Movie Review: Zulu

zuluby Steve Lancaster10/22/16
I have to admit that this is one of my favorite movies. The only thing better would be the opportunity to talk with Chard, or Bromhead. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift takes place in Natal province, Zululand, of South Africa in January of 1879. The site is a missionary station operated by father and daughter missionaries, the Witt’s, played by Jack Hawkins and Uila Jacobsson. Can you imagine any English action movie without Jack Hawkins? The movie begins with the Witt’s at the compound of the Zulu Chief Cetewayo, played by his grandson, Chief Buthelezi, during a wedding celebration of several hundred warriors. Zulu tradition handed down from Shaka required warriors to not marry until they had proved themselves in battle.

As the wedding progresses Margareta Witt says to her father, “isn’t it terrible all these young girls married to old men?” to which her father replies, “In Europe young girls are married to rich old men, perhaps the Zulu girls are luckier, getting a brave man.” The wedding is interrupted by a messenger from Isandlwana; a British force of 1500 is wiped out by Zulu’s attacking in mass waves a force of about 25,000.  The Witt’s leave the compound and return to Rorke’s Drift. It is here that we are introduced to the main characters. Lt John Chard of the Royal Engineers who has been sent to build a bridge, and Lt. Gonville Bromhead 24th Regiment of Foot, played by Stanley Baker and Michael Caine (his first starring role).

The movie is faithful to the Zulu’s and the English portraying both as an honorable people. There is none of the standard great white men’s burden nonsense, nor is there the adoration of a non-western nation that is so evident today. Both sides demonstrate their virtues and their faults.

As fate would have it, Chard is the senior officer he and Bromhead cooperate, and in the movie it is Bromhead that grows to understand that real war is not about moving men around on a map but real men on both sides die in combat, a truth that armchair generals seldom learn. The battle is generally faithful to history. The English build and defend a secure area in which they can concentrate their firepower. On the other hand, the Zulu’s attempt to overwhelm the defenses with their superior numbers.

The movie makes the point that both sides fight with honor in their own fashion. The final scenes have the Zulu’s singing before the final charge and the British responding with the regimental song, Men of Harlech.

This in not the version from the movie, but I think it better conveys the spirt of the Men of Harlech. The final scene is the Zulu’s retreating as a relief force approaches again the Zulu’s sing in tribute to fellow warriors. It is wonderful cinema, unfortunately it never happened.

However, the battle is notable for the lessons to be learned. Technological advantage is only successful when used as intended. At Isandlwana the British did not lager up and concentrate their firepower. The Zulu’s utilized large numbers and movement to get into British line and cut up the force in detail. At Rorke’s Drift the Zulu’s could not break the line and were defeated by the firepower of the Enfield rifles. There is good reason to suspect that Zulu causalities at   Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift were much higher as a wound from a 50 caliber rifle would take that person out of the battle. At best for Cetewayo Isandlwana was a pyrrhic victory.  At Rorke’s Drift eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded in a roughly company sized force, a ratio of about 10-1.

Much has been made of the battle, but the fact is Chard and Bromhead were outnumbered 40-1 and by the end of the battle the defenders had killed about 20-1 and survived. On this day in January 1879 the 120 men of Rorke’s Drift were the most dangerous men in the world. • (610 views)

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11 Responses to Movie Review: Zulu

  1. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I also like this movie.

    You should read H. Rider Haggard’s books. This battle as well as that at Isandlwana are mentioned in at least one of them. I have read so many of them, I can’t recall which.

    In Haggard’s books, Zulus are often men of character and sometimes heros.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Yes, the Zulus and their wars feature prominently in Haggard’s series of Alan Quatermain books. There is, I assume, a lot of history packed in there. And the Zulus were certainly given a sympathetic view in that they were treated as something other than just an old-movie stereotype (some of such old stereotypes…the sheer savageness of many African natives…are certainly true).

      My impression of the Zulus is that they made their name by being ruthless and hyper-aggressive warriors. Again, we run into this instance where European civilization improved the lives (and safety) of those who otherwise would have been fodder for the various tribal wars. “Apartheid” has to be seen in the context that there is a history of native savagery in that region. Forgive a few white people from thinking that some blacks in Africa could not productively govern themselves. (And reports I’ve read are that South Africa is a mess.)

