War on Film: Zulu

Taylor Downing reviews the classic war film Zulu.


For nearly a century, from the battle of Waterloo to the outbreak of the First World War, the British army was primarily focused on wars against native tribes around the empire. (The one key exception was fighting Russia in the Crimea from 1854 to 1856.)

These engagements on the fringes of empire provided abundant material for the novels of H Rider Haggard and G A Henty: tales of derring-do that helped build and sustain support for the great imperial adventure of the late 19th century.

These novels created myths around heroic struggles between white colonialists and local natives that sustained more than one generation in its imperial dream.

Zulu (1964), one of the classic war films of all time, could easily have been fitted to this mould. That it most certainly does not is largely down to the script and direction of this fascinating movie.


In 1961, historian John Prebble wrote a short article about the defence of Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. This was read by director Cy Endfield, an American who had been accused of being a Communist and blacklisted by the Hollywood studios during the McCarthyite ‘red scares’ in the early 1950s.

In 1953, Endfield came to Britain to continue his career here, initially under a pseudonym. Prebble was the writer of the Highland Clearances cycle of novels. He was not one to write a script to celebrate the imperial project.

Endfield took the idea of making a film about the heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift to Stanley Baker, the actor, who was wanting to move into production and had his own company, Diamond Films.

Endfield and Prebble drafted a script, which Baker then showed to producer Joseph E Levine. He liked it, seeing it very much as a classic Western in a new setting, with the Zulus as the native Americans and the British playing the role of the US Cavalry.

Levine agreed to finance the movie, and raised money by pre-selling the rights to distributors, in this case to Paramount for world rights, and to Embassy Pictures for US rights.


Most of the film was shot in South Africa over 14 weeks in 1963. It begins with the aftermath of the Zulu massacre of more than a thousand British troops at Isandlwana. The real locations were not used for the filming, instead rather more dramatic locations were found in the Drakensberg mountains, about 60 miles from the actual Rorke’s Drift, in an area known as the Amphitheatre. Hundreds of Zulu extras were employed during the filming.

One of the most interesting features of the film is the treatment of the Zulus and their warrior culture. The leader of the Zulus, King Cetshwayo, is played by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the great-grandson of Cetshwayo and future leader of South Africa’s Inkatha Freedom Party. He would become Minister of Home Affairs in Nelson Mandela’s first government.

An early sequence in the film shows a Zulu mass-marriage ceremony. Traditional south African music was little known in the West at the time, but throughout the ceremony a rhythmic chanting is kept up by both the men and the women as they dance.

The men beat their shields in rhythm, the women brandish tiny knives and ululate. This is clearly a warrior nation. The ceremony introduces the Zulus as a disciplined and highly organised race, with their own established rituals and traditions.

Watching the ceremony next to King Cetshwayo is a Swedish missionary, Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins), and his prim and upright daughter Margareta (Ulla Jacobsson). Responding to her horror at the thought of the women committing en masse to marriage, Witt explains that in the West many weddings are arranged so that women can marry wealthy men. But, he says, maybe the Zulu women are better off, since they are marrying ‘brave warriors’.

The dancing and singing is interrupted by the arrival of a messenger who brings news of the massacre at Isandlwana. The ceremony ends and the warriors prepare to march off. Witt and his daughter rush back to their tiny mission at Rorke’s Drift, knowing that the Zulus will attack.

Although no individual characters emerge among the Zulu ranks, their fearlessness, courage, and disciplined nature are repeatedly stressed in the film.

In reality it was not King Cetshwayo who led the attack on Rorke’s Drift, but his half-brother. However, Cetshwayo is shown on the hillside directing the attack by four Zulu impis, about 4,000 warriors. At first, they attack simply to assess the firepower of their enemy. Then, they surround the tiny station, firing into it from the hillsides with stolen rifles from Isandlwana. Fortunately for the British, they were poor shots and had very limited ammunition.

