Saturday, January 23, 2010

Movie: Zulu

Zulu is one of my personal Top Ten favourites. I first saw it as a youngster and have seen it many times since, never getting tired of re-viewings. It is superb and stirring Boy’s Own, the opposite of a chick flick. If, in trying to romance your WAGs, you have suggested staying in and watching a video, avoid this one. It will definitely not set the mood for romance.

The 1964 flick depicts the 1879 battle in South Africa between the 100 British soldiers defending the mission at Rorke’s Drift and the Zulus.

The film opens with the magnificent voice of Richard Burton reading a military communique that the previous day a massed attack by the Zulus at Isandhalwana had wiped out 1,200 British defenders.

The rest of the movie concerns the repeated attacks upon the mission at Rorke’s Drift by 4,000 Zulus and the gallant defence thereof by the 100 British soldiers. In the end the Zulus return in much larger numbers, but only to salute the bravery of the defenders. They then leave.

Eleven Victoria Crosses were won at Rorke’s Drift, the most in any engagement.


An examination of historical inaccuracies in the movie can be read at:

These include:

The British troops sing Men of Harlech in response to the Zulus chanting ,before the final attack.
This didn’t happen.

The soldiers wore sparkling white helmets.
They were brown, being deliberately stained by tea and coffee.

Chard has 3 months’ seniority over Bromhead.
Chard had 3 years seniority.

There was a dispute over command, resolved by seniority.
There was no dispute. Major Henry Spalding was in command and left to obtain reinforcements (his motives have been questioned). He placed Chard in command.

Chard is depicted as intelligent and capable.
Chard was widely regarded as inefficient and lazy.

Bromhead was intelligent and in charge prior to Chard's arrival.
Chard was popular with his men but lacked any meaningful experience, probably because of his partial deafness, not depicted. This is probably why he was selected to defend Rorke’s Drift, which was thought unlikely to be attacked.

Commisssary Dalton had a minor role in the engagement.
Dalton had retired in 1871 as a quartermaster sergeant after 22 years service, serving again after volunteering for commissary duty. He organised the building of the ramparts and the initial defence, with Chard and Bromhead obtaining advice form him when needed, hence the award of the Victoria Cross.

The Reverend Otto Witt is depicted as middle aged, a pacifist, a widower and a drunkard.
The real Otto Witt was aged 30 with a wife and two infant children. He was not a pacifist and assisted the military, putting the mission at their disposal. He stated later that whilst he would have liked to remain to assist, he rode away to look after his wife and children who were 30km away.

Bullet wounds in the Zulu warriors are shown as small neat holes.
Wounds from the Martini-Henry rifles would create massive wounds with much tissue damage.

Surgeon-Major Reynolds is shown as a middle aged man tending the wounded in the mission chapel.
In real life Surgeon-Major Reynolds was aged 35. He tended the wounded at the barricades and distributed ammunition to the soldiers at the barricades.

Private Henry Hook is shown as a malingerer and drunkard.
The real Private Hook was a teetotaller and admirable soldier who rose to the rank of sergeant. Hook was in the infirmary because he had been sent to guard it. His daughters walked out of the screening at the depiction of their father.

Corporal Allen is shown to be a model soldier.
Corporal Allen had recently been demoted from sergeant for drunkenness.

Colour Sergeant Bourne is shown as a hardened, tall, middle aged veteran.
Colour Sergeant Bourne was aged 23, the youngest colour sergeant in the army.

Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess is shown middle aged.
Corporal Schiess was aged 23 at the time of the battle.

The attack on Rorke’s Drift was ordered by Cetawayo.
In fact, Cetawayo had ordered that Natal, the British occupied area, not be invade. One of Cetawayo’s half brothers attacked survivors fleeing from the massacre at Isandalwhana and from there attacked Rorkes Drift to gain favour with Cetawayo.

The Zulus left after acknowledging the bravery of the British soldiers.
The Zulus left because a British relief column approached. There was no salute for bravery.

The Zulus nearly all died immediately when shot.
It has been speculated that Zulus were bayoneted, clubbed or shot in the aftermath of the battle, a common practice if a smaller force prevailed over a larger one in that they could not hold prisoners.

As a rollicking good yarn, it is top rate. As a record of historical fact, don’t rely upon it as being entirely accurate.

  •  Michael Caine’s first major film (the credits say “and introducing Michael Caine”).
  • The actor who played Private Hook, James Booth, is the father of Tony Blair’s wife Cherie.
  • Only 17 soldiers died at Rorke’s Drift.
  • Stanley Baker, who played Lieutenant Chard, produced the movie with his own funding.
  • From 1972 to his death in 1976, Baker owned a copy of the VC won by the real Lieutenant Chard. Just after Baker’s death it was discovered by tests that the VC was actually the original and not a copy.
  • The Zulus appearing in the movie had never seen a movie so a Gene Autry western was shown to them to explain what they needed to do and that they took the role of the Indians in this one.
  • The movie was filmed almost wholly in South Africa. Cast and crew were warned against fraternising with the Zulu women in that the penalty for interracial sex in those apartheid times was 7 years imprisonment.
  • Because of the strict apartheid laws, the Zulu extras were not allowed to be paid the same as the white extras. Director Cy Endfield overcame this by giving the livestock used on the film to the Zulus, much more valuable than the extra payments.
  • The 700+ Zulus used in the film are nearly all descendants of the Zulus who participated in the attack on Rorkes Drift. This includes the person portraying Cetywayo, who is a direct descendant of Cetywayo. He was picked for his resemblance and it was then learned that the real Cetyway was his great grandfather.
  • The movie was not allowed to be shown to the black population South Africa in case it incited them to revolt.
  • The defence at Rorke’s Drift kickstarted Chard’s career, who died 17 years later of cancer, with the rank of Colonel. Bromhead died 13 years after Rorkes Drift of typhoid, with the rank of major.
  • Colour Sergeant Bourne was actually only 23 years old during the defence of Rorke's Drift He was the last defender of the post to die, on 8th May 1945, at the age of 91. He was an honorary Lieutenant Colonel.  He haf chosen a promotion and increase in pay over a VC.
  • Ridley Scott, director of Gladiator, used the Zulu war chants from Zulu in Gladiator for the opening battle in Germania. See:
Featured Scene:

Zulu was bold in its day for showing nubile, young women with bare breasts, albeit in a National Geographic way.

Less bold is that the women were made to wear black briefs underneath the tasselly type loin coverings. You will see it in the featured scene below.

The featured scene contains little dialogue. It is the scene which appears early in the movie showing a mass wedding of young females to Zulu warriors, presided over by Cetywayo and watched by Reverend Witt and his daughter Margarethe.

It is featured for a number of reasons:

- The superb singing and blending of voices. Is it any wonder that Paul Simon explored the use of South African voices and melodies on his Graceland album.

- The sexual imagery and symbolism of male and female genitalia inherent in the miniature Zulu spear (assegai) and shield (ishlangu) carried by the women during the ceremony.

- The portrayal of the majesty of the Zulus, in 1964 in a country practising apartheid.

The scene can be viewed at:


There is a good website with biographies and pictures of the main Rorkes Drift participants at:

Some other clips featuring the great soundtrack of the movie and a compilation of movie images:

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