      Alan Quatermain was respected, and generally given safe passage, by the various tribes in Africa, including the Zulus (unless they thought he planned to fight for a rival faction). Quatermain’s bravery and skill in battle were traits regarded highly by the Zulus and others. And his name (known as “Macumazahn” by the natives…”Watcher-by-Night”) gained a magical and mystical quality.

      I’ve pretty sure I’ve seen “Zulu” a couple of times. Alan Quatermain, more than a few times, is thrust into a Battle of Rorke’s Drift. Not to give too much away, but such a battle against tremendous odds is what finally brought him down and, presumably, back to his father, the Mendicant so revered by Quatermain’s trusted native companion and servant, Hans.

      I do think this series of books by Haggard would be appealing to those who like this film.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        One problem for many African tribes has been the witch-doctors who persuade them to make disastrous decisions. A large Xhosa group killed off their cattle in anticipation of some sort of major event (I don’t recall the details anymore), which of course didn’t happen. Rebellious tribesmen in German East Africa used ritual magic to convert German bullets to water — which didn’t work (complicated rituals are very convenient for witch doctors, who can always say that the ritual must have been performed incorrectly by the victims). The Simbas (Congo, 1964) had a similar ritual to make themselves invincible, which worked just as well as the others.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Ahh….central to the Quatermain stories is the Zulu witchdoctor, Zikali, who often uses Quatermain in his long-range goal to destroy the Zulu nation for the murder of his family and tribe.

          Zikali is presented in the novels as a real witchdoctor, although Quatermain is constantly explaining-away his apparent magic. Zikali at times is half mad, ever dangerous, and generally feared by all. But he and Quatermain have a sort of special relationship, if only one pre-woven by deep destiny.

          And, quite appropriate to what you are saying, a time or two (or three) he uses his prestige as a seer of the future to steer his enemies into destroying themselves.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    There’s a nice account of the movie in George Macdonald Fraser’s The Hollywood History of the World, in which I first learned that Chief Buthelezi played the Zulu king Cetewayo (or Cetshwayo, in Donald Morris’s The Washing of the Spears, the first major history of the war, which came out shortly after the movie). I’ve only seen it on TV, long after it first came out. (I’ve also seen the prequel, Zulu Dawn, which covers the beginning of the war and Isandhlwana. Zulu is much the better movie.)

    The movie errs on various little details, no doubt a reflection of the lack of a good history of the war before Morris’s account. (I believe I now have 3 different histories of it). But they do provide a very good account. Consider Private Hook’s performance in defending the hospital — tunneling his way through the walls while fighting off the Zulus who had gotten in, and thus saving those too sick to fight. No wonder he won one of the Victoria Crosses.

    The Zulus retreated when another attack probably would have succeeded (as the British acknowledge in the movie) because they weren’t supposed to be there to begin with. They were fighting to defend Zululand from invasion; the station at Rorke’s Drift was on the other side of the border. The heavy losses didn’t help, of course.

    Isandhlwana wasn’t the only Zulu victory; they won a couple of other battles as well. This may have encouraged the Transvaal Boers, who had defeated Shaka’s successor a few decades earlier, in their own successful revolt a few years later.

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      Tim,
      The Zulu’s who attacked Rorke’s Drift did not engage at Isandlwana. Cetewayo did not want to fight the British and win an offensive victory against a lesser force as this might encourage the British populace to support a larger invasion. I am not sure that strategy would have worked. However, Isandlwana could be argued to be defensive battle. The impie at Rorke’s Drift was acting outside of orders. I shudder to think of what happened to the commander when he returned to the King’s Kraal.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I don’t recall that last concern ever coming up in any of the histories I’ve read of the war. Considering they lost several hundred warriors (out of a total of about 40,000 armed Zulu, half of whom fought at Isandhlwana) on an attack that violated their orders, I can imagine the news wasn’t good for them.

  3. David Ray says:

    I’m certain the Enfield had been replaced by the Martini-Henry rifle. For what it’s worth that is the rifle you see in the movie.

    When that Teflon bitch takes the oath, you can write off your 1st & 2nd amendment rights, kiss off any portfolio, enjoy trash like Achmed Muhammed siccing lawyers on us while dining in the White House, get used to laws . . . more laws . . . being handed down from 5+ supreme court nominees, and apologize to every court appointed liberal for not writing that welfare check fast enough.

    So come Nov. 9, the only time you’ll ever see an Enfield or Martini-Henry will be in the movie Zulu of which 9 outta 10 actors will have voted for a confirmed felon.

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