In a series of illustrated articles, the author gives personal easy-to-read reviews of some of the most watchable films in Hollywood history
In 1879 the long reach of the British Empire had extended into South Africa, where the armies of Queen Victoria were attempting to establish law, order and 'civilisation' European style. Inevitably the settlers from other great nations as well as the native inhabitants of the region did not take too kindly to this, and so tensions throughout the region were beginning to escalate. In due course the clash of cultures would lead to the Boer Wars against the white Afrikaans of Dutch descent, but in 1879, there was a much more pressing concern. The British were encroaching on tribal lands, and the local tribe was hostile to this intrusion. Ultimately, war broke out with a succession of conflicts between the British redcoats, and the spear wielding natives. In this part of eastern South Africa, there were two actions above all others which would indelibly write the name of the local tribe into history as a synonym for ferocious resistance. The tribe were the Zulus, and the two actions were the Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. The first at Isandlwana became a monumental shock to the British Empire as a large contingent of the most powerful army in the world was annihilated by a native assault. Then, just a few hours later, a far smaller force of soldiers found themselves under a similar attack at the outpost of Rorke's Drift.
The film 'Zulu' relates the events of Rorke's Drift. It is a historical epic, the story of a heroic defence against seemingly impossible odds, and it is also the movie which introduced Michael Caine to the cinema audience in a starring role.
The section on 'THE HISTORY OF RORKE'S DRIFT' includes information relating to the outcome of the battle. The section on 'TRIVIA' reveals details of the fate of various of the leading characters. In other sections some inference may also be drawn regarding the outcome of the fighting.
All of my fiilm reviews can be accessed at the following page
- 100 of the Greatest Movies in History - A Greensleeves Page
What makes a great film? Everyone will have their own views, but perhaps the only defining quality is quality itself. This, however, is my list of 100 of the greatest films ever made. The list also includes links to all my film reviews.
WHAT'S THE STORY ?
The film begins with a brief reference to Isandlwana and the disastrous defeat of the British army here. Soon however attention shifts to the Zulu camp and a ceremony of singing and dancing (not in celebration of this battle, but rather in celebration of a mass group marriage between Zulu warriors and women). The festivities are being watched by the Swedish missionary Otto Witt and his daughter - guests of the chief, and intent on sowing seeds of trust between the cultures of white Europeans and black Africans. But the tribal festivities are soon interrupted by a messenger who brings news of Isandlwana. Witt realises that his efforts are doomed to failure and he says in shocked tones to his daughter:
- 'One thousand British soldiers have been massacred. While I stood here talking peace, a war has started'.
The pair then make a very hasty exit from the escalating war fever of the Zulu tribe.
Action then switches to the little outpost of Rorke's Drift, nothing more than a small stone hospital and some wooden horse carts, and a sandbag defensive wall. Two junior officers command the post - Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead - and despite a total absence of battle experience, they have to muster their meagre force and await the inevitable onslaught. John Chard, a Royal Engineer who only happens to be in the vicinity because he's been employed in building a bridge, takes overall command by virtue of having received his army commission just three months earlier than Bromhead in 1872.
And so the small band of officers, infantry and civilians under their command wait and prepare. It's only a matter of time before the Zulus arrive and the fighting starts, and the fighting - with brief respites - fills the whole of the rest of the movie.
SPECIAL FEATURE - THE HISTORY OF RORKE'S DRIFT
The Battle of Rorke's Drift was an engagement of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. It was, when one looks at the hard facts, a minor conflict in the war, but it is this battle which has entered into British military legend.
The war had begun when colonial forces came into conflict with the Zulu nation led by King Cetshwayo. There had been efforts to form a federation of colonies in the region involving the British, the Dutch Boer settlers, and also the local African tribes, but under British jurisdiction. A series of disputes and incidents occurred, as a result of territorial issues and a clash of cultures, and tensions escalated, though for a long while the boundaries between Zululand and colonial territory were largely respected. Eventually ultimatums were issued to Cetshwayo by the local High Commissioner (acting, it is believed, without authorisation from London) which would have meant the effective disbanding of the Zulu army, and the emaciation of Cetshwayo's powers. This was unacceptable, and it led to Cetshwayo gathering his armies to go to war against the British.
