Zulu, a film released in 1964 depicting the Battle of Roarke’s Drift that occurred on January 22nd and 23rd in 1879, is an iconic film for a number of reasons. It is one of the most realistic depiction of men at war, fighting for survival against overwhelming odds, ever made. Zulu was also the major film debut of Michael Cain, who plays one of the officers commanding the British garrison, Lt. Gronville Bromhead.
The Battle of Roark’s drift took place in the wake of the Battle of Isandlwana, which took place earlier in the day on the 22nd in which a Zulu Army consisting of 22,000 warriors carrying stabbing spears called assegais virtually wiped out a British column consisting of 1400 troops armed with rifles and artillery. Roarke’s Drift took place at a mission station near a natural ford (or drift) on the Buffalo River which at the time divided British and Zulu territory in South Africa.
The British garrison consisted 139 soldiers, many of them ill or otherwise incapacitated at the hospital located at the mission station. The Zulus attacked with 4000 warriors divided into three impis or regiments, which were highly disciplined. The Zulus, besides their assegais, were armed with a number of muzzle loading muskets which were inferior to the breaching loading Martini Henry rifle carried by the British.
The commander of the British garrison was Lt. John Chard, in the movie played by Stanley Baker. Chard, in the movie and in real life, was an officer in the Royal Engineers and was occupied with building a bridge across the Buffalo River to help support the British expedition. Baker’s Chard is depicted as a practical, profession soldier, just the sort one would want commanding a small garrison under overwhelming attack. Michael Caine’s Bromhead is depicted at first as being a proper, British aristocratic soldier, with impeccable manners and an even more impeccable accent (remarkable as Michael Caine was and is a cockney.) Caine’s Bromhead grows, though, in his baptism of fire and learns the bitter lesson that soldiering is not all fine uniforms, parade grounds, and lording it over the natives.
The third great actor in Zulu is Jack Hawkins, who plays the Reverend Otto Witt. Witt seems to be a semi fictional character, in the movie a missionary from Sweden. There was a real Otto Witt, but was a Boer (white South African of Dutch descent) who lived at the mission station. Hawkins’ Witt is a curious character, starting out as a strong character, but steadily being made to look ridiculous as the film progresses.
He urges Chard and Bromhead to evacuate the mission to avoid further bloodshed. There is no explanation of what would have happened to a slow moving caravan of wagons filled with wounded and sick men once caught in the open by Zulu impis. Once Witt is locked up by the British for making trouble, he gets hold of some medicinal liquor and becomes roaring drunk, completing his descent into absurdity. This was possibly meant to be some sort of comedy relief, but Hawkins was so distressed at how his character turned out that he refused to attend the opening of the film.
Zulu is blessed with a fine supporting cast. Standouts include James Booth as the ne’er do well Private Henry Hook, who winds up being one of the eleven men who win the Victoria Cross for their heroism in the Battle of Roark’s Drift. Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi plays his predecessor, Zulu Chief Cetshwayo kaMpande, who led the Zulu nation during the British invasion. Most of the Zulu extras were descended from Zulu warriors who fought the British.
The depictions of combat during the film are some of the most thrilling and terrifying ever depicted on film. Dogged and heroic, the Zulus assault the fortified mission station again and again during a ten hour period, only to be forced back again and again by the tiny British garrison with rifle fire and the bayonet. At the end of the film, one gets a sense of the utter exhaustion and something that must have gone beyond fear felt by the British soldiers in the Battle of Roark’s Drift. But one also cannot but admire the Zulus as well. They were, after all, defending their own country against invasion.
There are a number of scenes that have to be more cinematic than historical. One takes place late in the Battle of Roark’s Drift during which the Zulus deployed against the mission station and begin singing in their native language, obviously a kind of threat display before an attack. Most of the British soldiers, at least in the film, are Welshmen.
Though exhausted almost to the point of death, they respond with Men of Harlech, the iconic national song of Wales. “Men of Harlech stop your dreaming. Don’t you see their spear tips gleaming? See their warrior pennants streaming. Welshmen never yield!” The Zulus are warriors without peer, but no one on this Earth can out sing Welshmen.
The other scene too good for reality, but one that actually happened, takes place at the end of the film. Having driven off the Zulus, the British are collecting weapons and burying the dead. But then the Zulus suddenly reappear. The British are exhausted and have given everything they have. One last attack will likely finish them. But instead of attacking, the Zulus sing a praise song to “fellow braves”, honoring their heroism on the field of battle. It is a remarkable scene of the brotherhood of war, even reaching across the gulf of race, culture, and even language.
Zulu does not sugar coat war and it’s consequences. It is the story of a small group of men, all of whom dearly wish to be someone else, far away, who fight not just for honor or patriotism or even because they’ve been told. The British are fighting to live. The Zulus are fighting for their homeland. Both end the battle greater than they started it.