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Zulu (Movie review)

Mike Bobbitt

Staff member
Directing Staff
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Movie Review

Plot Details: This review reveals major details about the movie‘s plot.

On January 22, 1879, the British Army suffered one of its greatest defeats. At the battle of Ishlandewana a force of 20,000 Zulus defeated and killed 800 Imperial soldiers and 400 native auxiliaries. In true British tradition, less than 48 hours later a few miles away they would win one of their greatest victories against the same opponents at Rorke‘s Drift.

At the battle of Ishlandewana, one wing of the Zulu army, approximately 4,000 strong was not seriously engaged. Denied the opportunity to "wash their spears," the Zulu phrase for killing an enemy in combat, their commanders disobeyed the orders of their King Cethawayo.

They crossed the border between Zulu Land and Natal Province a British colony. At the small mission station of Rorke‘s Drift on the Tugula river which was the border for the two territories they found their enemy.

The British column which had invaded Zulu Land, and which had just been destroyed, had established a supply depot and hospital at the mission station. The garrison, mostly from "B" Company 24th Regiment of Foot, South Wales Borders, was less than 120 men not including the sick and injured. Against 4,000 trained and disciplined warriors the outcome seemed a forgone conclusion.

After less than two days of fighting though, the garrison still held their ground, and the Zulus, having suffered more than 700 casualties retired. There is some discussion as to why the Zulus retired.

Some say their casualties caused them to become disheartened and retire. There are others who claim it was the fact they had disobeyed the orders of their King and crossed the border. Perhaps they were forced to withdraw because they feared an approaching British relief column.

Legend has it they could not continue to battle against warriors they consider as brave as they were and saluted them before retiring with honour. Eleven Victoria Crosses, the highest award for bravery in the British Empire, were awarded to the defenders of Rorke‘s Drift. That is the most ever awarded in a single engagement.

Cy Endfield‘s 1964 filmed account of the battle is a classic. The perfect epic movie. It is beautifully filmed, accurate in its presentation of the battle and well acted on all counts. The film was filmed on location in Zululand and the breathtaking scenery of the region shows well. Though perhaps not so on a small TV screen.

The gently rolling hills and the vast immensity of the veld are the perfect backdrop for this tale. The long range shots of the tiny mission serve to emphasize just how small and isolated this post was.

We also hear the Zulu army long before we see it. As one character describes it, the sounds of thousands of stamping feet are like that of a train. The analogy is not far wrong, as the army is an unstoppable force about to meet the proverbial unmovable object.

The opening sequence showing the aftermath of the battle field at Ishlandewana gives us an idea of the power and majesty of the Zulu nation. This is then reinforced by the next scene of a mass marriage of a Zulu regiment.

The battle sequences are extremely well done and serve to show the bravery inherent on both sides. The steady calm approach of the Zulus under the devastating fire brought on them by the British.

Again and again they are showing charging the ramparts without hesitation or fear under murderous rifle fire. The steady resolve of the British, actually Welsh for the most part, Infantry is shown too.

Firing and reloading as if robots, the result of their lengthy training and superb discipline. These "scum of the earth" demonstrate why there once was a British Empire. The savagery of the hand to hand combat, especially in the confines of the burning hospital are captured perfectly.

Perhaps the most powerful scene comes near the finale. The Zulus to boost their courage for one final charge and to intimidate their enemies commence to sing. In response the tired, bloody but unbeaten defenders also start to slowly sing an old Welsh hymn, "Men of Harloch."

The camera quickly shifts between the two groups. First thousands of warriors chanting in deep melodious voices and punctuating it by stamping their feet and rattling their Assegais against their cow hide shields are shown. Then it shifts to the small group of men behind makeshift barriers, their faces blackened with powder bums, most wounded with dirty, bloody bandages, softly singing through parched lips.

The camera cuts from one group to the other, as the scene builds in intensity. Finally it ends with the Zulus throwing themselves one final time at the British defenses and the final devastating volleys of rifle fire that end the battle.

Complimenting this visual feast is the fantastic music score. It is subtle through most of the movie, but at then it intensifies as to for shadow and compliment the drama unfolding before us.

The movie is a realistic portrayal of the actual events. Great attention to detail in regards costumes, weapons, tactics and personalities are evident.

Although most of the movie is told from the British viewpoint, the Zulus are not slighted. Their martial skill and bravery are well documented.

More than 700 Zulus, descendants of the actual warriors who took part in the battle were cast as extras. Nowadays a film maker would probably call the folks at Industrial Light and Magic to recreate the massed tribes through CGI rather than go to this expense. The then chief of the Zulu Nation Buthalezi even decided to portray his predecessor, Cethawayo.

Edenfield‘s, co producer Stanley Baker stars as Lieutenant John Chard, the engineer officer, who by a fluke found himself at Rorke‘s Drift. Then by virtue of seniority became the commander of the garrison. Baker does a credible role as the reluctant leader and hero.

A young Michael Caine in his first starring role portrays the commander of "B" Company, Lieutenant Bromhead. Caine turns in an excellent performance as the arrogant and inexperienced young officer who quickly learns both respect for his enemy and how inglorious war really is.

The cast is rounded out by superb performances by a score of character actors including Nigel Green and Jack Hawkins playing the various key players in the battle. Finally a narrative voice over is provided at the beginning and end of the movie by Richard Burton. The classically trained actor‘s rich voice serves to convey the importance of the event in British military history.