Review of the Video “Zulu”


The 1964 motion picture “Zulu” tells the story from the defence of Rorke’s Drift by the tiny garrison of British troopers who had been assaulted by over four thousand Zulu warriors. The troopers kept the attackers at bay as the conflicts raged through the night of 22/23 Jan 1879. In the morning, the Zulus had stopped the assault.

The movie stars Stanley Baker as well as Michael Caine together with Richard Burton narrating and was a follow up to “Zulu Dawn”. That movie covered the story of the Battle of Isandlwana that took place earlier that day. The opening scenes start with the consequences of Isandlwana while Richard Burton narrates the telegram by Lord Chelmsford informing the government of the destruction of Isandlwana. Zulus are shown accumulating weapons belonging to the dead British soldiers.

At the time of the battle, Rorke’s Drift was a mission station looked after by Swedish missionary Otto Witt. While Lord Chelmsford guided the men over the Buffalo River and over into Zululand from Natal, a company in the 24th Regiment were left at the mission station that was used as a clinic and a supply depot by the British. The 2 officers were Lieutenant John Chard from the Royal Engineers played by Stanley Baker and Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead of the 24th performed by Michael Caine. This was Caine’s 1st starring role.

The movie shows Chard and a few troops building a bridge over the Buffalo River. Bromhead comes back from a hunting trip and the two chat briefly just before scouts arrive updating them of the catastrophe at Isandlwana. Chard is seen to assume overall command as he was commissioned just a few months earlier than Bromhead and whilst this is procedure, it irks Bromhead. They talk over their possible choices with Lieutenant Joseph Ardendorff from the Natal Native Contingent (NNC) who was just one of the very few survivors from Isandlwana. Ardendorff is played by Gert Van den Bergh. The Afrikanner describes the Zulu “Horns of the Buffalo” battle tactics. Bromhead thinks they should evacuate yet Chard makes a decision to stand and fight on ground of their choosing.

The Reverand Otto Witt and his adult daughter also are in the mission station and try to have the soldiers to flee so they can avert a fight. Witt persuaded troops with the NNC to abandon Rorke’s Drift. After all this, Chard instructs Witt and his daughter to leave the mission station in their carriage. At the same time, protective lines of mealie bags and wagons are now being positioned to improve the defences by connecting the store room and the hospital. This is completed under the watch of CSM Frank Bourne portrayed by Nigel Green.

As the Zulu warriors approached, Boer horsemen show up at Rorke’s Drift. Notwithstanding pleas from Chard, the Boers get away from the British garrison. Before long the attack begins with lines of Zulu warriors facing up to the British . The warriors are cut down by concentrated fire from the soldiers of the 24th and they in due course fall back. Following that, Zulu riflemen in the hills launch firing directly into the mission station and the British suffer their very first dead and injured.

The Zulus keep probing with their assaults and in the end get into the infirmary, setting fire to the roof in the process. Private Henry Hook, who has so far been portrayed as a good for nothing layabout, just takes charge of the situation inside the hospital and he assists with an escape of the sick by hacking through the walls of the hospital. The remaining soldiers escape the burning infirmary over to the final redoubt near the store house as the battles raged into the night.

By morning, the Zulus commenced a war cry ready for a last offensive. The troopers of the 24th reacted by singing “Men of Harlech”. The final offensive see the Zulu warriors charge into a hail of British bullets as three ranks of soldiers fire volley upon volley straight into the onrushing Zulu warriors. With such serious losses, the Zulus finally pull back. The British begin to regroup and CSM Bourne carries out a role call. The Zulus come back on the hills overlooking the mission station however as an alternative to attacking, they sing in salute of the “fellow warriors”.

The picture finishes with Richard Burton narrating. He reads out the names of the eleven men who were awarded the Victoria Cross for the defence of Rorke’s Drift. The men who won the VC were:

– Corporal William Wilson Allen

– Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead

– Lieutenant John Rouse Merriot Chard

– Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton

– Private Fredrick Hitch

– Private Alfred Henry Hook

– Private Robert Jones

– Private William Jones

– Surgeon Major James Henry Reynolds

– Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess

– Private John Williams

On top of that, five men were also awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal:

– Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne

– Private John William Roy

– Second Corporal Michael McMahon

– Second Corporal Francis Attwood

– Wheeler John Cantwell

As with most films based mostly on a true experience, there are plenty of discrepancies. A few are for artistic licence though others will be oversights for various other reasons.

The motion picture shows the 24th Regiment of Foot as a Welsh regiment. Although, it was not renamed the South Wales Borderers until 1881, two years after Rorke’s Drift. There was a significant number (approximately 25%) of men from Wales in B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot but the largest percentage were from England.

The Swedish missionary Otto Witt was shown in the picture that his daughter was an adult. Bear in mind, his 2 kids were both infants. Additionally he was not the pacifist the motion picture indicates and had made it clear he did not oppose the British involvement with Cetshawayo.

The British rifles were the Martini-Henry which discharged a sizeable .45 round. It was quite capable of causing enormous injury on the human body. In the film, the injuries on shot Zulu warriors are tiny. In one scene in the hospital, a warrior who was fighting hand to hand with Private Hook was shot in the back and Hook was uninjured. At such close range, the round from the Martini-Henry would have easily gone through the Zulu and killed Hook too.

These days, Rorke’s Drift is a tourist location for those who really want to learn more about the Anglo Zulu War of 1879.

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