ⓘ Zulu (1964 film)


ⓘ Zulu (1964 film)

Zulu is a 1964 British epic war film depicting the Battle of Rorkes Drift between the British Army and the Zulus in January 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War. It shows how 150 British soldiers, many of whom were sick and wounded patients in a field hospital, successfully held off a force of 4.000 Zulu warriors. The film is notable for showing the Zulu army as disciplined and governed by strategy.

The film was directed by American screenwriter Cy Endfield and produced by Stanley Baker and Endfield, with Joseph E. Levine as executive producer. The screenplay is by John Prebble and Endfield, based on an article by Prebble, a historical writer. The film stars Stanley Baker and introduces Michael Caine, in his first major role, with a supporting cast that includes Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson, James Booth, Nigel Green, Paul Daneman, Glynn Edwards, Ivor Emmanuel and Patrick Magee. Future South African political leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi played Zulu King Cetshwayo kaMpande, his great-grandfather. The opening and closing narration is spoken by Richard Burton.

The film was first shown on the 85th anniversary of the actual battle, 22 January 1964, at the Plaza Theatre in the West End of London. In 2017 a poll of 150 actors, directors, writers, producers and critics for Time Out magazine ranked it the 93rd best British film ever.


1. Plot

In 1879, a communique from Lord Chelmsford to the Secretary of State for War in London voice-over narration by Richard Burton details the crushing defeat of a British force at the hands of the Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana. In the aftermath of the battle, the victorious Zulus walk amongst the scattered bodies of dead British soldiers and gather their rifles. At a mass Zulu marriage ceremony witnessed by missionary Otto Witt Jack Hawkins and his daughter Ulla Jacobsson, Zulu King Cetewayo Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi is also informed of the great victory.

A company of the British Armys 24th Regiment of Foot is using the missionary station of Rorkes Drift in Natal as a supply depot and hospital for their invasion force across the border in Zululand. Receiving news of Isandhlwana from the Natal Native Contingent Commander Adendorff, who warns that an army of 4.000 Zulu warriors is advancing to the British position, Lieutenant John Chard Stanley Baker of the Royal Engineers assumes command of the small British detachment. Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead Michael Caine, an infantry officer, is rather put out to find himself subordinate to an engineer due to the latters slightly earlier commission. Realising that they cannot outrun the Zulu army with wounded soldiers, Chard decides to make a stand at the station, using wagons, sacks of mealie, and crates of ships biscuit to form a defensive perimeter. Witt becomes drunk and demoralises the men with his overtly dire predictions; the soldiers of the Natal Native Contingent desert. Chard orders Witt to be locked up in a supply room.

As the Zulu impis approach, a contingent of Boer horsemen arrives. They advise Chard that defending the station is hopeless. They retreat in haste, despite Chards desperate pleas for them to stay. The Zulu army approach and then charge. The British open fire, but Adendorff informs them that the Zulus are only testing the British firepower. Witt again predicts the soldiers inevitable fate, before being driven from the battle with his daughter. Chard is concerned that the northern perimeter wall is undermanned and realises that the attack will come from all sides. The defenders are surprised when the Zulu warriors open fire on the station with rifles taken from the British dead at Isandlwana.

Throughout the day and night, wave after wave of Zulu attackers are repelled. The Zulus succeed in setting fire to the hospital, leading to intense fighting between British patients and Zulu warriors as the former try to escape the flames. Private Henry Hook James Booth takes charge and leads the patients to safety.

The next morning, the Zulus approach to within several hundred yards and begin a war chant,as a sign of respect; the British respond by singing the Welsh song "Men of Harlech". In the final assault, just as it seems the Zulus will finally overwhelm the tired defenders, the British soldiers fall back to a small redoubt constructed out of mealie bags. With a reserve of soldiers hidden within the redoubt, they form into three ranks and fire volley after volley, inflicting heavy casualties; the Zulus retreat. After a pause of three hours, the Zulus re-form on the Oscarberg. Resigned to another assault, the British are astonished when the Zulus instead sing a song to honour the bravery of the defenders before departing.

The film ends with another narration by Richard Burton, listing the eleven defenders who received the Victoria Cross for the defence of Rorkes Drift, the most awarded to a regiment in a single action up to that time.


