The true story of the defence of a missionary station and hospital called Rorke’s Drift, where 139 soldiers of the South Wales Border regiment held off 4,000 Zulu warriors during the Zulu War of 1879 – this is the stuff epics are made of.
On 22 January 1879, the British Army suffered one of its worst defeats when Zulu forces massacred 1500 of its troops at the Battle of Isandlwana. After the battle, a Zulu force of over 4,000 advanced on Rorke’s Drift. Zulu focusses on the ensuing 12-hour battle.
The battle scenes – which take up nearly half the movie – are superb and Michael Caine – in his first major screen role – is endearing (if not over-convincing) as upper-class twit Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead.
Stanley Baker, the Welsh Sean Connery, is an impressive study in big-sideburned machismo as Lt. John Chard of the Royal Engineers, in charge of the defence.
Burdened with dozens of wounded soldiers, the men at Rorke’s Drift cannot outrun the Zulus. Chard, therefore, decides to make a stand, using upended wagons and stacked mealie sacks and biscuit crates to improvise a defensive perimeter wall.
As the Zulu army approaches, a 100-man detachment of Boer cavalry arrives but soon ride off to safety, after advising Lt. Chard that defending the station is hopeless.
The Zulu army ﬁnally arrives on the scene and immediately attacks at multiple points. The British open ﬁre and kill scores of Zulu warriors, but Natal Native Contingent (NNC) commander Lt. Gert Adendorff (Gert van den Bergh) informs them that the Zulus are only testing the strength of British ﬁrepower.
Throughout the day and into the night, wave after wave of Zulus attack but are always repelled. The Zulus succeed in setting ﬁre to the hospital’s thatched roof, leading to intense hand-to-hand combat between British patients and encroaching Zulu warriors. Private Henry Hook (James Booth) takes charge and leads the other patients to safety.
The next morning, the Zulus approach Rorke’s Drift and begin singing a Zulu war chant from the top of the ridge. “They’ve got a good bass section but no decent tenors”, observes the troops’ Welsh choir leader, before leading his comrades in a rendition of Men of Harlech.
Another attack ensues and just as it seems the Zulus will ﬁnally over-power the exhausted defenders of Rorke’s Drift, the British soldiers fall back to a small inner redoubt with walls constructed from stacked mealie bags.
A reserve cadre of soldiers hidden within the redoubt form into three ranks and ﬁre volley after volley at their onrushing foe – while one rank kneels to reload, another behind it stands and ﬁres, and so on, in a devastating machine-like barrage that inﬂicts carnage, causing the Zulus to break off the ﬁght.
After a pause of three hours, the Zulus reorganise into yet another phalanx. Expecting another assault that will likely destroy them, the British are astonished when the Zulus instead sing a song to honour the bravery of the defenders before quitting the ﬁeld.
The ﬁlm ends with a solemn voice-over by Richard Burton, listing the 11 defenders who received the Victoria Cross for their courageous and resourceful defence of Rorke’s Drift.
Zulu was shot on location in the Royal Natal National Park, South Africa. Only 500 Zulus were available to work on the film, with 4,000 required for the battle scenes, so artificial figures were created.
Watch carefully as they gather on the hilltops and look out for the legless, pre-digital Zulu “extras”.
Zulu premiered at the Plaza Theatre at Piccadilly Circus in London on the 85th anniversary of the battle (22 January 1964). The movie received rave reviews and was one of the biggest box ofﬁce hits of all time in the UK (US box ofﬁce returns were solid but not as spectacular). Remarkably, Zulu remained in constant theatrical circulation in Britain for the next 12 years before making its ﬁrstappearance on television.
Lieutenant John Chard R.E.
Private Henry Hook
Surgeon James Reynolds
Corporal William Allen
Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead
Private 612 Williams
Private 593 William Jones
Private 716 William Jones
Corporal Friedrich Schiess, NNC
Lieutenant Adendorff, NNC
Gert Van Den Bergh
Acting Assistant Commissary Dalton
Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi