In 1879, a communiqué from Lord Chelmsford to the Secretary of State for War in London, details the crushing defeat of a British force at the hands of the Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana. In the aftermath of the battle, the victorious Zulus walk amongst the scattered bodies of dead British soldiers and gather their rifles. 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, 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. Receiving news of Isandhlwana from the Natal Native Contingent Commander Adendorff, who warns that an army of 4,000 Zulu warriors is advancing to the British position, senior officer Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker) of the Royal Engineers assumes command of the small British detachment. Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine), an infantry officer, is rather put out to find himself subordinate to an engineer due to the latter’s slightly earlier commission. Realising that they cannot outrun the Zulu army with wounded soldiers, Chard decides to fortify the station and make a stand, using wagons, sacks of mealie, and crates of ship’s biscuit to form a defensive perimeter. Witt becomes drunk and demoralises the men with his dire predictions, causing the soldiers of the Natal Native Contingent to desert. Chard orders him to be locked in a supply room. The soldiers begin to feel nervous when they hear a strange beating sound coming towards them. They realise the sound is the Zulu army. Although the army is not yet in sight, they hear the sound of the Zulus beating their shields with spears. Bromhead says ‘it sounds like a train in the distance’. As the impis approach, a contingent of Boer horsemen arrives. They advise Chard that defending the station is hopeless. They retreat in haste, despite Chard’s desperate pleas for them to stay. The Zulu army, having formed a line of attack along the Oscarberg, approach to within 100 yards (91 m) of the station, ominously rattle their spears against their shields, and then charge. The British open fire and manage to kill at least 60, but Adendorff informs them that the Zulus are testing the British firepower. Witt again predicts the soldiers’ inevitable fate, before escaping the battle with his daughter; this causes further demoralization of the defenders. Chard is concerned that the northern perimeter wall is undermanned but realises that the attack will come from all sides. The defenders are surprised when the Zulu warriors open fire on the station with rifles, taken from the British casualties at Isandlwana. Zulu fire inflicts minimal casualties but further affects the morale of the British defenders. Throughout the day and night, wave after wave of Zulu attackers are repelled. The Zulus 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. Private Henry Hook (James Booth) takes charge and successfully leads the patients to safety.The next morning, the Zulus approach to within several hundred yards and begin singing a war chant; the British respond by singing “Men of Harlech”. In the final assault, just as it seems the Zulus will finally overwhelm the tired defenders, the British soldiers fall back to a small redoubt constructed out of mealie bags. With a reserve of soldiers hidden within the redoubt, they form into three firing ranks, and seamlessly pour volley after volley into the waves of attacking warriors, inflicting heavy casualties. Finally the remainder of the Zulu forces withdraw. After sustaining no attacks for three hours, the defenders are still recovering when the Zulus re-form again on the Oscarberg. Resigned to their imminent defeat, the British are astonished when the Zulus instead sing a song to honour the bravery of the defenders before peacefully withdrawing…

“Zulu” is one of those epic lavish costume dramas from the 60´s and it´s nicely shot with beautiful sceneries and strong performances from the actors including a young Michael Caine. Michael Caine, who at this early stage in his career was primarily playing bit parts, was originally up for the role of Private Henry Hook, which went to James Booth. According to Caine, he was extremely nervous during his screen test for the part of Bromhead, and director Cy Endfield told him that it was the worst screen test he had ever seen, but they were casting Caine in the part anyway because the production was leaving for South Africa shortly and they had not found anyone else for the role. And despite the fact that the director took some creative freedom with the true story, this is yet a powerful piece with historic roots. Most of the characters in the film were based on actual participants of the battle, but their behaviour is mostly fictional – something that has provoked disapproval: in an interview on the DVD, the descendants of Private Hook objected to his portrayal as a thief and malingerer (although his character acts bravely near the end of the film during some desperate fighting). Indeed, Hook’s elderly daughters walked out of the film’s 1964 London premiere. My only objection to “Zulu” is the quite “theatrical” battle scenes that hardly convince anyone in 2014. (4 out of 5)

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