2. Cast

  • Peter Gill as Private 612 John Williams, a member of the company choir who is partnered with Private Hook in defending the hospital
  • Patrick Magee as Surgeon-Major James Henry Reynolds, the regimental doctor
  • Nigel Green as Colour sergeant Frank Bourne
  • Kerry Jordan as Louis Byrne, depicted in the film as a comedy relief company cook rather than an Acting Store Keeper
  • Richard Davies as Private 593 William Jones
  • Paul Daneman as Sergeant Robert Maxfield, Private Hooks sergeant
  • Jack Hawkins as Reverend Otto Witt, a Swedish missionary based at Rorkes Drift
  • Harvey Hall as Sick man
  • Dickie Owen as Corporal Christian Schiess, a hospitalised Swiss corporal in the Natal Native Contingent
  • Gary Bond as Private Cole
  • Ulla Jacobsson as Margareta Witt
  • Ivor Emmanuel as Private Owen, a Welsh baritone and head of the company choir. At the end, Owen leads the men in singing "Men of Harlech".
  • Denys Graham as Private 716 Robert Jones
  • James Booth as Private Henry Hook, described as "a thief, a coward, and an insubordinate barrack-room lawyer"
  • Glynn Edwards as Corporal William Allen, portrayed as a model soldier
  • Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi as King Cetshwayo, his real life maternal great-grandfather
  • David Kernan as Private Frederick Hitch
  • Dennis Folbigge as Commissary James Langley Dalton
  • Larry Taylor as Hughes
  • Neil McCarthy as Private Thomas, a former Welsh farmer who becomes friends with Private Owen
  • Michael Caine as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead
  • Stanley Baker as Lieutenant John Chard
  • Gert van den Bergh as Lieutenant Josef Adendorff, an Afrikaner officer serving with the Natal Native Contingent and a survivor of the battle at Isandhlwana

3. Production

Cy Endfield was inspired to make the film after reading an article on the Battle of Rorkes Drift by John Prebble. He took it to actor Stanley Baker with whom he had made several films and who was interested in moving into production. Endfield and Prebble drafted a script, which Baker then showed to Joseph E. Levine while making Sodom and Gomorrah 1962 in Italy. Levine agreed to fund the movie, which was produced by Bakers company, Diamond Films. It was shot using the Super Technirama 70 cinematographic process, and distributed by Paramount Pictures in all countries excluding the United States, where it was distributed by Embassy Pictures.

Most of Zulu was shot on location in South Africa. The mission depot at Rorkes Drift was recreated beneath the natural Amphitheatre in the Drakensberg Mountains considerably more precipitous than the real Rorkes Drift, which is little more than two small hills. The set for the British field hospital and supply depot at Rorkes Drift was created near the Tugela River with the Amphitheatre in the background. The real location of the battle was 100 kilometres 60 mi to the northwest, on the Buffalo River near the isolated hill at Isandhlwana.

Other scenes were filmed within the national parks of KwaZulu-Natal. Interiors and all the scenes starring James Booth were completed at Twickenham Film Studios in Middlesex, England. The majority of the Zulus were real Zulus. 240 Zulu extras were employed for the battle scenes, bused in from their tribal homes over 100 miles away. Around 1.000 additional tribesmen were filmed by the second unit in Zululand.

The film was compared by Baker to a Western movie, with the traditional roles of the United States Cavalry and Native Americans taken by the British and the Zulus respectively. Director Endfield showed a Western to Zulu extras to demonstrate the concept of film acting and how he wanted the warriors to conduct themselves. It has been rumoured that due to the apartheid laws in South Africa, none of the Zulu extras could be paid for their performance and that, consequently, Endfield circumvented this restriction by leaving them all the animals, primarily cattle, used in the film. This allegation is incorrect, as all of the Zulu extras were paid in full – the main body of extras were paid the equivalent of nine shillings per day each, additional extras eight shillings, and the female dancers slightly less.

Michael Caine, who at this early stage in his career was primarily playing bit parts, was originally up for the role of Private Henry Hook, which went to James Booth. According to Caine, he was extremely nervous during his screen test for the part of Bromhead, and director Cy Endfield told him that it was the worst screen test he had ever seen, but they were casting Caine in the part anyway because the production was leaving for South Africa shortly and they had not found anyone else for the role. Caine also believed that he was fortunate that the film was directed by an American Endfield, because "no English director wouldve cast me as an officer, I promise you, not one," due to his Cockney roots.

Caines performance in Zulu won him praise from reviewers, and his next film role would be as the star of The Ipcress File in which he was reunited with Nigel Green.

One technical problem the armorers and the director had to deal with concerned the rifles used during the filming. The company was unable to obtain enough Martini-Henry rifles to equip all of the extras, and had to fill in with No.1 Mark IV Enfields disguised with socket bayonets as used on the Martini-Henrys. In the scene at 1:37:30 where Chard orders a walking advance and volley fire by ranks, the cocking pieces can be seen moving forward as the men shoot, and one kneeling man can even be seen working the bolt on his rifle. Generally, in any scene shot from the soldiers left, the rifles being used are Enfields; in any scene shot from the right, Martini-Henrys.

The budget of the film has been the subject of some speculation. Press related figures of $3 million and even $3.5 million were mentioned upon the pictures American release. Joe Levine later revealed that Stanley Baker had approached him with a script and budget in 1962, just after the filming of Sodom and Gomorrah. Levine agreed to finance the picture up to $2 million. According to the records of the British completion bond company, Film Finance, Ltd., the production eventually finalized its budget at £666.554 approximately, $1.720.000. This included a contingency amount of £82.241, of which only £34.563 had been used by the time the picture had all but wrapped post-production Cost Report #15, 18 October 1963. This would have placed the near-final negative cost at £618.876 approximately $1.600.000.


4. Historical accuracy

The basic premises of the film are true and largely accurate, but is not a historical re-enactment of real events. The heavily outnumbered British successfully defended Rorkes Drift more or less as portrayed in the film. Writer Cy Endfield even consulted a Zulu tribal historian for information from Zulu oral tradition about the attack. There are, however, a number of historical inaccuracies in the film.


4.1. Historical accuracy The regiment

  • The song "Men of Harlech" features prominently as the regimental song; it did not become so until later. At the time of the battle, the regimental song was "The Warwickshire Lad". There was no "battlefield singing contest" between the British and the Zulus.
  • The 24th Regiment of Foot is described as a Welsh regiment: however, although it was based in Brecon in South Wales, its designation was the 24th The 2nd Warwickshire Regiment of Foot. It did not become the South Wales Borderers until 1881. Of the soldiers present, 49 were English, 32 Welsh, 16 Irish and 22 others of indeterminate nationality.

4.2. Historical accuracy The Witts

There are several inconsistencies with the historical record concerning the Swedish missionaries, the Witts. In the film, Witt is depicted as a middle-aged widower, a pacifist and drunkard, who has an adult daughter called Margareta. In reality, Otto Witt was aged 30 and had a wife, Elin, and two infant children. Witts family were 30 kilometres 19 mi away at the time of the battle. On the morning of the battle, Otto Witt, with the chaplain, George Smith and Surgeon-Major James Henry Reynolds had ascended Shiyane, the large hill near the station, and noticed the approach of the Zulu force across the Buffalo River. Far from being a pacifist, Witt had co-operated closely with the army and negotiated a lease to put Rorkes Drift at Lord Chelmsfords disposal. Witt made it clear that he did not oppose British intervention against Cetshwayo. He had stayed at Rorkes Drift because he wished "to take part in the defence of my own house and at the same time in the defence of an important place for the whole colony, yet my thoughts went to my wife and to my children, who were at a short distance from there, and did not know anything of what was going on". He therefore left on horseback to join his family shortly before the battle.


4.3. Historical accuracy The men of the regiment

  • Surgeon Reynolds: During the Battle of Rorkes Drift, Reynolds went around the barricades, distributing ammunition and tending to the wounded there, something that is not shown in the film. During the closing voiceover, he is also incorrectly referred to as "Surgeon-Major, Army Hospital Corps"; Reynolds was of the Army Medical Department, and was not promoted to the rank of Surgeon-Major until after the action at Rorkes Drift. The pacifism apparent in Magees portrayal is also somewhat anachronistic and not based on the historical Surgeon Reynolds.
  • The detachment of cavalry from "Durnfords Horse" who ride up to the mission station were members of the Natal Native Contingent, mainly composed of black riders rather than the local white farmers depicted in the film, who had survived the Battle of Isandlwana and had ridden to Rorkes Drift to warn and aid the garrison there. They were present during the opening action with the Zulus, but then rode off as they had very little ammunition for their cavalry carbines. Captain Stephenson is depicted at their head; in reality he was leading the NNC infantry, who had already deserted.
  • The uniforms of the Natal Native Contingent are inaccurate: NNC troops were not issued with European-style clothes. Only their European officers wore makeshift uniforms. The rank and file wore traditional tribal garb topped by a red rag worn around the forehead as correctly depicted in the prequel Zulu Dawn. The story of their desertion is true. However, as Witt had already left, he was not responsible for their departure. They left of their own accord, with Captain Stephenson and his European NCOs. These deserters were fired at as they left and one of their NCOs, Corporal Anderson, was killed. Stephenson was later convicted of desertion at a court-martial and dismissed from the army.
  • Private Henry Hook VC is depicted as a rogue with a penchant for alcohol; in fact he was a model soldier who later became a sergeant; he was also a teetotaller. While the film has him in the hospital "malingering, under arrest", he had actually been assigned there specifically to guard the building. The filmmakers felt that the story needed an anti-hero who redeems himself in the course of events, but the films presentation of Hook caused his daughters to walk out of the film premiere in disgust.
  • Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead: Chard had received his commission in February 1868, making Bromhead the junior officer and second-in-command at the Drift even though he was an infantryman and Chard was an engineer. In the film, it is stated that Bromhead received his commission only three months after Chard when, in fact, it was a full three years after Chard.
  • The role of Padre George Smith "Ammunition" Smith is completely ignored.
  • Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne 1854–1945 is depicted as a big, hardened, middle-aged veteran; in fact, he was of modest stature and, aged 24, the youngest colour sergeant in the British Army. He was called "The Kid" by his men. Colour Sergeant Bourne would not have worn medals on his duty uniform. Moreover, Greens costume has the chevrons on the wrong arm. After the battle Bourne was offered a commission but turned it down because he lacked the money necessary to serve as a commissioned officer; he did accept a commission in 1890. He was the last British survivor of the Battle and died as a full colonel.
  • Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess was only 22, significantly younger than the actor who portrayed him.
  • Conversely, Corporal William Allen is depicted as a model soldier; in real life he had recently been demoted from sergeant for drunkenness.


