We decided to watch Zulu (1964) on Friday night. I thought it was in honor of Black History Month, but it turns out Glyph discovered Sabaton had a song about the events the movie was based on.
Rorke’s Drift was a Swedish missionary & hospital outpost defended by the British on January 22 & 23 in 1879. During the morning of January 22, nearly 1300 British troops had been killed by the Zulu during the Battle of Isandlwana, about six miles away. Survivors made their way back to the outpost, manned by 150 British regular troops and approximately 300 Natal Native Contingent (NNC) African auxiliaries.
While the Zulu King had led the main attack at Isandlwana, his half-brother peeled off about 4000 warriors to pursue survivors and wipe out the garrison.
But this isn’t about the historical events, it’s about the movie.
The film begins in the Zulu camp, with the Zulus performing a complex marriage ceremony that involves a lot of chanting and dancing. It goes on for entirely too long – 15 minutes of film time – in order to humanize the Zulus before they are wiped out during the rest of the film.
The missionary Witt and his daughter are in attendance. They exist for expository purposes and to give the viewer some nice white Christians to loathe. At the end of the scene, word arrives that the British have been decimated, and they escape to warn the garrison at Rorke’s Drift.
Meanwhile, the commander of the garrison (let’s call him Lieutenant Gamma) is shown hunting, sportingly shooting antelope and cheetah in full regalia with cape. Everyone else is sweating to death, but the heat doesn’t affect Lieutenant Gamma. He’s a dilettante and a fop.
Meanwhile, an officer from the Royal Engineers is leading the men to repair the pontoons of a ferry across the local river. Let’s call this one Lieutenant Alpha. He’s a common-sense sort of guy and an expert at bridges and fortifications.
Naturally, their personalities clash. We get to watch the riveting drama for the next fracking hour. I kept thinking back to the first 90 minutes of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Was the will of the British officer stronger than the will of the Japanese camp commandant? And it didn’t matter. Nobody cared. It had no impact until the very end when the Japanese commandant loses too much face. Or something.
Eventually, our two Lieutenants compare their medal collections and Lieutenant Alpha got promoted three months sooner than Lieutenant Gamma. Gamma is miffed, and reluctantly gives up command. Somewhere in the midst of all this riveting martial drama Reverend Witt returns. He informs the officers that 4000 Zulu are en route for tea, crumpets, and murder.
As fortifications are hastily built, a large group of Boer cavalry ride to the camp. Huzzah! The garrison will be saved! The Zulu are terrified of three things: cavalry, stacks of medals, and dawn. Alas, the local boys can’t stay. They’ve just fought through the Zulu, they claim, and they have to recover. About this time an extremely drunk, belligerent, and black-pilled Reverend Witt screams a sermon at the African NNP: They’ll all bear the Mark of Cain and be condemned by God as murderers if they fight. First one man looks at the other: Doomed fight to the death is one thing, but death plus hellfire is right out. They skedaddle.
The story so far is not quite what happened during the actual events at Rorke’s Drift. The arriving cavalry weren’t Boer, they were a remnant from the defeated regiment. They stayed anyway. When the Zulu horde attacked, the heroic cavalry charged and fired at the enemy. Exhausted and out of bullets, they were forced to retreat. As the cavalry left, the NNP, who had helped build the hastily-assembled fortifications, left with them.
The real Reverend Witt was neither a coward nor a drunk. He helped make the fort ready, then left with the most severely wounded from the hospital before the battle. He wasn’t a soldier and had a wife and two toddlers at home to protect.
In the movie, Lieutenant Gamma knows both the leader of the Boer and the NNP officers. He doesn’t lift a finger to help. “Lieutenant Alpha,” says our fair-haired boy, “You own this mess.” Gamma is going to prove it even if he himself and everyone else has to die to make the point.
At last, with the film half over, the Zulu show up. They charge the barricades and get repeatedly shot for their trouble. We’ll have to forgive the movie technology of the day but the action is almost comical. The British repel the invasion, and the Zulu expert, let’s call him Sergeant Boer, explains it was just a test.
I didn’t mention Sgt. Boer because this column is as poorly planned as the film. Sgt. Boer is Lieutenant Gert Adendorff, a survivor of the earlier massacre and the only man to fight in both battles that day. In the film, he’s the narrator so the audience can understand the genius tactics of the Zulu, because a casual observer might conclude they enjoyed dying pointlessly en masse.
Sgt. Boer explains that the Zulu chiefs, who we see cheer-leading safely atop their cliff overlooking the fort, were counting the number of British rifles. Their accountants were itemizing every bullet. Their shaman were calculating the medal-to-bravery ratio for each man.
Zulu accountants get paid by the goat skin
The Zulu soon regroup and attack again. This time, the ferocious spear-wielding warriors are joined by Zulu sharpshooters on the cliffs. Sgt. Boer explains they’d looted the guns and bullets from the dead at Isandlwana. Many British are shot, speared, or drown, carried to the bottom of the nearby river by their own chest awards and ridiculously non-buoyant hats.
In reality, the Zulu couldn’t shoot at all. They pulled the sights as far apart as possible because the resulting shot was harder, and more magical. If they hit anything, it was a complete accident.
Lieutenant Alpha is movie-wounded in the scrum, and retreats to the hospital, telling Lieutenant Gamma he will have to take charge again. Lieutenant Gamma immediately turns into some kind of gay Superman and leads the men from barricade to barricade with complex, meticulously-disciplined firing formations, perfectly executed as every fifth man dramatically takes a spear in their tea-drinking necessities. Secret. Kings. Rule.
Somewhere amidst all this the hospital with all the wounded is invaded by those sneaky Zulu. During the real events, Private Alfred “Harry” Hook and three other wounded soldiers fought the invaders room-to-room, and saved many lives. Hook, a lay pastor, won the Victoria Cross for his heroism.
The movie depicts Hook as a criminal and a drunkard. His daughter was so disgusted by his character in the film she walked out of the theater halfway through the premier. Lucky woman.
Lieutenant Alpha is in a bad way, but he continues to fight. He has no choice. He shares his hospital bed with at least three Zulu warriors. Lieutenant Gamma comes to visit him. Now that they’re bonded by the horrors of war, he encourages his superior to continue the fight. “We need every single man to get through this!”
Movie writers: How stupid are you? He did nothing while 75% of the garrison ran away about 30 film minutes ago!
Finally, the Zulu are ready for a break. They briefly retreat. Sgt. Boer loses all hope and tells anyone who will listen how they’ll all die once the warriors return. Nary a man is left healthy. Even the British accountants and the cook bought it back in the first wave. Nobody knows how many bullets the garrison has left.
The big finale arrives. Zulu warriors line up on all sides. They commence singing, chanting, and dancing. The British soldiers sing back. The movie is resolved with a sing-off. I think that was the third time I’d barfed so I called it a night.
Sgt. Boer “They’re not taunting you, they’re respecting your BRAVERY!”
Based on the movie, you’d think most of the British were slaughtered on their way to emptying Africa of its precious natives. In reality, 15 British soldiers were killed along with an estimated 400 Zulu. Possibly 300 more badly-wounded Zulu were killed or perished after the battle.
Hollywood has been ruining our heroes and stories for a very, very long time, and Zulu is a great example. Skip it. You’d have more fun getting another Fauci Ouchie.