And the war started with ruthless brutal slaughter. On 22nd January 1879 a force of about 1800 troops had entered Zululand and camped at a site called Isandlwana, when they were set upon by 20,000 warriors. The British were ill-prepared, they were ill-served by some of their commanding officers, and they were in territory which could not be defended adequately. Despite better weaponry, their ammunition soon ran out, and they were overwhelmed. More than 1300 of the soldiers were killed - the biggest humiliation ever inflicted on the British by a native army. Fresh from their triumph, some 4000 of the Zulu warriors then converged on about 150 soldiers and civilians at a little nearby mission at a site named Rorke's Drift.
This place in the middle of the African wilderness was now to become the scene of an event in British history which bears comparison with one of the legendary events of American history. Rorke's Drift - like The Alamo - is the story of a tiny band of soldiers defending a remote outpost, without hope of reinforcement. Like the Alamo, Rorke's Drift is synonymous with courage and fortitude in the face of overwhelming odds. Thankfully however from a British point of view, this battle had a much happier outcome for the defenders.
After Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, the eventual outcome of the Zulu wars was perhaps inevitable. Isandlwana became the only significant success for the native warriors - untrained in the use of captured firearms and otherwise equipped only with spears. Within six months, resistance was effectively at an end, and the British were in full control. Yet the courage and ferocity of the warrior onslaughts in these and other battles, bestowed upon the Zulus a reputation which remains to this day.
THE VICTORIA CROSS
The Victoria Cross is the highest award for valour in the British Army. It was first introduced in 1856 and is traditionally made from the gun metal of Russian cannon captured during the Crimean war. The award of the crimson-purple ribboned Cross is a rare event, with just 13 bestowed upon Commonwealth soldiers in all the conflicts since World War Two, and yet 11 were awarded in a single day to a single army unit in 1879 - the largest ever to such a small force. This was for the soldiers involved in the defence of Rorke's Drift.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
THE FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR : Cy Endfield
WRITERS : John Prebble / Cy Endfield
YEAR OF RELEASE :1964
RUNNING TIME : 138 mins
GENRE : Historical Drama / War
GUIDENCE - Topless native dancing / Violence and many deaths
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS : None
As is seemingly inevitable with 'fact'-based historical dramas, truth isn't always allowed to stand in the way of a good story. So the precise events and the behaviour of some of the characters is not necessarily accurate (for example there is no evidence the real-life Private Hook was quite the hard-drinking rebel depicted).
However, 'Zulu' stays very close to the key facts, and all the leading characters are based on real people.
KEY CAST AND CHARACTERS
The stereotypical impression of British officers throughout the 19th century up to and including the First World War, was of an elitist bunch of rather arrogant upper classers, with plenty of self-confidence but with little common sense or respect for others. At the beginning of this film Lt Gonville Bromhead seems to fit the bill; he has a carefree rather smug attitude and a clearly dismissive approach to those of a different race. But soon the realities and brutalities of battle bring him down to Earth. He soon comes to realise that war is no game, and the fighting forces him to rapidly mature as a man. Michael Caine plays him in his first starring role, before turning to more working class characters in later films.
John Chard is a more serious minded individual at the start, yet still inexperienced in battle. Stanley Baker is excellent in the role - probably the highlight of his film career.
Jack Hawkins plays Otto Witt, the Swedish missionary, who we first see as a fairly rational man with a healthy respect for the culture and abilities of the Zulus. But trapped in a war situation with his life and his daughter's life in danger, and he begins to descend into a depressive state, fuelled by alcohol. It's an unglamorous role, but very memorable and quite a contrast to every other character in the movie.
A personal favourite character is Colour Sergeant Bourne - Bourne is a dignified, God-fearing sergeant who believes in military correctness and doing things 'the right way'. But he also has a clear compassion and a fondness for the men under his charge. In the same breath he seems able to treat an inexperienced and frightened private to a good dressing down, but also sees him as a young and vulnerable man with whom he feels some empathy. Nigel Green plays Bourne in arguably his best screen role.