4.4. Historical accuracy The Zulus

The attack on the mission station was not ordered by King Cetshwayo, as the audience is led to believe in the film. Cetshwayo had specifically told his warriors not to invade Natal, the British Colony. The attack was led by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, the Kings half-brother, who pursued fleeing survivors at Isandlwana across the river and then moved on to attack Rorkes Drift. Although almost 20.000 rounds of ammunition were fired by the defenders, just under 400 Zulus were killed at Rorkes Drift. A similar number were left behind when the Zulus retreated, being too badly wounded to move. Comments from veterans many years after the event suggest the British killed many of these wounded men in the battles aftermath, raising the total number of Zulu deaths to over 700.


4.5. Historical accuracy Ending

At roughly 7:00 a.m., an Impi appeared prompting the British to man their positions again. No attack materialised, as the Zulus had been on the move for six days prior to the battle. In their ranks were hundreds of wounded, and moreover they were several days march from any supplies.

Around 8:00am, another force appeared, the defenders abandoned their breakfast and manned their positions again. The approaching troops were the vanguard of Lord Chelmsfords relief column.

The Zulus did not sing a song saluting fellow warriors, and departed at the approach of the British relief column. This inaccuracy has been praised for showing the Zulus in a positive light and for treating them and the British as equals, but it has also been criticised as undermining any anti-imperial message of the film.


5. Reception

On its initial release in 1964, it was one of the biggest box-office hits of all time in the British market. For the next 12 years it remained in constant cinema circulation before making its first appearance on television. It then went on to become a television perennial, and remains beloved by the British public.

Zulu received highly positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote that "if youre not too squeamish at the sight of slaughter and blood and can keep your mind fixed on the notion that there was something heroic and strong about British colonial expansion in the 19th century, you may find a great deal of excitement in this robustly Kiplingesque film. For certainly the fellows who made it, Cy Endfield and Stanley Baker, have done about as nifty a job of realizing on the formula as one could do." Variety praised the "intelligent screenplay" and "high allround standard of acting," concluding, "High grade technical qualities round off a classy production." Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post wrote that the film was "in the much-missed tradition of Beau Geste and Four Feathers. It has a restrained, leisurely tension, the heroics are splendidly stiff-upper-lip and such granite worthies as Stanley Baker and Jack Hawkins head the cast." Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker wrote that the film had "not only refurbished all the cliches of the genre but given them the sheen of high style. It has already been pointed out that Zulu is in poor taste. But so are such invaluable relics as G. A. Henty and Rider Haggard and Kipling." The Monthly Film Bulletin called Zulu "a typically fashionable war film, paying dutiful lip service to the futility of the slaughter while milking it for thrills. And the battle, which occupies the whole second half of the film, is unquestionably thrilling. But whenever there is a pause in the action the script plunges relentlessly into bathos, with feuding officers, comic other ranks, and all the other trappings of British War Film Mark I, which one had hoped were safely obsolete."

Rotten Tomatoes gives a score of 96% based on reviews from 23 critics.

