by Steve Lancaster 10/22/16
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. • (698 views)