Zulu is a 1964 historical war film depicting the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British Army and the Zulus in January 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War.
The film was directed by blacklisted 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 Michael Caine, in his first starring 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.
A prequel, Zulu Dawn, about the Battle of Isandhlwana which immediately preceded the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, was released in 1979. It was also written by Cy Endfield, and starred Burt Lancaster and Peter O’Toole.
In 1879, a communiqué to the government in London, narrated by Richard Burton, details the crushing defeat of a British force at the hands of the Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana. 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 earlier in the day.
A company of the British Army’s 24th Regiment of Foot, depicted as a Welsh regiment, is using the missionary station of Rorke’s Drift in Natal as a supply depot and hospital for their invasion force across the border in Zululand. Upon receiving news of Isandhlwana from the Witts and that a large enemy force is advancing their way, Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker) of the Royal Engineers assumes command of the small British detachment, being senior to Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine), who, as an infantry officer, is rather put out to find himself subordinate to an engineer. Realising that they cannot outrun the Zulu army, especially with wounded soldiers, Chard decides to fortify the station and make a stand, using wagons, sacks of mealie, and crates of ship’s biscuit. When Witt becomes drunk and starts demoralising the men with his dire predictions, causing the soldiers of the Natal Native Contingent to desert, Chard orders him and his daughter to leave.
As the Zulu impis approach, a contingent of Boer horsemen arrives. They advise Chard that defending the station is hopeless before they flee, despite Chard’s desperate pleas for them to stay. Zulu riflemen open fire on the station from a neighbouring hill. Over the next few hours, wave after wave of Zulu attackers are repelled. The Zulus do 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. Malingering Private Henry Hook (James Booth) surprises everyone by taking charge in the successful breakout. Attacks continue into the night.
The next morning, at dawn, the Zulus approach to within several hundred yards and begin singing a war chant; the British respond by singing “Men of Harlech”. In the last assault, just as it seems the Zulus will finally overwhelm the tired defenders, the British soldiers fall back to a tiny redoubt that Chard had earlier ordered constructed out of mealie bags. With a reserve of soldiers hidden within the redoubt, they form into three ranks, and pour volley after volley into the stunned natives, who withdraw after sustaining heavy casualties. Later, the Zulus sing a song to honour the bravery of the defenders and leave.
The film ends with a narration by Richard Burton, listing the defenders who received the Victoria Cross, including Private Hook. Eleven were awarded for the actual fighting at Rorke’s Drift, the most ever for a regiment in a single battle in British military history.Hmmm……The highest number of Victoria Crosses ever awarded for a regiment in a single battle in British military history,they were Valiant as lions!