SYNOPSIS: "Zulu" is a British movie about the Battle of
Rorke's Drift. The battle took place
during the Anglo-Zulu War and was an Alamo-like last stand by a small British
unit. The unit withstands numerous
assaults by the much larger enemy force.
BACK-STORY: “Zulu” was
released in 1964 and was so successful that it not only resurrected the Battle
of Rorke’s Drift, but molded the modern image of it. Myth became reality in a way similar to John
Wayne’s “Alamo”. The film was a labor of
love for Stanley Baker. The movie was
directed by the blacklisted Cy Endfield.
After the House Unamerican Activities Committee branded him a communist,
he moved to England to continue his career.
The movie was filmed on location in South Africa. 700 blacks were used as extras. Many of them were descendants of the Zulu who
participated in the battle. So many had
never seen a movie that Endfield screened an old Gene Autrey film for them. Because of apartheid, they could not be paid
so Endfield let them keep the cattle.
1. In 1958, historical writer John Prebble wrote
an article about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift entitled “Slaughter in the
Sun”. An advertising executive Douglas
Rankin read the article and commissioned Prebble to write a screenplay. Cy Endfield was living in England and
interested in moving up from B movies and commercials. He approached Stanley Baker, who he had made
four movies with. Baker had started his
own production company to get independence from the studio system. Baker was thrilled with the heroic depiction
of Welsh soldiers in the battle. The
focus on the Welsh was exaggerated in the movie. Of the 122 defenders, only 32 were Welsh.
2. The soldier extras were portrayed by members
of the South African National Defense Force.
3. The Zulu king Certshwayo (credited as
Cetewayo in the film) was played by Prince Mangosuthu Butelezi, his great
4. Most of the Zulu actors had never seen a
movie, so a screen was set up and they were shown a Gene Autry western. This was appropriate because “Zulu” was akin
to a western. The warriors laughed when
they saw Autry singing while riding on his horse. According to legend the Zulu actors were paid
in cattle, but actually they were paid a wage.
The cattle may have been thrown in.
5. James Booth (who played Hook) never went to
South Africa. His scenes were all in the
hospital which was at a studio in England.
6. Jack Hawkins was paid the most in the
cast. He was upset with his characters
portrayal and with the fact that a lot of his work was cut.
7. Richard Burton did the narration for
free. He had been considered for Chard,
but his career was in a trough.
8. Michael Caine was passed over for Hook, but
he got the role in spite of a terrible screen test. Endfield chose him because he did not have
time to find anyone else.
9. The cast and crew were surprised by the
success and quality of the film. Most of
them were not aware how good the movie was until they saw it at the premiere.
10. The dancers in the dance scene were professional
dancers for Johannesburg nightclubs.
11. Hooks elderly daughters walked out of the
premiere because of the extremely inaccurate portrayal of him.
12. Because of apartheid, the Zulu actors could
not attend the premiere. The movie was
banned for black audiences due to the fear of the sight of white soldiers
slaughtering Zulus might incite violence.
13. It influenced Peter Jackson’s Battle of
Helm’s Deep in “Lord of the Rings: The
Belle and Blade = N/A
Video Hound =
War Movies =
Military History = #22
Channel 4 =
Film Site = yes
101 War Movies = yes
Rotten Tomatoes =
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The
Battle of Rorke’s Drift took place during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. The war was brought about because of British
desire to expand its South African colony into Zululand. They manufactured a threat from the Zulus as
their provocation and used it as justification for an invasion. King Cetshwayo wanted peace, but could not
meekly accept his own overthrow and annexation of his land. The movie does not explain the background to
the war possibly because the British did not want to mar the feel-good aspect of
such a sterling battle.
allusions to the Battle of Isandlwana are accurate. The British central invading column did get
wiped out by 20,000 Zulu warriors.
However, King Cetshwayo did not follow this up with the attack on
Rorke’s Drift as the movie implies. The
attack was the idea of his glory-seeking half-brother whose unit had not gotten
to Isandlwana in time to participate. In
fact, the King had forbidden his forces to go on the offensive into British
recreation of the hospital/supply depot is accurate. It was leased by the British government from
the missionary Witt, but his depiction is way off. The real Witt was married with two young
kids. He was not a pacifist, nor a
drunkard. He supported British
policies. The Zulu king was not a
parishioner of his. He was not drummed
out of the depot, but left voluntarily to see after his family. His is not the only mischaracterization. The most egregious is Hook. He was not the malingering malcontent
depicted in the film. He was actually a
solid soldier and a teetotaler. His
portrayal was so offensive that his daughters walked out on the premiere. Bourne was actually very young for a Colour
Sergeant and also slight in stature. The
doctor was not cynically anti-war and earned his VC by leaving the hospital to
tend the wounded on the front lines. Not
to mention the unit itself is misidentified.
In the movie it is identified as a Welsh regiment when in reality it was
not predominately Welsh.
of the incidents are close to reality.
