Report on the Motion Picture “Zulu”

The 1964 motion picture “Zulu” tells the tale from the defence of Rorke’s Drift by the little garrison of British troops who had been assaulted by at least 4,000 Zulus. The troops held out while the struggles raged in to the night of 22/23 January 1879. In the morning, the Zulus had brought an end to the assault.

The motion picture stars Stanley Baker coupled with Michael Caine with Richard Burton narrating and was a sequel to “Zulu Dawn”. That movie covered the storyline of the Battle of Isandlwana that happened earlier in the day. The initial clips start with the consequences of Isandlwana as Richard Burton narrates a telegram by Lord Chelmsford telling the government of the defeat of Isandlwana. Zulu warriors are seen collecting rifles belonging to the dead British troopers.

Before the battle, Rorke’s Drift was a mission station run by Swedish missionary Otto Witt. While Lord Chelmsford led the men across the Buffalo River and over into Zululand from Natal, a company in the 24th Regiment remained behind at the mission station that was being used as a clinic as well as a supply depot by the British. The two commanding officiers were Lieutenant John Chard from the Royal Engineers performed by Stanley Baker along side Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead of the 24th played by Michael Caine. It was Caine’s first starring role.

The movie shows Chard and some soldiers building a bridge over the Buffalo River. Bromhead returns following a hunting trip and the two exchange words before scouts arrive telling them of the catastrophe at Isandlwana. Chard is seen to assume overall command because he was commissioned just a few months ahead of Bromhead and despite the fact that this is standard operating procedure, it irks Bromhead. They take a look at their options with Lieutenant Joseph Ardendorff of the Natal Native Contingent (NNC) who had been one of the small number of survivors from Isandlwana. Ardendorff is portrayed by Gert Van den Bergh. The Afrikanner describes the Zulu “Horns of the Buffalo” battle tactics. Bromhead feels they must leave although Chard decides to stand and fight on ground of their choosing.

The Reverand Otto Witt and his adult daughter are also in the mission station and attempt to have the troops to flee so as to avoid a battle. Witt convinced troops with the NNC to desert Rorke’s Drift. At that point, Chard orders Witt and his daughter to leave the mission station in their buggy. In the meantime, protective lines of mealie sacks and wagons are being positioned to bolster the defences by joining the store room and the hospital. This is handled under the watch of CSM Frank Bourne played by Nigel Green.

As the Zulu warriors made their way to attack the garrison, Boer horsemen turn up at Rorke’s Drift. In spite of requests from Chard, they leave the British garrison. Not long after the assault begins with ranks of Zulus facing up with the British . The warriors are mown down by targeted fire from the troops of the 24th and they in due course fall back. Next, Zulu sharpshooters in the hillsides start up shooting straight into the mission station and the British suffer their very first deaths and injuries.

The Zulus continue probing with their attacks and inevitably get into the hospital, setting fire to the roof in the process. Private Henry Hook, who has thus far been portrayed as a good for nothing layabout, takes control of the situation inside the hospital as he assists with a breakout of the sick by digging through the walls of the infirmary. The survivors escape the burning hospital across to the final defensive position next to the store house as the conflicts continued into the night.

By morning, the Zulu warriors commenced a war chant in preparation for a last offensive. The men of the 24th responded by singing “Men of Harlech”. The last attack see the Zulus run into a hail of British bullets as three ranks of troops fire volley upon volley into the onrushing Zulu warriors. With such serious losses, the Zulus eventually pull back. The British start to regroup and CSM Bourne takes a role call. The Zulu warriors come back on the hills overlooking the mission station yet rather than attacking, they sing in praise of the “fellow warriors”.

The picture closes with Richard Burton narrating. He reads out the names of the 11 men who were awarded the Victoria Cross for the defence of Rorke’s Drift. The men who were awarded the Victoria Cross 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

In addition, 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 just about all films based mostly on a real experience, there are several discrepancies. A few are for artistic licence although others will be oversights for other factors.

The film depicts the 24th Regiment of Foot as a Welsh regiment. Although, it was not renamed the South Wales Borderers until eventually 1881, two years later than Rorke’s Drift. There had been a substantial number (roughly 25%) of men from Wales in B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot but the majority came from England.

The Swedish missionary Otto Witt was shown in the picture that his daughter was grown-up. However, his two children were both infants. On top of that he wasn’t the pacifist the motion picture indicates and had made it clear he didn’t oppose the British intervention with Cetshawayo.

The British rifles were the Martini-Henry which discharged a large .45 round. It was quite capable of causing huge damage on the human body. In the film, the wounds on shot Zulu warriors are small. In one scene in the infirmary, a warrior who was fighting hand to hand with Private Hook was shot in the back while Hook was unscathed. At such short range, the round from the Martini-Henry would have easily gone through the warrior and killed Hook too.

Now, Rorke’s Drift is a tourist location for people who would like to discover more about the Anglo Zulu War of 1879.

Rob Atherton