Stanley Baker - Producer and Star of 'Zulu' - had a major role in the casting as well. From 1972 until his early death in 1976, Baker actually owned the VC which had been awarded to his real-life character John Chard, in the aftermath of the battle.
This was Michael Caine's first major film role. He originally auditioned for the lesser role of Private Henry Hook, but - fortunately - lost out to James Booth.
'Zulu' was largely shot on location in South Africa. Many of the Zulu extras had never seen a movie, so Stanley Baker organised a film show for them to show what movie making was all about. The racial situation in South Africa at the time led to all kinds of problems. Cast and crew had to be told to avoid too much socialising with the Zulu girls, for fear of infringing race laws, and black Africans were barred from viewing the film by the Government for fear that it might incite revolt against the white authorities. Also, pay rates for the Zulus were much lower - by law - than for white actors, and so Director Cy Endfield donated all the livestock used in the movie to the tribe at the end of filming - actually a more valuable gift, than if they had been paid the full fee for their services.
The Zulu King Cetshwayo was portrayed by the Chief of the Zulus, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. When apartheid ended, Buthelezi joined the new Government as Minister for Home Affairs, though was not a member of Nelson Mandela's ANC. He would also later sit on the opposition benches.
Both Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead sadly died young - Chard, who rose to the rank of Colonel died of cancer at 49, and Bromhead, who rose to the rank of Major, died of typhoid at 46. But Colour-Sergeant Bourne, who is played in the film by Nigel Green, and shown in the battle scene above, was actually much younger at the time of the battle than depicted. He was only 24, and he was to become the last of all the survivors to die at age 91 - remarkably on the day 'Victory in Europe' was declared at the end of World War Two.
The best moments in this movie are the battle scenes which are many and long, and also any scene which plays up the contrast between the small band of colonial soldiers and the army of native warriors.
There is one nice scene I would like to mention. The British defence includes a large contingent of Welsh soldiers, whose nation is renowned more than almost anything else for their operatic singing qualities. During a brief interlude in the fighting, the Zulus begin to voice a quite melodic, almost hymn-like song of war - harmonious yet curiously powerful because of the sheer size of the warrior choir singing it. And it clearly has a very disconcerting effect on the British. John Chard senses this and approaches Private Owen (played by Ivor Emmanuel - a noted singer in his own right). Owen is the lead of the Welsh soldiers' 'choir'.
- 'Do you think the Welsh can't do better than that Owen?'
And so the soldiers begin a rendition of 'Men of Harlech' one of the most stirring of all Welsh anthems, and for an all too brief while both sides are singing with gusto and pride. These black warriors and these white soldiers are not so different from each other after all. And I'm sure one of the intentions of the makers of the film is to demonstrate that both sides, however superficially different they may appear to be, are made up of the same kind of people - brave, disciplined, proud.
Then the Zulus begin to bang their spears against their shields and the next phase of the battle begins.
The early scene in which Otto Witt introduces his daughter to the delights of a mass Zulu marriage ceremony is quite interesting as Margareta Witt embodies all the prejudices and the fears of a Western girl unable to comprehend this alien culture. At times she looks on the dancing half-naked Zulus with distaste, and at times with terror in her eyes. One thing she cannot understand is the very concept of a mass marriage. Otto Witt explains that this is not perhaps such a bad idea:
- 'In Europe, young girls accept arranged marriages to rich men. Perhaps the Zulu girls are luckier - getting a brave man'.
At one point the soldiers hear a distant sound which they cannot quite make out. But it's a very ominous sound. The noise is that of thousands of stamping feet heralding the arrival of the warrior army. Lt Bromhead says:
- 'Damn funny - like a train - in the distance'.
And when the Zulus arrive, and fear begins to clutch at the defenders of Rorke's Drift, and some of the soldiers begin to feel so alone and isolated, Private Cole turns to Colour Sergeant Bourne and pleads:
- 'Why is it us? Why us?
