'Zulu' - the Film Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Zulu' - the Film

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If 1,200 men couldn't hold a defensive position this morning, what chance have we with a hundred?


The film begins on 22 January, 1879, at Rorke's Drift, a ford over the Buffalo River in South Africa. The river is the border between former Boer republic Natal, now a British colony, and Zululand, a country ruled by King Cetewayo and his Zulu warriors. Situated in Rorke's Drift are the Swedish mission station of Otto Witt and his daughter and a small undefended British military hospital. One hundred men of the 24th Regiment of Foot, the South Wales Borderers, commanded by Lieutenant Bromhead, are stationed here and are about to have choir practice. The hospital is also used as a supply depot by the Commissariat and Transport Department. Lieutenant Chard, a Royal Engineer, has been sent to build a bridge over the river. The total number of soldiers there are seven officers, mainly surgeons and commissaries, 36 wounded and sick and 97 men fit for duty.

Unbeknownst to them, a large British force has entered Zulu territory, intending to annex Zululand into part of British-ruled South Africa. Having established a camp at Isandlwana, the 1,200 men of the British column has been attacked and destroyed by over 20,000 Zulu warriors. Following this victory, 4,000 Zulus head directly to mop up the men at the Rorke's Drift hospital. Unable to transport the wounded to safety in time and unwilling to flee without them, the garrison prepares to defend themselves by building makeshift defences using the supply depot's stores of mealie bags1, facing unstoppable, overwhelming odds.


The characters with VC after their name were awarded the Victoria Cross in real life following the battle.

Lieutenant John Rouse Chard RE (VC)Stanley Baker
Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (VC)Michael Caine
Otto WittJack Hawkins
Margareta WittUlla Jacobsson
Narrator (voice)Richard Burton
King CetewayoChief Mangosuthu Buthelezi
AdendorffGert Van den Bergh
Surgeon-Major James Reynolds (VC)Patrick Magee
Colour-Sergeant Bourne (DCM2)Nigel Green
Sergeant MaxfieldPaul Daneman
Corporal William Allen (VC)Glynn Edwards
Corporal Ferdinand Schiess (VC)Dickie Owen
Private Alfred Henry Hook (VC)James Booth
Private Frederick Hitch (VC)David Kernan
Private 612 John Williams (VC)Peter Gill
Private 593 William Jones (VC)Richard Davies
Private 716 Robert Jones (VC)Denys Graham
Private ThomasNeil McCarthy
Private HughesLarry Taylor
Private Cole Gary Bond
Private OwenIvor Emmanuel
Acting Commissary James Langley Dalton (VC)Dennis Folbigge
Company CookKerry Jordan

Stanley Baker, as well as starring in the film, was one of the co-producers. He had appeared in numerous classic British War Films, including The Guns of Navarone and The Cruel Sea. Co-star Jack Hawkins had also starred in The Cruel Sea, and had appeared in many war films such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Angels One Five. In real life, he had served in the war with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Zulu was Michael Caine's first starring role. He has since appeared in numerous films, including war films like A Bridge Too Far, the Harry Palmer series, classics such as Alfie, Get Carter and The Italian Job, as well as a similar film, The Man Who Would Be King.

Narrator Richard Burton had also appeared in The Longest Day and Where Eagles Dare and had starred as Mark Antony in Cleopatra alongside Elizabeth Taylor, whom he married. He is well regarded as the narrator in Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds.

Perhaps the most interesting casting was Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi as Cetewayo. He is Cetewayo's great-grandson, and chief of the Buthelezi. Through the late 20th and early 21st centuries he has been an influential South African politician.

Cy Endfield

Cy Endfield was the screenwriter, director and producer of Zulu, his most famous film. Born in Pennsylvania, his first documentary Inflation was banned by the US Chamber of Commerce for being anti-capitalist. In McCarthy-era Hollywood, his liberal views meant he was declared to be 'Un-American', facing investigation by the FBI and Hollywood blacklisting unless he collaborated with their witch hunt. To escape persecution, he fled to Britain in December 1951. There he worked as a director and screenwriter in the 1950s, initially under aliases to avoid discrimination from the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In 1957 he felt able to use his own name again and met Stanley Baker, with whom he would establish a close working relationship. Endfield and Baker would collaborate on producing films together, including Zulu, under the name Diamond Films. The film he directed before Zulu was Ray Harryhausen's Mysterious Island in 1961. He was inspired to make Zulu after reading an article by historian John Prebble, with whom he would collaborate on the screenplay.

He never recaptured the success of Zulu and following Baker's death in the mid-1970s abandoned filmmaking. Instead he concentrated on a career in magic and invented the Microwriter miniature word processor.

The Making Of Zulu

The film was made on location in Natal, South Africa and in studio in Twickenham. To save money not all cast members went to South Africa, such as James Booth who plays Hook, a character who spends much of the film inside the hospital building. That is why Hook is never seen outside, except in a few shots with the wall of the studio set behind him.

In addition to the characters in the cast, members of the 5th South African Infantry Battalion played the British soldiers in the background. As there were not enough historically accurate Martini-Henry lever-action rifles to go round, many of the extras used their standard issue Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles.

As the extras playing Zulus had never seen a film before, and in order to give them an idea of what to do, Cy Endfield showed them a Western so they could see what films were all about. Between the fighting scenes, there are no dead Zulu bodies seen lying around. This is because the Zulu cast would not stay lying dead, saying they were too great a nation to 'pretend' to die. When the fighting resumes, all the 'dead' extras have disappeared. Many of the Zulu extras were, like Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, descended from those who had fought in the Zulu War and even at Rorke's Drift.

The Cyprian Paramount Chief of the Zulus, Chief Buthelezi of Mahlabatini and their peoples were thanked for their help and co-operation in making Zulu in the film's end credits.

Fighting Racism in South Africa

During the production of the film, the crew faced real-life racism in South Africa, which was still experiencing apartheid. By South African law, the over 500 Zulu extras could not be paid the same as the white extras. To bend these laws, in addition to their wages the producers gave the Zulus watches and cows, far more valuable than the wages would have been. A school was also set up for local Zulu children.

The cast and crew were discouraged from being too friendly with the Zulus, however, especially the topless female dancers. Interracial sex was at the time illegal and punishable by imprisonment or hard labour. To ensure that everything received the South African government's approval, at least one of the African crew was a secret police spy keeping an eye on what was going on.

Is Zulu Racist?

In America, Zulu was released in June 1964. This was a time when the Civil Rights Movement was causing tensions – the Civil Rights Act was finally passed in July. With hindsight, the release of Zulu in America probably could not have come at a worse time.

There can be no denying that Zulu is a war film featuring white British men on one side fighting black Zulu warriors on the other. In the film, the principle recurring characters are either British or their allies, with little effort made to see the events from the Zulu point of view. There are only a few perspective shots showing Rorke's Drift the way that the Zulus see it. The only Zulu we learn the name of, Cetewayo, appears in the film merely as a fleeting cameo appearance. There is a chief on the hill overlooking the station orchestrating the attack, often seen giving orders, but the audience, without subtitles, does not know what those orders actually are, nor do we learn how any individual Zulu feels about them. The Zulus are simply numbers, referred to as '4,000'. That the enemy are numbers rather than names is curiously echoed in the British ranks also, in which the private soldiers too are known by number, calling each other '593' and '716'.

The Zulus are never shown as being an evil enemy, but instead are portrayed as brave, honourable, fearless, fearsome warriors. They are an enemy to be respected, having defeated a large British force at Isandlwana. They are intelligent and calculating, constantly measuring the British defenders' abilities. Throughout the film they remain in charge; the Zulus act, the British merely react. It is the Zulus who dominate the battle. Yet they always act with honour. The Zulus, despite being aware that they are likely to warn the British soldiers at Rorke's Drift, allow the non-combatant Witt family to leave unharmed from Cetewayo's settlement as well as from the battle at Rorke's Drift itself.

Neutral Characters' Perspective

There are six neutral people or groups in the film who are neither British nor Zulu. The first is Margareta Witt, a young Swedish girl recently arrived in Africa. She disapproves of the Zulus and their customs, but then she disapproves of the British soldiers too, and pretty much everything and everyone except her father. Her father, missionary Otto Witt, as a clergyman is a pacifist and man of peace. Although he hates war, he admires and respects the Zulus, saying 'They are a great people'. He encourages his daughter to keep an open mind, saying that Zulu brides are luckier when marrying brave men than European girls who often face arranged marriages with rich men. Knowing about Zulu customs as well as living next to the British hospital, he is in a good position to judge the likely outcome of a Zulu attack on Rorke's Drift. He expresses his view on the British chance of survival with the words, 'You're all going to die! Don't you realise? Can't you see? You're all going to die! Die! Death awaits you all!'

Stephenson commands a large force of Boer native horsemen who have experienced frequent border disputes with the Zulus. Quite sensibly they run away. The forty levies of the Natal Native Contingent, local Africans recruited into the British army, also run away.

Only two characters who are neither British nor Zulu remain at Rorke's Drift. One is Corporal Ferdinand Schiess; a Swiss member of the Natal Native Police, he is at the Rorke's Drift hospital with a severely injured leg and unable to leave. He contrasts the British army's ability to march 15-20 miles a day with the Zulus' ability to run 50 miles in a day and still fight a battle. The other is Adendorff, an Afrikaner officer in the Natal Native Contingent who states 'I'm a Boer. The Zulus are the enemies of my blood.' When the British troops are surrounded by Zulus, his assessment of the situation is 'Can't you see it's all over? ... We're dead!'

The British Characters' Attitudes towards the Zulus

The film does not feature the smug superiority typical of the imperialist view of the late Victorian period. This view can be summarised by Belloc's poem about the First Matabele War (1893-94), when 50 soldiers armed with four Maxims defeated 5,000 Ndebele warriors:

Whatever happens, we have got
the Maxim gun, and they have not.

This view is also evident in stories such as Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King, in which two English soldiers conquer an empire, and Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. On the contrary, at all times during the film the British expect to die at the hands of the attacking Zulus.

The first Zulu 'attack' is a feint, a calculated effort to test the effectiveness of the defence of Rorke's Drift and study their enemy. The second, third and sixth attacks are tactical tests for weaknesses to keep the British off guard. The fifth attack is defeated, not by British superiority, but by a herd of cattle. This is after the Zulus successfully destroy one of the key British defensive positions, the hospital building. Only the fourth and seventh attacks are defeated by the British tactics and weapons.

The British soldiers themselves first fear, then respect and later emulate the Zulus. During the last attack, the British hear the Zulus' singing and admire it. This inspires them to sing their own unique version of 'Men of Harlech'; the ensuing sing-off shows that they have adopted the Zulus' values and actions. This is the last Zulu attack - the British having embraced the Zulu approach; the Zulus respond by saluting them as fellow braves, confirming that a bond of warrior brotherhood of sorts has developed between them. This can be seen in the very last shot of the film, where Chard handles a Zulu shield with respect.

The outcome of the battle itself is not shown as a glorious affair, but rather a tragedy. Bromhead states that he feels sick and ashamed, Chard says he could not face this sort of butchery more than once and Hook mourns the loss of the sergeant he hated. Perhaps most tellingly, just before the film ends a roll call of those still alive is taken, complete with haunting silences after the names of the dead.


The film was made at a time when war epics were still frequently being made in black and white, such as The Longest Day. In comparison, Zulu is an explosion of colour, with the bright reds of the British uniforms and the blood of the injured beneath a bright blue sky. There are beautiful sunsets and bright burning fires, and the vast open South African landscape gives the film an appearance unequalled in any other film made at the time.

This vast open space effectively contrasts with the confined space that the British soldiers occupy for most of the film. Their world is limited to the hospital, church, cattle kraal, stables and the ring of mealie bags between them.

The audience is never given a reason why the Zulus are attacking, nor learn the war's rights and wrongs, or what started it. But in this, our ignorance matches that of the British soldiers we are meant to identify with. The two leaders are lieutenants, the lowest commissioned rank in the army. Theirs is not to make reply or reason why, simply do and die. They seem unaware of what is going on, needing messengers like Adendorff and the Witts to inform them of events outside the immediate vicinity of Rorke's Drift.

