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Film Review - Zulu (1964)

In a series of illustrated articles, the author gives personal easy-to-read reviews of some of the most watchable films in Hollywood history

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INTRODUCTION

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.

PLOT SPOILERS

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.

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Michael Caine in his first starring role

Michael Caine in his first starring role

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.

The Defending army - the thin red line of the British soldiers at Rorke's Drift

The Defending army - the thin red line of the British soldiers at Rorke's Drift

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.