- 'Because we're here, lad. Nobody else. Just us.' replies Sergeant Bourne.
It's just their bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT ?
The story itself is an evocative and inspiring tale of courage and defiance, whilst the interplay of the two central figures of John Chard and Gonville Bromhead - at first mistrustful of each other but later mutually respectful - makes for good dialogue and character development. The music too - a driving pounding soundtrack - perfectly compliments the action.
But it is the Zulus and their beautiful lands, and the contrast of the native hordes with the disciplined red-tuniced soldiers of the British army which really makes this movie. The film plays on both fears and respect for the Zulus. Therein, the film treads a difficult line. The attitudes of the past and particularly that of 19th century colonialists to black Africans was very very different from what is acceptable today, and the movie of 'Zulu' presented from a British perspective could easily have descended into just a clichéd tale of heroic civilised man defeating savage natives, much along the lines of some of the early Westerns in which the cavalry were always the 'good guys' and the Indians were the 'bad guys'.
'Zulu is presented from the perspective of the British soldiers, and I think we must concede that put in the position of the small contingent at Rorke's Drift, there would have been something immensely frightening about the Zulus - more so than with a more familiar foe. You can call it an inate primal fear of people who are different, or you can call it racism, but no doubt almost everything about this 'alien' culture - the chanting, the clashing of spears against cowhide shields, even the dancing as thousands of feet pound the ground in perfect unison - would have instilled terror into many hearts. And the director of 'Zulu' makes much of this with all these evocative sounds and with numerous shots of vast hordes of spear wielding natives emerging on the hilltops above Rorke's Drift with just a sandbag wall to hold them off.
However, even though the movie is filmed from the British viewpoint, Cy Endfield and his fellow writer John Prebble, ensure a clear contrast exists between the savagry of the warriors as perceived by the soldiers, and the courage, dignity and code of honour of the Zulu army, as perceived by the detached eye of the camera lens. Early in the film one warrior tries to restrain Otto Witt from leaving the Zulu camp and lays his hands on Margareta, but this show of disrespect by the warrior to the guests of Cetshwayo is met with swift retribution on the orders of the king. Then at the end of the film, respect shown by the Zulus for their adversaries (which may not have been reciprocated in other circumstances) brings the battle to an end without the need for continued excessive bloodshed.
'Zulu' is a great film which successfully treads a morally dangerous line - it applauds the stalwart bravery of the thin red line of soldiers without condemning their enemy who are merely intent on defending their homeland. I think both sides come out of this movie with credit, and that is also to the credit of the film's makers.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
'Zulu' is a film in the finest traditions of the historical war genre - very heroic characters, lots of tension, and lots of action. Set in a wonderful landscape, and with the added appeal that the battle scenes portray a real-life event, I trust all who watch this film will find themselves able to identify with the courageous defiance of a tiny force against seemingly overwhelming odds, but also perhaps with the courageous defence of their homeland by a proud native tribe. 'Zulu' is a critically acclaimed movie well worth watching from beginning to end.
SOME OF MY OTHER HISTORICAL AND WAR FILM REVIEWS
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the Moon
Russell Crowe is Captain Jack Aubrey in a tale of two dueling ships during the Napoleonic era. The Acheron is a tough, fast, state of the art French warship and more than a match for Aubrey's H.M.S Surprise. But Aubrey must find a way to defeat it
- The Blue Max
This is the story of a Bruno Stachel, a young but talented WW1 German pilot, and the film follows his progress as he hones his skills and notches his kills. But Bruno has a flaw - he is ruthlessly ambitious to win Germany's top honour - the Blue Max
- Eye of the Needle
Henry Faber is a heartless German agent who will stop at nothing to complete his mission .... until, that is, he meets Lucy - someone who finds his heart; someone he cannot despatch with his usual ruthless efficiency
- Enemy at the Gates
In 1942 the battle for Stalingrad is raging. The beleagured Russians are looking for heroes to inspire them, and deadly sniper Vassili Zaitsev fulfills that role. But German Major Koenig has one mission in life - to eliminate this Russian sniper
The last days of Adolf Hitler in his Berlin bunker at the end of World War Two, has been documented often in factual programmes. This film is the first serious movie by a German director to tackle this sensitive aspect of his country's history
PLEASE PROVIDE YOUR ASSESSMENT OF THIS FILM
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My other webpages include travel guides, and articles on science and astronomy, photography, and linguistics, as well as creative writing. They can be found at this link.
