The 50th anniversary of the film Zulu & the 135th of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift

When I was a child there were a number films that were always on television whenever there was a national holiday.  You could rely on them to appear like clockwork and these included The Great Escape, The Wizard of Oz,  James Bond and Zulu.  Thirty-five years on and not much as changed except for the perennial late-comers such as Gladiator and Harry Potter.

The film Zulu depicts the battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British and Zulus in January 1879 and the film was originally released on the 85th anniversary of the actual battle in 1964 which makes this great film 50 years old today and the battle 135 years ago today!

The film tells one of the two now iconic battles of the Anglo-Zulu war in 1879.  The first of these being the almost total massacre of the British at Isandlwana (which featured in the less successful Zulu Dawn film and which I will write about later this week) whilst Zulu depicts the events that occurred at Rorke’s Drift a few hours later.

Rorke's Drift Supply Post

Rorke’s Drift border post, a Missionary Station consisting mostly just a small hospital, chapel and store.

In short a large British force is wiped out leaving the Zulus open to attack a small force at a supply depot.  Deciding that if they retreat they would be all killed, instead they spend the few hours they have fortifying their depot and hospital with mealie (maize) bags.  The British had only just over 100 men and several of them were patients in the attached hospital suffering from diseases such as malaria and heat exhaustion.

Against them were over 4,000 Zulu warriors who had missed out on the carnage as Isandlwana and against the orders of their king attacked the British position.  The Zulu king was reluctant to attack partly because he feared attacking any defensive position but also to demonstrate his total innocence after the war.  He’d almost accepted he would lose and with the war being engineered by a handful of local officials in South Africa against the wishes of London, hoped that he would later be able to petition a favourable peace settlement.

The Zulus were largely a nation of farmers though they had a feared army which had conquered themselves a growing empire in their part of Africa over the preceding 150 years.   The fact they had just killed over 1200 troops equipped with rifles, cannons and rockets was the perfect demonstration of how capable they were.

Zulu Warriors

A photo of Zulu Warriors, contemporary with the Battle of Rorke’s Drift.

Though the Zulus did have some old guns with which they kept half of the British pinned down, they were largely ineffectual and the men had no training with how to use the modern rifles that had been looted in the earlier battle.   Mostly Zulus attacked in waves, armed primarily with their spears and clubs but with only cow-hide shields for protection which were zero protection against the British Martini-Henry rifles whose bullets could go through several bodies even at a distance of 1/4 mile.

Introducing Michael Caine

Zulu was the film that catapulted Michael Caine to stardom despite him fluffing his first scene due to all the attention as to whether he could pull off an Upper Class accent.

The Zulus attacked bravely and repeatedly, often covering hundreds of feet in the open in the face of constant rifle fire.  The British were holed up behind their mealie wall but barely had enough men to hold their lines and often the simple weight of numbers overpowered sections and threatened to level the very temporary wall.

From time to time the Zulus overwhelmed the thin red line and British casualties began to increase.  The cattle escaped and the hospital fell under attack, eventually being captured though most of the patients escaped before it burnt down.

Zulu Battle Scene

The Zulus overrun the defences and close in.

There was much fierce hand to hand combat.  Rifles of the time were only good at a distance, so soldiers were forced to use their bayonets, long blades of steel that attach to the end of rifles.  It was savage, blood-thirsty stuff and it went on all day and into the night.

With their ammunition almost expended and their nerves shattered and just about all the surviving soldiers wounded, often multiple times, the British had fought the Zulus to a standstill and with British reinforcements on the way, the Zulus vanished as quickly as they had arrived.

The final shoot-out

With their positions over-run, the British survivors fall back into a variation of the famous military square.

The are numerous accounts on both sides of the bravery of both their own and their opponents sides with wounded men feigning death to escape under the cover of darkness.  My favourite is of a Welshman who somehow found himself trapped in a building and hid himself in the fireplace and chimney, somehow disguising himself with soot from the coals.  The Zulus stormed in and occupied the building for several hours with fighting going on all around.  His ingenious thinking, a lot of courage and a huge amount of luck saved his life and luckily for him when he came out, he wasn’t shot on sight when he re-appeared to one of his colleagues.

The battle itself didn’t have a great impact on the war except perhaps stopping any possible invasion of the neighbouring white farmland.  What it did do was create the biggest number of Victorian Crosses for any regiment in any single battle ever, eleven in all.  There were 18 British and Colonial fatalities and at least 375 Zulus.  It is thought many more were severely injured and died in the following weeks and the burial teams were not in the mood to treat the badly wounded around the battlefield following the massacre of their friends a day earlier and due to some of the hospital patients beings dragged outside and disembowelled and mutilated  in sight of their comrades.

Colour Sergeant Bourne

Sergeant Majors were and still are the stars of the British Army. Tough, gruff and making sure the impossible is achieved. The legendary Colour Sergeant Bourne won but turned down a Victoria Cross and instead requested an officers rank. He went on to have a distinguished career and was the final soldier to die on VE Day 1945.

There are one or two things that have moved on since 1964 and lots of constants that haven’t.  Back in 1964, it wasn’t necessary to show both sides of the story in a film in equal degrees though the producers took great care to emphasise the bravery and intelligent tactics of the Zulus.

Surprisingly though, even in the Victorian period, there were many who thought imperialism wasn’t the best idea and certainly some of those taking place in the battle itself felt this way. One of the motivations of making the film was to give due honour to the brave Zulu men who fought against the conquest of their land though to the outside world it was certainly a one-man dictatorship whose slightest whim could have thousands killed.  As seen in the film, very few if any of the British soldiers actually wanted to be there in the first place.

There is little in the way of nationalist bravado and instead the film concentrates on the story and the bravery of those who fought there simply as was stated by a sergeant-major in the film “because we’re here lad and there’s nobody else”.  Right from the start, it is simply no-nonsense in approach.

Other things that have changed since 1964 include the ever more hectic and frenetic filming techniques in action and war films.  Some of the slaughter in Zulu is bad enough without CGI gore and the battle itself unfolds in a natural way that is always busy but never confusingly over the top.  There are no romantic subplots, melodrama or action heroes, just the war pretty much as it happened.

One thing that hasn’t changed is just how great a film Zulu is.  The Battle of Rorkes Drift is very much the British version of The Alamo (although much better a film)and this film single-handedly brought the almost forgotten war back into the public consciousness from where it has never faded.

The African scenery here is gorgeously shot and bright red uniforms and white helmets of the soldiers look so good they were used to demonstrate the improvements of DVD over video and Bluray over DVD in many electrical stores.

The music is stirring and the film is full of masterful actors including the introduction of a certain Michael Caine who was projected to stardom on the back of the film.  Michael Caine plays Bromhead the aristocratic officer who is irked by the more practical and working-middle class engineering officer who just about has seniority over him and takes command.  The intelligence of the engineer coming up with the defences out of nothing but sacks of grain and over-turned carts shows the worth of brain over brawn and by the end of the battle both have proved equally able to each other and us, the audience.

If Zulu had simply been a film showing Western superiority over savages like many other films involving Africans or Native Americans then it would no longer be the film it still is.  Instead the Zulus are portrayed as brave, intelligent and heroic with the British simply fighting for survival against the odds.

The reasons for this go back to the war itself.  Both sides fought tremendously bravely and despite the cultural differences both sets of men quickly began to admire and honour their opponents.  Unlikely as it was, a bond was created between the two so that even now this relatively small war is remembered in Britain more than almost any other and the Zulu people hold a special place whereas the Zulus have numerous accounts of their foes that fought light lions.

It was because of this feeling that the film was made in the first place with one of the production team having read one of the many excellent and sometimes chilling diaries written by the soldiers involved.  The film-makers wanted to capture the spirit and bravery of the battle.

At first, many of the Zulu actors were rather half-hearted about the film as they thought the producers were poking fun at them.  Soon it was realised that they had never seen television or a movie before and so they were shown one and after that they threw themselves into the role realising it was a great way to show the world how brave their grandparents had been.

