War Movie Mondays: ‘Zulu’

Zulu (1964) directed and co-written by Cy Endfield, is a film which follows in the tradition of such films like The Four Feathers, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and Gunga Din. It is the screen story of a small garrison of British soldiers who defend the mission station of Rorke’s Drift following the British defeat at the battle of Isandlwana on the afternoon of January 22, 1879. Stanley Baker (Lt. John Chard), Michael Caine in his first major role, (Lt. Gonville Bromhead), Jack Hawkins (Reverend Otto Witt), James Booth (Pvt. Henry Hook), Nigel Green (Colour Sgt. Frank Bourne), Patrick Magee (Surgeon-Maj. James Henry Reynolds), and Gert van den Bergh (Lt. Josef Adendorff) star as the defenders who thwart off numerous attacks by over 4,000 Zulu warriors.

Zulu is a fantastic film, shot in glorious Technirama 70mm. It is a film that shows the sweeping African landscape and was shot on actual battlefield locations. Lt. Chard (Baker) is a member of the Royal Engineers who is sent down from the colony to build a bridgehead across the Buffalo River for the invasion of Zululand. Lt. Bromhead (Caine) is the commanding officer of the 24th Regiment of foot (a primarily Welsh regiment), who learn that two Zulu “impis” (armies) are coming to Rorke’s Drift in an attempt to destroy it and to slaughter the British soldiers there.

Rorke’s Drift was used as a hospital facility and a staging area for the invasion into Zululand and would prove to be a second victory for the Zulus.

Fearing annihilation like Chelmsford’s army, Bromhead wishes to dispatch his troopers into the countryside to fight the Zulus in a guerrilla engagement. Lt. Chard takes command due to seniority and has Bromhead’s soldiers set up defenses and wait for the approaching Zulus. Reverend Witt (Hawkins) begins to drink heavily and starts to demoralize the troops telling them that they will all die if they stay at the mission.

He tries to commandeer wagons in order to evacuate the sick and wounded but Chard refuses by having the wagons used as barricades. Eventually Lt. Chard has Witt and his daughter sent away fearing they too will die if they stay there.

Adendorff (Bergh) is a Boer, a Dutch Afrikaner who is a survivor of Isandlwana. He educates both Chard and Bromhead as to the tactics of the Zulus and what they can expect from the thousands that are coming to destroy them. As the British troops wait, dozens of Zulus emerge from the tall grass of the plains and begin to bang their spears against their cow hind shields, chanting “Usuto” (kill).

In a charge against the British positions, the Zulu chiefs watching from the hills, begin to count the British guns with a sacrifice of a few dozen Zulu warriors who are quickly shot down by the British. The British soon realize that they are about to fight a twenty-four hour battle that will result in numerous attacks that consist of hand to hand fighting and European military formations of the 19th century such as “rank firing”.

As the morning of the second day approaches, the Zulus attempt one more charge against the British who have thwarted every attack made. The Zulus position themselves within a few hundred yards of the British redoubts and begin to sing in praise. The British counter with a version of “Men of Harlech.” After the attack, the British emerge victorious and believe the Zulus have fled. The British realize that several other thousand Zulus have positioned themselves on the hill tops and begin to sing once more.

Bromhead believes that they are taunting them but Adendoff laughs, telling Bromhead that the Zulus are “saluting fellow braves.” The Zulus then fall back into the distance and the battle ends. At the end of the film, narration from Richard Burton tells that 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift, the most awards ever given in a single engagement in British military history.

Zulu has all the elements of a sweeping old fashioned epic film which succeeds in every scene. When Surgeon Reynolds (Magee) is removing a bullet from a young trooper, the young man quickly rises up from the operating table asking “Why, why is it us”?, then dies from his wounds immediately. That is the line which best sums up the film and this battle in history.

These were men trapped in an overwhelming situation which was a fight or die scenario. It is as a friend of mine would put it, “Men getting the job done.” It is a film that as a history buff and war movie enthusiasts, that I love due to its direction and top notch acting from men such as Baker, Caine, Hawkins, and Green.

Zulu is available to own on DVD through MGM/UA and can be rented or streamlined through Netflix.

  • Sheldon Hall
    May 3, 2010 at 6:57 am

    Nice review, but a few correctionbs are in order! Though shot in South Africa, the film location was about a hundred miles away from the real battlefield(s). The eleven VCs were not a record for a single engagement; rather, the eight VCs given to soldiers of the 24th Foot (not then a primarily Welsh regiment, though the film gives that impression) were the most given to a single regiment for a single engagement. “Impi” means regiment, not army, and Cole’s dying line is simply a repeated “Why?” (he asks Bourne “Why is it us?” much earlier). The MGM/UA DVD is out of print; the film is now distributed worldwide by Paramount, which recently issued a Blu-ray edition.

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