to the last wall.  Volleys end the attack.  HOLLYWOOD  There was no fighting after 4 A.M.

22.  A calling of the roll leaves the impression that the percentage dead is high.  HOLLYWOOD  Out of 140 men, the British lost only 17 killed and 10 wounded.  The Zulu deaths were estimated at over 500. 

23.  The Zulu salute the British and then leave.  HISTYWOOD  A large force of Zulu (probably unrelated to the ones who participated in the battle) did appear on a hill and stayed for about an hour before moving on.  There was no equivalent of a salute.

RATING  =  .46
           I am aware that this rating will upset some people.  Many will be surprised that is much more inaccurate than "Zulu Dawn".  I am a fan of "Zulu" and think it is one of the great war movies, but too many people think that because it combines great entertainment with history that it is great history. It is not.  The treatment of Hooks alone eliminates it from any discussion of the most accurate war movie.  I did a lot of research on the battle, but  I am open to any corrections.

3 comments:

  1. It seems to be a convention in war movies that two strong personalities, like Bromhead and Chard, clash. You see the same thing with Travis and Bowie in John Wayne's version of The Alamo.

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  2. Good point. It certainly is a trope in submarine movies. In the case of "The Alamo", the relationship between Travis and Bowie was one of the few things the movie got right.

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  3. Very interesting analysis -- Thanks.

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Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.