© 2012 Greensleeves Hubs
PLEASE ADD COMMENTS IF YOU WILL. THANKS, ALUN
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on April 16, 2017:
Louise Powles; Thanks Louise - one of my favourite war films, AND one of my favourite historical dramas. Cheers, Alun
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on April 09, 2017:
I've seen this film a few times. It's a good film.
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on July 15, 2015:
Cogerson; Thanks for that Bruce! One of the disappointing aspects of writing on a site like this is that one may get lots of views and comments for a week or two after publication, and then ... nothing! So it's especially nice to get comments several years after the page was written.
I see your new website has really developed to become a major resource for information about the films of leading actors and in different genres. I will pay a proper visit sometime to comment, and as soon as I can find the time, I will be updating my '100 of the Greatest Movies in History' webpage, and I'll include a link to your site Bruce. Alun
UltimateMovieRankings from Virginia on July 15, 2015:
Good to see your excellent Zulu hub getting some attention. My revisit was even better this time around.
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on July 15, 2015:
Robert Sacchi; I think you are right about Private Hook. Certainly the real Hook wasn't the rebellious drinker portrayed in the movie. I must admit that when films depict real history, I do like them to be as accurate as possible, particularly when depicting the character of people who are no longer alive to defend themselves.
Nonetheless, as you say, 'Zulu' is a great film. The basics of the story and the events are accurate, and the atmosphere of the small army under seige is beautifully portrayed. And the Zulus themselves are also sympathetically represented, considering that they are the 'enemy' in this movie.
Thanks very much for your comment Robert.
Robert Sacchi on July 14, 2015:
Zulu is a great film. Well acted with excellent action sequences. It is also interesting contrasting the film's depiction of the events and characters with the actual events and characters. For example I remember reading Private Hook was a model soldier who didn't drink.
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on March 17, 2013:
gnordt; Many thanks for your visit and comment. So glad you like this movie, and indeed that your children did too. It is a film which can appeal to most ages and tastes I believe - not just those who like war films, but anyone who likes a good story, well told. Glad you also like 'Shenandoah' and also 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'. That particular film isn't in my list of favourites, but it certainly wouldn't be far outside of it. Two great Westerns.
And speaking of great Westerns, I note with pleasure you've also read and commented on my review of 'The Big Country'. I promise I will also reply to that post as soon as I can. My thanks again. Alun.
gnordt on March 17, 2013:
Great movie. I agree with everything in your review. The scene you reference where the Welsh soldiers sing Men of Harlech just before the final battle, followed by the final battle, is something I could watch over and over. I showed this movie to my teenaged kids (a boy and a girl), who loved it. They also really liked another movie in your top 20, Shenandoah, which is a great movie. I havn't looked at your entire list yet, but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (along with The Searchers) are two movies that prove John Wayne really could act, and are great movies. I only mention them as one rainy weekend my then teenagers and I watched Zulu, Shenandoah and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on February 15, 2012:
Thanks so much Cogerson - that's a really generous and warm appreciation you've given. And touching too, for the reference to your father, and the pleasure that this film gave to him.
I think it's an easy film to enjoy, not least because the two opposing armies are so different. Sometimes in battle scenes involving modern camouflaged armies I find it hard to tell who's fighting on which side:-) It's also a film in which it's very easy to identify with the fear which must have been experienced by the British soldiers on seeing the great Zulu army for the first time.
Apparently Sergeant Bourne won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for 'outstanding coolness and courage' at Rorke's Drift, having been considered for the VC, and he went on to serve in other campaigns in India and Burma. He retired from the army in 1907 at age 53, but then re-inlisted at age 60 for the First World war! He then served as an officer at a military training school, eventually rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel by 1918, before retiring for the second time.
