The Battle of Rorke's Drift
January 23, 2008 7:57 AM   Subscribe

This epic battle scene from Zulu was great cinema, but wasn't quite accurate historically.

According to this, they didn't really sing Men of Harlech. But otherwise, they stayed pretty close to the story. The resident historian at Isandlwana Lodge tells it like this and provides a nice map. Compare it to Lt. Chard's map of the battle. MilitaryHistoryOnline.com describes the battle in great detail. Eleven Victoria crosses were awarded as a result, the largest number for a single regiment at one action.
posted by RussHy (38 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
the resident historian omits one important fact. If memory serves me right the battle of Rockes Drift takes place *on the top* of a hill, rather than in the valley below, as depicted in the film version.
posted by MrMerlot at 8:06 AM on January 23, 2008


70mm + Michael Caine + John Barry score = great cinema.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:10 AM on January 23, 2008


No top tenors. Schoolboy error from the impi, really.
posted by Abiezer at 8:15 AM on January 23, 2008


The contrasting Brit/Zulu music is very cool. I'll bet someone with a good memory of movies could put together a good post of film scenes featuring music as weapons, starting with this and moving on to Casablanca with the Germans singing their music and the French doing the national anthem.
posted by etaoin at 8:17 AM on January 23, 2008


I think that was Michael Caine's first movie. Some photos here, scroll down a little....
posted by RussHy at 8:18 AM on January 23, 2008


For Music as weapon, I'd start with bagpipes.
posted by RussHy at 8:18 AM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Stop throwing those bloody spears at me" :). Great links, my favourite bit of trivia from Zulu is that Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, chief of the Zulu Nation played Cetawayo in the film.
posted by invisible_al at 8:20 AM on January 23, 2008



70mm + no use of shallow focus = waste of money
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 8:23 AM on January 23, 2008


I remember seeing this on TV when I was just a kid. It's as every bit as epic as I remember it. Thanks for the bit of nostalgia.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 8:28 AM on January 23, 2008


The contrasting Brit/Zulu music is very cool.

Right through my childhood this was the definitive Sunday afternoon movie for British TV. It felt like every rainy weekend either this or Sink the Bismark was on. I must have seen this film a bazillion times, but that combo of music never fails to stir me.
posted by vbfg at 8:29 AM on January 23, 2008


Of course nowadays you'd only need three people to film this.
posted by washburn at 8:37 AM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


My biggest grip with the film is the portrayal of Rev. Witt. In the actual battle, he went around with an ammunition box giving cartridges to the troops, and encouraging them to fight. He wasn't any "man of peace", and he didn't try to convince the soldiers to give up -- and he didn't get kicked out of the post on a wagon.

I also didn't like the characterization of Commissary Dalton. He's presented as being kind of prissy, almost gay. In actuality, Dalton had been a colour sergeant in the regular military, and was eventually offered a commission in the commissary as a second career. In the actual battle he picked up a rifle and effectively acted as third in command. That's the reason he was given a V.C.

The battle is portrayed well, but the characters were changed rather drastically, in some cases to nearly libelous degrees.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:45 AM on January 23, 2008


I hate to say this (because I really enjoy the film), but if you look carefully at the invading Zulus in the background of certain scenes once the attack proper has started - you can clearly see many of them are just milling around or standing there, but not really charging at all.
posted by stinkycheese at 8:55 AM on January 23, 2008


Of course nowadays you'd only need three people to film this.
Whatever you save on casting extras you'd spend on the stars, so no real gain. I think I saw discussion of a remake at IMDB. I don't know how to cast it. For one thing, who could play the Colour Sergeant?
posted by RussHy at 8:57 AM on January 23, 2008


Right through my childhood this was the definitive Sunday afternoon movie for British TV.

Same here, only in the Bay Area, on Saturdays. Our rotation was pretty much Zulu, the Great Escape, the Eagle Has Landed, The Magnificent Seven, and High Noon. My Dad and I were avid classic war movie watchers; my Mom would watch if the movie was a western and/or had Charles Bronson.

I'm a little bummed that they didn't really sing Men of Harlech, but thanks for this post. I'm going to send it to my Dad.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:08 AM on January 23, 2008


For Music as weapon, I'd start with bagpipes.

Horns of Jericho, and dem walls came a tumblin' down.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:09 AM on January 23, 2008


if you look carefully at the invading Zulus in the background of certain scenes once the attack proper has started - you can clearly see many of them are just milling around or standing there, but not really charging at all.

I've always planned on adopting that strategy if I'm ever stuck in a battle, and analysis of actual battles suggests that I wouldn't be the only one. Bourke's "An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-face Killing in Twentieth-century Warfare" summarises data from multiple sources to suggest a considerable amount of combatants hide out, fail to discharge their weapons, etc, in any large-scale encounter.
posted by biffa at 9:14 AM on January 23, 2008


I love this movie, but I am in total agreement with Steven's critique above.
posted by darkstar at 9:14 AM on January 23, 2008


Zulu!

Gestapo!

Zulu!

Gestapo!
posted by box at 9:16 AM on January 23, 2008


Ooh, just remembered. The bit at the end where the Zulus line up on the hill top to salute the soldiers.... When the general / leader bloke starts singing it sounds like the "come on, come on..." bit from Leader of the Gang by Gary Glitter.

Mentioning Gary Glitter is now more offensive than a celebration of imperialism, so be careful who you tell that to.
posted by vbfg at 9:20 AM on January 23, 2008


SCDB - I had read that Witt wasn't actually present at the mission station during the battle, and the links here seem to confirm that:
"Between 16:00 and 16:30 events moved rapidly. The Reverends Smith and Witt came scampering down from the Shiyane to warn the garrison of the Zulus' approach. (Surgeon Reynolds had seen the earlier approach of Adendorff and the other survivors, and had returned then to see if any required medical attention.) At this time Witt left the station to be with his wife, whom he had sent to a nearby settlement."
(from)
posted by Abiezer at 9:29 AM on January 23, 2008


...a celebration of imperialism

The movie is absolutely a celebration of imperialism, as was the awarding of so many VCs for the battle. I understand that glorifying the heroes at Rorke's Drift served to minimize the outrageous defeat of iperial troops by 'natives' at Isandhwlana the day before.
posted by RussHy at 9:31 AM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Gasp! A major film production takes a few liberties with the event it purports to portray. Something unheard of! I haven't been this shocked and disillusioned since I read the disclaimer at the end of "The Greek Tycoon" with Jacqueline Bissett and Anthony Quinn, that "Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental."

Next thing you know they'll be telling us that eight Japanese fighters weren't shot down over Pearl Harbor by a guy who looked like Ben Affleck or that the Leonardo de Caprio character in "Titanic" is not the "J Dawson" buried in the Titanic victims section of the Halifax cemetery.

Infamy!

PS... "Zulu", and its sister movie, "Zulu Dawn" (about the Battle of Isandlwana) are both damned fine battle movies and close enough to what survivors have recounted of the real events that the quibbles merely make for good discussion, not grist for condeming the entire works.
posted by Mike D at 9:32 AM on January 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Abiezer, my information came from a book about the Zulu war that I no longer own. Historians differ in opinions about things, and my book may have been wrong.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:38 AM on January 23, 2008


I'll bet someone with a good memory of movies could put together a good post of film scenes featuring music as weapons

My name is a killing word.
posted by Bonzai at 9:43 AM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Abiezer, my information came from a book about the Zulu war that I no longer own...."

Uh huh. I tried a similar spin with the last $10 million Lotto 649 draw. The fact that I'm posting this comment on my lunch hour from my cubicle should tell you how well that worked out.

:-)
posted by Mike D at 9:43 AM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


SCDB - yes, mine originally just came from some other website, and only thought to have a check when I read your above. Had also read about the dubious portrayals of some of the soldiers (Sgt. Hook particularly iirc), so they certainly were taking liberties with personalities for dramatic reasons.
posted by Abiezer at 9:47 AM on January 23, 2008


And now I check for him, turns out Henry Hook VC was a private.
posted by Abiezer at 9:50 AM on January 23, 2008


Wow, the comments section for the Youtube Zulu video is brutal:

"There's nothing nicer than seeing 2,000 niggers mowed down like cattle."

"Africa is a shithole. Africans can't govern themselves, so they need to be governed."

"You don't give a shit about your own goddamn country? Then you are a spineless fucking anarchist worm!"
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 9:54 AM on January 23, 2008


A movie that's not factual?

Hogwash!
posted by P.o.B. at 9:59 AM on January 23, 2008


If they remade this today they would have at least one American in there somewhere....