Among more modern assessments, Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews gave the film four out of five stars, while Brazilian reviewer Pablo Villaça of Cinema em Cena Cinema Scene gave the film three stars out of five. Dennis Schwartz of Ozus Movie Reviews praised Caines performance, calling it "one of his most splendid hours on film" and graded the film A.

Although actual participants of the battle are named characters in the film, they bear little resemblance to historical accuracy. The most controversial portrayal is the one of Private Hook who is depicted as a thief and malingerer the real Hook was a model soldier and teetotaller. His elderly daughters were so disgusted with the Zulu character, they walked out of the London premiere in 1964. The fictional depiction has led to an ongoing campaign to have the historical reputation restored to the real Private Hook. The films producers admitted they chose Hook simply because "they wanted an anti-hero who would come good under pressure".

When released in Apartheid South Africa in 1964 the film was banned for black audiences as the government feared that its scenes of blacks killing whites might incite them to violence, apart from a few special screenings for its Zulu extras in Durban and some smaller Kwazulu towns.

By 2007 critics were divided over whether the movie should be seen as deeply anti-imperialist or as racist.


6. Presentation format

Zulu was filmed in Technirama and intended for presentation in Super Technirama 70, as shown on the prints. In the UK however, the only 70mm screening was a press show prior to release. While the vast majority of cinemas would have played the film in 35mm anyway, the Plazas West End screenings were of the 35mm anamorphic version as well rather than, as might have been expected, a 70mm print. This was due to the UKs film quota regulations, which demanded that cinemas showed 30% British films during the calendar year, but the regulations only applied to 35mm presentations. By 1964 the number of British films available to a cinema like the Plaza could be limited and Zulu gave them several weeks of British quota qualification if played in 35mm. In other countries the public did get to see the film in 70mm.


7. Awards and honours

Ernest Archer was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Colour Art Direction on the film. The magazine Total Film 2004 ranked Zulu the 37th greatest British movie of all time, and it was ranked eighth in the British television programme The 100 Greatest War Films. Empire magazine ranked Zulu 351st on their list of the 500 greatest films.


8. Home video releases

In the US, a LaserDisc release by The Criterion Collection retains the original stereophonic soundtrack taken from a 70mm print.

An official DVD release with a mono soundtrack as the original stereo tracks were not available was later issued by StudioCanal through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The film was released on Blu-ray in the UK in 2008; this version is region-free. On 22 January 2014, Twilight Time issued a limited-edition Blu-ray of Zulu in the US with John Barrys score as an isolated track; the release date being the 50th anniversary of the film and the 135th anniversary of the actual battle.


9. Merchandising

  • A comic book by Dell Comics was released to coincide with the film that features scenes and stills not in the completed film.
  • The choreographer Lionel Blair arranged a dance called the "Zulu Stamp" for Barrys instrumentals.
  • Conte toy soldiers and playsets decorated with artwork and stills from the film were produced.
  • A soundtrack album by John Barry featuring one side of the film score music and one side of "Zulu Stamp" was released on Ember Records in the UK and United Artists Records outside the Commonwealth.

10. In popular culture

  • The Battle of ORourkes Ford in S. M. Stirlings science fiction novel On the Oceans of Eternity is a recreation of the movie premise, right down to a malingering Private Hook.
  • In many interviews, Afrika Bambaataa has said that he chose the name "Zulu" based on inspiration from the 1964 film of the same name. What Afrika Bambaataa "saw in Zulu, were powerful images of Black solidarity." This would later inspire the name for his organisation, Universal Zulu Nation, in the 1970s.
  • The Battle of Helms Deep sequence in Peter Jacksons The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was filmed in a manner deliberately reminiscent of Zulu, according to Jacksons comments in supplemental material included in the special extended DVD edition of The Two Towers.
  • The Germanic war chant in the battle scene at the beginning of Ridley Scotts film Gladiator is the Zulu war chant from Zulu. In the video commentary, Scott said that Zulu is one of his favourite films.
  • Blood Bath at Orcs Drift is a 1985 campaign supplement for the Games Workshop Warhammer Fantasy Battle 2nd edition game, which pitted a small force of High Elves, Dwarfs, and Humans against an attacking army of Orcs. In 1997, Games Workshop again drew inspiration from Zulu for the Massacre at Big Toof River. In this event Praetorian Guards, a faction based directly on late-19th century colonial English forces, faced off against Orc attackers, filling the role of the Zulus.
  • Stanley Baker purchased John Chards Victoria Cross in 1972 believing it to be a replica. After Bakers death, it was sold to a collector at a low price but then found to be the genuine medal.