In further frontal attacks, the Zulu warriors display immense bravery, advancing against the concentrated firepower of British soldiers firing Martini-Henry breach-loading rifles. They also demonstrate a clearly worked out strategy of surrounding the mission and attacking from both sides. As they advance, their stamping on the ground and chanting brings terror to the hearts of the defenders.

The British soldiers, on the other hand, are not always shown in a positive light. First, there is division between the two officers present. Lieutenant John Chard (a rugged Stanley Baker) is a Royal Engineers officer who is there only because he has been sent to build a bridge across the nearby river.

The dilettante Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (an unlikely Michael Caine) is an infantry officer and commander of a company of the 24th Regiment of Foot. This is presented as a Welsh unit, although one of the soldiers admits ‘there are some foreigners in it, too’. At the time of the battle, however, the unit was a Warwickshire regiment and included more English than Welsh.


Chard takes command of the defence of Rorke’s Drift, taking precedence over Bromhead by the rather arcane rule that he was commissioned three months before Bromhead. One of the central storylines of the film is their rivalry, and the reluctance of an infantry officer to allow an engineer to take command of the defence of the mission. Eventually, both men come to respect each other, and put aside their competitiveness.

In addition, there are some pretty disreputable soldiers in the British ranks. Rorke’s Drift is the site of a small field hospital, and in there is Private Henry Hook (James Booth – this was the part initially intended for Michael Caine). He is, we are told, a malingerer and a thief.

We see he is also a drunkard and a rogue. He is hiding out in the hospital simply to avoid combat. As the battle continues, he has no alternative but to take up a rifle, and he distinguishes himself in the struggle as the hospital is set alight by the Zulus and burns to the ground.

The writers wanted to create an anti-hero, and selected Hook for the part. This was unfortunate, as Hook was in reality a model soldier and a teetotaller. His presentation in the film caused some controversy, with his two elderly daughters walking out of the premiere in protest at the treatment of their father.

British soldiers in formation.

While the officers bicker, the principal figure in maintaining discipline and order among the British troops is Colour Sergeant Bourne (Nigel Green). This is a reminder that NCOs frequently play the central role in passing on orders, sustaining and organising the men, and ensuring soldiers function as a coherent, disciplined force.

Among the soldiers are many who waiver against the threat of the repeated assaults by the Zulu warriors. And playing on the Welsh theme, there are men who are keener on singing than soldiering.

Private Owen (Ivor Emmanuel) is the leader of the company choir, a proud baritone. Towards the end of the film, as the Zulus surround the mission and are chanting one of their battle songs, Owen leads the defenders in singing ‘Men of Harlech’. It is a stirring scene, as the two sides battle it out in song. However, it is entirely invented: no such vocal confrontation took place.

The British soldiers initially see the Zulus as ‘a bunch of savages’, and at one point Bromhead dismisses them as ‘fuzzies’, a shortening of the highly racist term ‘fuzzy-wuzzy’. However, as the battle unfolds, they learn to respect their adversary and his extraordinary bravery.

Private Owen says, towards the end of the film, as they face another onslaught, ‘They’ve got more guts than we have, boyo.’ This change in attitude is in keeping with the presentation of the Zulu as a courageous and disciplined warrior.

At its core, the story of Zulu is, of course, one of heroic and stubborn British resistance to overwhelming odds. The British soldiers, despite their shortcomings, are well trained and disciplined. They improvise a defensive shield from sacks of maize and overturned wagons. When these defences are breached, they retreat to an inner redoubt. Here they stand in line and fire volley after volley, in well-rehearsed rounds, against the warriors at almost point-blank range.

Eleven VCs were won at Rorke’s Drift, more than in any other single action of this nature. At the end of the film, Richard Burton, in voiceover, reads out the names of all eleven men awarded the highest honour in the British military. They include Hook, as well as both Chard and Bromhead.

The film ends with a superb flourish. At dawn on the second day, literally thousands of Zulus appear on the hillside around the mission. Once again, they are chanting. The exhausted British soldiers rally to defend what is left of the mission, unsure they can withstand another assault.