Michael Caine modelled his part on Prince Charles (he was talking about it on a documentary last year)

And it really is class Sunday/Bank Holiday telly... up there with the Italian Job and The Great Escape.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:16 AM on January 23, 2008


I love this movie, but there are some things that severely test my ability to suspend disbelief:

1) Henry Hook was a devout Baptist, a teetotaller, and had been awarded several good conduct medals prior to the battle.

2) Many accounts show that Commissary Dalton led the defense of the station. Some of these accounts go so far as to claim that Chard was not competent to lead men into battle and that Chard was actually well below average -- almost borderline retarded -- in intelligence. Dalton is the one who made the decision to defend the station rather than fleeing.

3) The Zulus that attacked the station did not attack at Isandhlwana, so they couldn't have picked up rifles there. They had firearms, though they were mostly flintlock muskets. The Zulus were under orders not to cross the border and retreated at the first sign of Chelmsford's relief column without taking the time to "honor" the men at the station by singing to them.

4) The large number of VCs handed out (there were also 5 Distinguished Conduct Medals awarded) may have been less a matter of impressive bravery and more of political spin. The British had just gotten their butts kicked at Isandhlwana (which remains the greatest defeat by British forces at the hands of natives in history) and they needed to mitigate the damage. Rorke's Drift was the perfect dog wag.

5) There's absolutely no mention of Harry Paget Flashman.
posted by forrest at 11:15 AM on January 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


At least one American? Why not make them all American? Though you could argue that the movie is essentially a Western, so it would only be fair!
posted by alasdair at 11:25 AM on January 23, 2008


Henry Hook was a devout Baptist, a teetotaller, and had been awarded several good conduct medals prior to the battle. Trying to imagine Michael Caine playing that part...
posted by QuietDesperation at 12:14 PM on January 23, 2008


My favorite trivia is that many of the Zulu "warriors" are wearing wristwatches -- which is what the extras were paid with. Also, some of the shield lines were on frames with a human actor only at the ends.

I think, like MikeD, that this is a fine bit of cinema and takes acceptable liberties with history in the interest of a good story.
posted by dhartung at 12:23 PM on January 23, 2008


washburn : Of course nowadays you'd only need three people to film this.

Why not? Done right you could film the invasion at Omaha Beach with only three or four people.
posted by quin at 1:46 PM on January 23, 2008


“I've always planned on adopting that strategy if I'm ever stuck in a battle, and analysis of actual battles suggests that I wouldn't be the only one”

There’s an old joke about that.
Just before a battle an officer is addressing his men and says “Men, it doesn’t look good. We’re outnumbered three to one. I expect every man to fight his best and do his duty. Remember I’m counting on you and so are the men in your unit.”
And the battle commences and it’s an incredibly violent running battle with hard charging advances and near rout retreats. Explosions. Burning tanks. Missiles. Out of control vehicles. Buildings are being destroyed. Snipers are hiding in the wreckage. Machine guns are raking the streets. Aircraft are dropping bomb after bomb. Artillery is pounding the dust. There’s thick smoke and blood everywhere. The river is choked with bodies and debris. The innards of the dead are spilled in the streets. The screams of the wounded echo from allies made by the few walls left standing.
Downed planes are burning along with the incendiary bombs and the city is in flames.
Amidst the hellish chaos the officer sees one of his men, a private, unwounded, not a mark on him, casually leaning on a lamp post smoking a cigarette.

The officer charges over “What the hell do you think you’re doing!?” he bellows.
The private says casually: “What, I killed my three.”
posted by Smedleyman at 3:29 PM on January 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


One of the points that star/producer Stanley Baker and director Cy Endfield (who were both Welsh) wanted to make is that the regiment that fought at Rorke's Drift was a primarily Welsh regiment ("although there are some foreigners from England, too," as one character said). Hence the "Men from Harlech" song. Even if the troops didn't sing the song during the battle, I'm sure it was sung at some point, and probably during a bit of imbibing. I'm not remotely Welsh, although I Zulu is a great war movie, one of the best of the "isolated group trying to hold off a numerically superior enemy" genre. It still holds up today. What I also like about it is that the Zulu are presented as brave fighters in their own right.
posted by mellowmonk at 10:17 AM on January 25, 2008


« Older How to win at the internet.   |   last.fm gets major upgrade Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments