On the January 22nd 1879 the British Army suffers one of it's worst defeats when Zulu forces massacre 1,500 of its troops. A short time after the main battle a Zulu force numbering in excess of 4000 warriors advances on a British supply dump guarded by 139 Welsh infantrymen. The film concentrates on this bloody 12 hour battle.
The defence of Rorke's Drift is one of the most revered episodes in British military history. After the battle of 22-23 January 1879, 11 men received the Victoria Cross, the British Empire's highest award for gallantry — the largest number of VCs ever awarded for a single engagement. In brutal contrast, the war opened with one of the greatest disasters ever suffered by a British army, when a Zulu surprise attack massacred an expeditionary force of 4000 souls (more than half of whom were native levies) at Isandlwana.
The Battle Of Rork's Drift, the following day, came to symbolise redemption for Britain. Along with the charge of the Light Brigade and Dunkirk, Rorke's Drift is one of those terrible yet glorious moments that become enshrined in a nation's history. While the Isandlwana disaster is documented in the unloved Zulu prequel Zulu Dawn (1979), its precursor is seen as one of the greatest war films ever made. And rightly so. Zulu is a movie of blazing colour, spectacular Natal scenery, gut-wrenching action and superb performances, not least from Michael Caine, who is "introduced" here (presumably the 17 movies he'd previously appeared in didn't count).
Caine is brilliantly cast against type as the aristocratic Lieutenant Bromhead, while co-producer Stanley Baker takes the role of a lifetime as Lieutenant Chard who, despite being Bromhead's social inferior, assumes command of the outpost. Rebellious ranker Private Hook is memorably brought to life by James Booth, while Nigel Green's Colour Sergeant Bourne is a wonderfully understated portrait of the, "Ours is not to reason why" ethos. In the politically correct 90s the film fell from favour. The perceived spectacle of a tiny number of white imperialists triumphing over a barbarian horde of black savages was seen as implicitly racist. This could not be further from the truth. The Zulus are at all times depicted as resourceful and courageous, and the scenes in the royal kraal go some way to exploring Zulu society in all its complex vitality.
The only overtly racist remark, from Bromhead, is promptly pounced on by Adendorff, a Boer: "What the hell do you mean, 'cowardly blacks'? They died on your side, didn't they? And who do you think is coming to wipe out your little command? The Grenadier Guards?" The word Zulu has duly passed into the English language, coming to signify the noble, fearless warrior. "They can run 50 miles in a day — run, mind you," says Addendorf admiringly. "And then fight a battle at the end." Truly these are worthy — and terrifying — foes."
Perhaps more than any other film, Zulu is about pure heroism. The British might be armed with rifles, but so are the Zulus, and in any case these slow-loading carbines are little use when you're outnumbered 40 to one and the enemy is already upon you. Rorke's Drift was largely a battle of hand-to-hand combat and the crucial weapon was the bayonet. "It's a short chamber Boxer Henry, point 4/5 calibre miracle," announces Chard, ever the engineer. "And a bayonet, sir," replies Colour Sergeant Bourne. "With some guts behind it."
In some ways, Bourne is the key character in the film. He is the experienced old soldier, resolutely unflappable in the face of the Zulu onslaught, stoically mediating between the bickering officers, the frightened and bewildered rankers, and the troublemaking Hook. When the drunken Reverend Witt (Jack Hawkins) refuses to be pacified it is Bourne who confronts him with a dignified murmur: "Be quiet now, will you, there's a good gentleman. You'll upset the lads."
The battle scenes are simply astonishing, as the defending force of fewer than a hundred able-bodied men beat back wave after wave of seemingly invincible Zulu warriors. The closest cinema has come to this in terms of sheer fear-fuelled adrenaline is in the sci-fi rollercoaster of James Cameron's Aliens (1986). It's also one of the best depictions of British military discipline brought to the screen this side of the documentary-style TV film Bravo Two Zero (1999), with painfully realistic reconstructions of man-to-man combat. In the end, the British prevail because they pull together, hold fast and follow orders without question. In a moment of last-ditch inspiration, Chard turns the attackers' tactics against them, luring the Zulus into a murderous trap and slaughtering untold numbers with close-quarters rifle fire.
Far from being an Imperialist fable, Zulu carries a palpable anti-war message. The British soldiers are apolitical to a man, and the malingering Private Hook is downright subversive. "Did I ever see a Zulu walk down the City Road?" he sneers from his hospital bed. "No. So what am I doing here ?" After the battle, both Chard and Bromhead are consumed by self-disgust. "Do you think I could stand this butcher's yard more than once?" is Chard's verdict. "I came up here to build a bridge."
As a spectacular war film with a powerful moral dimension, Zulu pre-dates Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan by more than three decades. Like the defence of Rorke's Drift itself, its legend grows with the passing of time.