But the Afrikaner adviser Lieutenant Adendorff (Gert van den Bergh) explains that this is not a war chant, but instead is a tribute – the Zulu warriors are saluting the bravery of their adversaries.

After making the hills resound with their chanting, they slowly with-draw, leaving the British defenders to savour their victory. It is a fine idea, which plays to the theme of warrior honour – but it never happened. In reality, the Zulus were preparing to depart when a relief column came into view; at this, they left with the few wounded they could carry.


In the early 1960s, Michael Caine was regularly playing small character parts in television dramas and British movies. With his cockney accent and tough-guy image, he was repeatedly typecast as the small-scale villain.

Stanley Baker, who had worked with him before, asked him to audition for the part in Zulu of cockney malingerer Private Hook. But when Caine turned up to the audition, the part had already been given to his friend, James Booth.

Caine was just leaving, when the director Cy Endfield asked him to come back. He said to Caine that he did not look like a cockney to him, but had much more the air of an upper-class toff, a typical army officer of the late 19th century.

He asked Caine if he could do an upper-class voice and, following the dictum of all actors at auditions – say ‘yes’ to whatever you are asked in order to get the part – Caine said that he could.

Many years later, Caine would regularly tell the story of how he did a hopeless audition as an aristocratic officer, but because Endfield was an American he did not realise how poor Caine’s accent was, so he got the part.

Caine struggled to sustain during the filming a voice and posture that were completely alien to him. Nevertheless, he was a huge success in what turned out to be his breakout movie.

Producer Joseph E Levine initially offered Caine a seven-year contract, but cancelled it after filming, telling Caine: ‘You gotta face the fact that you look like a queer on screen.’ Instead, he gave the contract to Booth (Private Hook).

Nonetheless, Zulu made an international star out of Michael Caine. He went on to play the lead in The Ipcress File (1965) and Alfie (1966), movies that helped define the 1960s. His cockney accent became his trademark in an era when regional and working-class accents were becoming fashionable.

Caine has become one of the great British leading actors, featuring in more than 60 movies, including The Italian Job (1969), The Battle of Britain (1969), Get Carter (1971), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Educating Rita (1983), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), several of the Batman films, and The Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012). He has been nominated for an Oscar six times, winning twice, has several BAFTAs, and was knighted in 2000.


The film was shot on a system called Technirama on 35mm film, using an anamorphic lens which effectively ‘squeezed’ the image on to the film frame. It could be projected by ‘unsqueezing’ this on 35mm widescreen or blown up to 70mm and shown in the same aspect ratio as Cinemascope.

Technirama provided a distinctive sharp and clear image that was particularly suited to the Drakensberg landscape, with the bright red British jackets standing out well in the clear South African sunlight.

The major weakness in the film is the very poor special effects, especially in the scenes of hand- to-hand combat. It seems that every prod by a bayonet or by the Zulu assegai brings instant death.

No one ever appears to be wounded in the film. No one is mutilated and certainly no one cries out in pain. The fake blood is strictly limited, and even the scenes in the British surgeon’s tent (Patrick Magee plays a strongly anti-war surgeon) are very underplayed.

At the end of the film, the British soldiers look out on a sea of dead Zulus. The truth is that they killed around 400 men; another 400 lay wounded and dying. After the Zulus had left, the British went out and bayoneted most of the wounded warriors. This is not shown in the film.

Apart from the absence of realism in its combat sequences, Zulu stands up well today. The film-makers spent a lot of time trying to get details accurate, and the red British uniforms along with the shields, spears, and dress of the Zulus make a memorable impression.

Most of all, the Zulu warrior comes across as a ferocious foe to be respected and admired. Capturing the essence of Zulu traditions and warrior culture is a lasting achievement in a film about an imperial adventure. •

A Paramount DVD. Produced by Stanley Baker and Joseph E Levine; directed by Cy Endfield; written by John Prebble and Cy Endfield; starring Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Jack Hawkins, and James Booth.