I haven't got blu-ray yet Cogerson - being technophobic, I'm usually about 20 years behind the times with these things,, but I would imagine this is one film which really benefits from it.
UltimateMovieRankings from Virginia on February 15, 2012:
Awesome awesome awesome hub. Zulu was one of my father's favorite movies, so I grew up always hearing my dad talk about this movie. Some many awesome facts in this hub and some many of them I was unaware of before reading this hub. I found it very interesting that Sgt. Bourne lasted until the end of World War 2....he must have had some interesting stories. Very cool that the producers gave the extras the livestock, and very interesting that Stanley Baker had the VC at the time of his death.
I just got the Blu-Ray for Christmas....and it is like watching the movie for the first time. My only regret is that my father is not around to read this hub as he would have found it even more enjoyable read than me...voted up and interesting.
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on February 03, 2012:
Thanks bethperry for visiting and commenting. I think you make a good point. It's a film which stands purely on the merit of a strong yet easy to follow storyline, great action sequences and memorable characters, and as such can appeal to anyone of any age.
Thanks also to B Leekley for your visit.
Beth Perry from Tennesee on February 03, 2012:
Greensleeves Hubs, OMG I remember this movie! When my brother and I were like 9 and ten we stayed up until about 3 in the morning to watch it. We were hoping for a Tarzan flick but the station preempted the scheduled Tarzan for Zulu. We watched it, MESMERIZED. That a historic film that is so realistic -and sans any silly visual effects- had such power over two kids I think tells how very good a movie it is. I got to watch it again when I was in my 20's and still loved it. Thanks for sharing the review!
Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on January 28, 2012:
Sounds like a good movie.
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on January 28, 2012:
Thanks again Derdriu for your visits to my pages and for those really wonderful comments.
This is one of those films which has appealed to me the more I have watched it, partly because I now know something of its historical context. But also because of the manner in which the film makers manage to portray the Zulu tribe both as a powerful, awe-inspiring and fear-inducing force, and yet also as a brave and proud nation willing to attack guns with hand held spears in the certain knowledge that many of their people will die.
Derdriu on January 28, 2012:
Alun, What an educational, entrancing, excellent review of a film from my movie-watching past! Your narration of the actions in the film as well as of historic events left me spellbound. You always manage to direct an economy of words to the calling forth of a swarm of images. Additionally, it’s inspirational how you cut through the strong emotions and respect the behaviors and intents on each side. In particular, I liked the recognition of the somewhat similar situation in the Alamo as well as the revelation about the “Men of Harlech” episode.
Both “Zulu” and “Zulu Dawn” are movies from my film-viewing past. So I look forward to your promised review of the latter.
Thank you for sharing yet another of your fine reviews, voted up + all,
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on January 25, 2012:
Thank you very much dilipchandra for visiting and for that nice comment.
If you do watch the film, I really hope you enjoy it.
Dilip Chandra from India on January 25, 2012:
Awesome review! very detail, am felling like watching the movies. Yes, i will get it and watch.
Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on January 25, 2012:
Thanks so much Steve for your visit and comments.
I actually agree about the roll call dialogue. The only reason I didn't include that among my favourite quotes, is because there's a few nice dryly humorous exchanges between Bourne and the soldiers and I think I might have ended up quoting the roll call in its entirity!
Maybe I should have at least included the roll call among 'Favourite Scenes' though, and I think I may have to amend that section accordingly.
Thanks again for commenting.
Steve Lensman from Manchester, England on January 25, 2012:
A very good, detailed review on one of my favourite films Greensleeves, I salute you!
I didn't know Bromhead and Chard died in their 40's, sad and Stanley Baker was in his 40's too when he died.
I watch Zulu every year, usually at Easter, and I have the film on blu-ray now, excellent picture and sound.
One of my favourite bits of dialogue is near the end during the roll call -
Sergeant Bourne: Hitch? ...Hitch I saw you, you're alive.
Private Hitch: I am? Oh thanks very much.
That always cracks me up. Nigel Green, so good in this film, everyone was.
Voted Up and Awesome.