The native levies did flee before the battle, but not because of the
rantings of Witt. They were actually led
out by their British officer who was subsequently court-martialed. The Boer cavalry that refuses to augment the
defense actually stayed for the early festivities, but left after its cavalry
carbine ammunition ran low. Chard was
actually appointed to command by the unit’s captain before he left. This was partly based on seniority, but he
was commissioned three years before Bromhead (not three months as the movie
says; Chard assumed command partly
because Bromhead was very hard of hearing and not the type to inspire a
desperate defense). They did not
disagree on strategy and Chard actually favored a withdrawal. It was Acting Assistant Commissary Dalton who
pointed out that a small column slowed by wounded would be easily caught and
Adendorf accurately describes the Zulu tactic described as “the horns of the
beast”, the movie does not depict them using this tactic. This might truly reflect the battle as the
attacks are best described as piecemeal.
The Zulu spear called an iklwa (the sound it made when being pulled out
of a wound) is authentic. It was a
variation of Shaka’s assegai. They also
carried the cow-hide shields shown in the film.
Unfortunately for realism, this force would not have had access to
looted British rifles to snipe with.
Like most Zulu units, they would have had an assortment of inferior
guns. Five of the seventeen British
deaths were from gunfire. The British
weaponry is accurate.
battle itself has some problems. There
is no evidence for the opening “cannon fodder as intelligence gathering”
gambit. The assaults were more
consistent and not as easily differentiated as in the film. The assault on the hospital, its defense led
by Hook, and its subsequent burning are pretty close. They did cut holes through the walls to go
from room to room. The last survivors
exited from a window, not out the back door.
Strangely, the movie foregoes the suspense of the consistent night attacks
which tapered off after midnight. They
ended around 2 A.M. and the subsequent gunfire was over by sunrise thus ending
the battle. There was no climactic
charge after dawn.
will not surprise that there was no sing-off.
Plus the song would not be the unit anthem for another two years. It goes without saying that the Zulus did not
salute the courage of the Europeans. As
far as why they withdrew, a final decisive assault was abandoned with the
approach of a relief force (“the cavalry was coming”). By the way, the movie leaves out the post
script of the British dispatching any wounded Zulu. On a similar note, the British actually lost
only 17 dead in the battle – the movie gives the impression it was quite a bit
OPINION: “Zulu” has many strong elements. The set is authentic and the scenery is
amazing. The movie was filmed in a
national park which, although hillier than the real locale, certainly added to
the visuals. The music by John Barry is
used sparingly, but effectively. Some
scenes have little or no background music.
A good example is the opening attack which is allowed to build without
music. The cinematography is
outstanding. It’s old school without the
modern pizazz, but you are in the thick of the fighting. The acting is excellent. Jack Hawkins chews the scenery a bit, but
everyone else controls himself like a proper British soldier would. Baker, Caine, Booth, and Green are standouts. The most remarkable performances are by the
Zulu extras. They are naturals. That Gene Autry movie must have really done
movie gets the small things right. The
soldier behavior is true to British 19th Century soldiers. Their dialogue is not forced or
cringe-worthy. The camaraderie is
evident. There are several friendships
that are highlighted. The soldiers’ bond
is apparent. There is not a lot of
humor, but then there is not a lot to laugh about. There is also very little whining. Hook is the only soldier who appears to be
avoiding combat. A bit unrealistic. The movie does not play up the chasm between
the upper class officers and the lower class enlisted which is often a theme in
movies about the British army of that time period.
character development is well done. The
movie does a good job of fleshing out all of the VC winners and several more
roles. Each man is distinct (although
name tags would have been nice). The
evolution of Chard from engineer building a bridge to combat leader is
instructive. There is a quiet moment
when he goes from trembling hand while reloading his revolver to
steadiness. Of course, the most
fascinating arc is that of Hook. It’s a
bit cliché, but it works. He could have
been a tedious character, but Booth does a good job making him a likeable
rogue. His swigging on the broken liquor
bottle before fleeing the burning hospital is another nice touch.
a movie about a battle, “Zulu” is one of the best. This is partly because it has few
frills. It concentrates almost totally
on the battle and the men who fought it.
The tactics are realistic although some of them have a textbook feel to
them. In reality, it is doubtful the
British used the variety the movie depicts.
That’s acceptable for entertainment purposes. The action is intense and edge of your
seat. The deaths are swift and not
melodramatic. There are no death
movie is not without flaws. I have
already expounded on the historical inaccuracies. One problem is the lack of background about
what brought on the war. The audience is
treated to a fair treatment of the Zulu.
They are not demonized as the Indians were in most Westerns and they are
shown as brave warriors, but it is not made clear that they were in the
right. We are manipulated to root for
the Europeans instead of the natives fighting for their lands and liberty. A related flaw is the lack of a Zulu
perspective. This is perplexing given
that the movie opens in their village with an interesting take on their
conclusion, the ranking of “Zulu” at #1
is a bit of a surprise. It is not a
great war movie (as some claim), but it is certainly very good and accomplishes
its mission effectively. I am little
uncomfortable with this. As a war movie
lover, I really enjoyed the movie. But
as a military history buff, I can see how the movie used a different medium to
do in the 1960s what the British government used the newspapers to do in the
1870s. Think about it – 11 Victoria
Cross winners! Assuming a Victoria Cross
is equivalent to the Medal of Honor, it should take extreme bravery to be awarded
one. Not taking away from the defenders,
but it would appear the British government was looking for a civilian morale
booster to soften the Isandlwana disaster.
The movie does a similar job in glamorizing the imperial days of
England. Unlike its most obvious
equivalent (Wayne’s “The Alamo”), the film does not recreate the myths, but
instead actually creates the myths.