The men they lead seem ignorant of what the purpose of the war is, asking questions such as 'Why us?' and getting the answer 'Because we're here, lad, nobody else. Just us.' Other questions include 'Why?' to which the answer is as much a confession of ignorance as a condemnation of war, 'I'm damned if I can tell you why.' Hook asks 'And what [is this war] for? Did I ever see a Zulu walking down a city road? No! So what am I doing here?'

The principal British characters, Bromhead and Chard, clash, argue and disagree - in contrast to the highly organised and efficient Zulu warriors. Bromhead, the infantry officer used to commanding at Rorke's Drift, at first glance appears to be an upper-class twit. He dismisses Chard, who is a Royal Engineer officer, not infantry, as someone making 'mud pies' and considers Chard's approach to warfare as that of a 'gifted amateur'. Bromhead has come from a military family, seeing command as his hereditary right. Chard, who has held an officer's commission for only three months longer than Bromhead, has a less privileged background but has worked to achieve his commission, and has a more pragmatic approach to command. Chard is not afraid to get his hands dirty, whether in building a bridge or clearing up after a Zulu attack. This clash between them creates much of the drama of the film.

Their men are seen to be ignorant, with one soldier confessing that his entire knowledge about the Zulus is that he heard they were 'a bunch of savages, isn't it?' They all are largely inexperienced, with Chard and Bromhead relying on Adendorff to translate what the actions of the Zulus actually mean. He is the expert who knows the 'jolly deadly' pattern of a Zulu attack and recognises the Zulus' salute for what it is and not the taunt that Bromhead suspects. They recognise this, and Chard tells him 'It's your country, isn't it?' while Adendorff wonders what the British intentions in South Africa actually are, comments which predict the Anglo-Boer Wars of 1880-1 and 1899-1902.

All of this leaves the audience with the satisfaction of having watched something more than a typical action-adventure film. Although it has been described as the closest British film to a Western3, it subverts the expectations of that genre. The cavalry arrive, but rather than rescuing the besieged, they run away.

Zulu is a film which shows both the heroism and horrors of war. It ends with a strange moral message – that by co-operating, success can be achieved, and that even enemies at war can respect each other.


Although the film is based on real events, it is not entirely historically accurate. The 24th Regiment in 1879 was the 2nd Warwickshires and consisted mainly of English recruits - it was not the South Wales Borderers until two years later, in 1881. In the film the Zulus who attacked Rorke's Drift had come direct from Isandlwana; in truth they were different warriors. The portrayal of Zulus using the Martini-Henry rifles from the battle of Isandlwana against the British is partly based on truth - this occurred at the Battle of Khambula, though, not Rorke's Drift. The film does show a genuine traditional wedding between Zulu warriors and their brides.

Although the characters' names and ranks are accurate, their portrayal is not. In truth, Bromhead was partially deaf, which is why he had not been promoted above the rank of lieutenant. Private Hook, far from being the drunken criminal the film portrays, was in fact teetotal. It was not just the native levies who deserted, but also at least two British soldiers.

There are also aesthetic differences. The film was not actually filmed at Rorke's Drift, which is still a mission station and has modern buildings on the site, but nearby in the gloriously picturesque Royal Natal National Park. Similarly, the British did not fight the Battle of Rorke's Drift in their dress uniforms as the film implies, but these uniforms being so bright and colourful, with red tunics and bright white helmets, the troops are visually stunning.


The music was by John Barry, a composer who is perhaps most famous for arranging the James Bond theme4 the previous year in 1963. Barry was not the first choice for doing the soundtrack - Stanley Baker had asked Oscar-winning composer and lyricist Lionel Bart, most famous for his Oliver! Bart declined, however, as few songs were needed, but he recommended Barry, with whom he had worked on From Russia With Love. This was the second of nine Bond films Barry worked on.

John Barry would later win five Oscars for his music, for Born Free, Out of Africa, The Lion in Winter and Dances With Wolves.