The End

“In the hundred years since the Victoria Cross was created for valour and extreme courage beyond that normally expected of a British soldier in the face of the enemy, only 1,344 have been awarded, 11 of these were won by the defenders of the mission station at Rorke’s Drift, Natal, January 22nd to the 23rd 1879”

The British actors had been told that mixed-race relations were forbidden and if any actor had been found in bed with a Zulu woman then he would be flogged.  Stanley Baker, the lead actor of the film who portrayed Lt. Charde asked whether the flogging and bedroom activities could not be combined at the same time but that didn’t go down well with the local police!

Due to apartheid, it was forbidden to pay the Zulu actors so many of them were given fine watches or cattle instead.

The film is largely though not entirely accurate.  Many of the actors are more dashing than the bearded and sometimes eldery men who fought in real life.  Private Hooke, won a Victoria Cross and was in no-way an alcoholic as was shown for dramatic reasons.  The Zulus didn’t return the next day to sing with the British survivors like they did in the film though I can say from the Zulu friends I had at Uni, they do indeed have excellent singing voices.

Zulu has influenced many other films as well as interest in the Zulu Wars and Zulu history in general.  It has been referenced in dozens of films and the opening battle off Gladiator contains Zulu chants from the film whilst at the other end of the scale the alien attack in Starship Troopers is a clearly inspired by the film.

There aren’t many 50 year old films that can still be shown on prime-time television but Zulu is one of them.  It is one of the highest ranking British films of all time and simply one of the best war-films too.  I’ve watched this film hundreds of times, it partly inspired me to study African history and politics and even now, knowing all that I do about it, the film is still totally thrilling.   If that isn’t a big enough endorsement then consider that the great grandson of the Zulu king in the film, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, appeared as his own regal ancestor.

Hospital Fire

Rather than out of the frying pan into the fire, more out of the fire and into the Zulus

Memorable Movie Quotes from Zulu.

Lieutenant John Chard: The army doesn’t like more than one disaster in a day.

Bromhead: Looks bad in the newspapers and upsets civilians at their breakfast.

Colour Sergeant Bourne: It’s a miracle.

Lieutenant John Chard: If it’s a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it’s a short chamber Boxer Henry point 45 caliber miracle.

Colour Sergeant Bourne: And a bayonet, sir, with some guts behind.

Bromhead: You mean your only plan is to stand behind a few feet of mealie bags and wait for the attack?  If 1200 men couldn’t hold a defensive position this morning, what chance have we with 100?

Adendorff: Haven’t you had enough? Both of you! My god, can’t you see it’s all over! Your bloody egos don’t matter anymore. We’re dead!

Cpl. Frederic Schiess, NNC: I belong to Natal Mounted Police.

Pvt. William Jones: Is that true then? He’s a peeler, 716. Come to arrest the Zulus.

Pvt. William Jones: What’s he up to, 593?

Pte. Robert Jones: Oh, I think he wants to be hero, 716.

Cpl. Frederic Schiess, NNC: Haven’t you rednecks got names instead of numbers?

Pte. Robert Jones: ‘Tis a Welsh regiment, man! Though there are some foreigners from England in it , mind. I am Jones from Bwlchgwyn, he is Jones from Builth Wells, and there are four more Joneses in C Company! Confusing, isn’t it, Dutchy?

Lieutenant John Chard: Mr. Bourne, there should be 12 more men working on this redoubt.

Colour Sgt. Bourne: They’re very tired, sir.

Lieutenant John Chard: I don’t give a damn! And I want this wall nine feet high, firing steps on the inside. Form details to clear away the Zulu bodies, rebuild the south rampart, keep ’em moving! Do you understand?

Colour Sgt. Bourne: Yes sir… very good, sir.

Lieutenant John Chard: Well, you’ve fought your first action.

Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead: Does everyone feel like this afterwards?

Lieutenant John Chard: How do you feel?

Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead: Sick.

Lieutenant John Chard: Well, you have to feel alive to feel sick.

Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead: You asked me, I told you.


Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead: There’s something else. I feel ashamed. Was that how it was for you? The first time?

Lieutenant John Chard: The first time? You think I could stand this butcher’s yard more than once?

Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead: I didn’t know.

Lieutenant John Chard: I came up here to build a bridge.

Rorke's Drift

Rorke’s Drift as it is today which includes a B&B for history buffs!

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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4 Responses to The 50th anniversary of the film Zulu & the 135th of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift

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