Soundtrack album

  • Side A
    • 'Main Title Theme' – Isandlwana 1879 – Narration by Richard Burton
    • 'News of the Massacre' – 'Rorke's Drift Threatened'
    • 'Wagons Over'
    • 'First Zulu Appearance and Assault'
    • 'Durnford's Horse Arrive and Depart' – 'The Third Assault'
    • 'Zulus' Final Appearance and Salute'
    • The VC Roll and 'Men of Harlech' – Narration by Richard Burton
  • Side B – A Selection of Zulu Stamps
    • 'Stamp & Shake'
    • 'High Grass'
    • 'Zulu Stamp'
    • 'Big Shield'
    • 'Zulu Maid'
    • 'Monkey Feathers'

John Barry had a collection of indigenous Zulu music and a Zulu wedding song inspired the main theme to the film. He also used African instruments such as drums, bongos, bell belts and boobams as part of his 70-musician orchestra. The 'Zulu Stamps' are pop re-workings of Zulu music and themes in the film. The Zulu theme would later be re-used in Cry Beloved Country.

Men of Harlech

For the film, a new verse for the traditional song 'Men of Harlech'5 was written, to make the lyrics more appropriate to the situation the defenders were in.

Men of Harlech, stop your dreaming
Can't you see their spearpoints gleaming
See the warrior pennants streaming
O'er the battlefield
Men of Harlech, stand ye steady
It cannot be ever said ye
For the battle were not ready
Welshmen never yield!

From the hills rebounding
Let this war cry sounding
Summon all
At Cambria's call
The mighty foe surrounding.

Men of Harlech, on to glory
This will ever be your story:
Keep these burning words before ye
Welshmen will not yield!

Connection with other British War Films

Zulu was made at a time when British films set during the Second World War were popular. Zulu encompassed themes from the Second World War which resonated with audiences at the time. For example, the garrison at Rorke’s Drift is a hospital, which echoes Britain’s weakened armed forces after Dunkirk. As Jack Hawkins' pacifist priest notes in Zulu, 'while we were talking peace, a war has started', which echoes Chamberlain's 'peace in our time'. They are besieged, just like Britain in the blitz, with only a small army ('the few') against a larger, aggressive force. And yet, like Britain in the Second World War, they prevail and do not lose.


A prequel, Zulu Dawn based on the Battle of Isandlwana, was made in 1979, one hundred years after the battle. It was written and co-directed by Cy Endfield. The only character to appear in both Zulu and Zulu Dawn is King Cetewayo, although in Zulu Dawn he is played by Simon Sabela. Similarly, a television series, Shaka Zulu, was made in 1986 about Cetewayo's uncle and his unification of the Zulu people. It was also parodied in The Meaning of Life in 1983.

Zulu is considered to be the quintessential 'base under siege' film, and has been used as the template for many subsequent films involving a besieged base. These include science fiction films, such as Starship Troopers, and fantasy like the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers6. The historical epic Gladiator even transposed the Zulu chants to the beginning of the film when the Romans are fighting Germanic tribes.

The film is entrenched deep in the Welsh consciousness. Although in reality Welsh made up less than half of the company stationed at Rorke's Drift, the power of the film has made it viewed as a Welsh victory. Comedian Max Boyce has a popular joke about an ancestor who fought at either Isandlwana or Rorke's Drift.

Since Zulu, buglers in Britain, especially in the Boys' Brigade, are frequently told to 'Spit, boy, spit!' following a line to the bugler in the film.

At no point does Michael Caine say 'Now don't you throw those spears at me' or versions thereof in Zulu. This is a myth based on a line from The Man Who Would be King.

Zulu was voted the 31st Greatest British Film of All Time in 1999 and the 8th Greatest War Film of All Time in 2008.

1Sacks of grain.2Distinguised Conduct Medal. He was offered the Victoria Cross but declined, requesting a commission instead.3With the possible exception of Carry On Cowboy.4Who actually composed the theme has been the subject of fierce debate between Barry and Monty Norman.5A song about the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle 1461-1468 in the Wars of the Roses. Harlech Castle is a World Heritage Site.6This battle played a much more significant part in the film than it had in the book.

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