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October 23, 2014 7:17 PM   Subscribe

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the film Zulu, which depicts the Battle of Rorke's Drift (previously) in 1879. Here's a little history of the production, as well as ten things you may not know about the film and an argument that it's the best British war film ever made. Film Historian Sheldon Hall discusses the film's legacy, and Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi (who portrayed his own great grandfather in the film) reminisces about the shoot.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI (51 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is one of my father's favorite movies - but he digs the Zulu warriors rather than the English. More specifically, his favorite scenes are all of the Zulu soldiers' "Forth Eorlingas" moments.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:30 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


finally saw it recently (c/o Youtube), though in a weird way, I found Zulu Dawn more compelling. It's not as good a movie, but I have a weakness for watching utter disasters unfold. It is very much complimentary history, concerning the battle that preceded Rorke's Drift ...
posted by philip-random at 7:31 PM on October 23, 2014


Excellent post, 178838.
posted by pompomtom at 7:34 PM on October 23, 2014 [3 favorites]


I read a history book about the Zulu war that included a chapter about that battle, and ever since I've resented the writer of that movie. His misrepresentations of some of the men are so egregious as to represent libel, were they still around to sue.

For instance, the Reverend Witt: He wasn't kicked off the post, and he didn't try to demoralize the men. During the battle he carried a box of ammunition around giving reloads to the soldiers doing the fighting.

Another example: Henry Hook is presented as a malingerer and a drunkard. The real Henry Hook didn't drink, and he wasn't a discipline problem.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:02 PM on October 23, 2014 [7 favorites]


Yeah, won't somebody please think of the reputations of guys who went halfway around the world to kill people and take their lands for the sin of not being white?
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:15 PM on October 23, 2014 [5 favorites]


Hey now, the British have historically been perfectly happy to kill you and take your lands even if you are white.
posted by Justinian at 8:17 PM on October 23, 2014 [32 favorites]




Bloody history. Always gets in the way of good story.

the reputations of guys who went halfway around the world to kill people

which is another reason why I preferred Zulu Dawn, the Brits being presented as very much masters of their own destruction.

and take their lands for the sin of not being white?

what Justinian just said.
posted by philip-random at 8:22 PM on October 23, 2014


This is more than black and white; Southern Africa could have been anyone's; the English made it just over Zulu and Dutch, had Rorke's Drift been different, Africa would be, maybe for the better - then again maybe not.

On preview: find a new language if you don't like British colonialisation kids.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 8:24 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


Re Philip-random's link: I am confusing the Reverend Witt with Padre Smith, who was the one who distributed ammunition during the battle.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:32 PM on October 23, 2014


The making of Zulu. (Youtube, 20 min)
posted by mrettig at 8:49 PM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yeah, won't somebody please think of the reputations of guys who went halfway around the world to kill people and take their lands for the sin of not being white?

So historical inaccuracy is fine as long as it portrays someone you don't like in a negative light? That's the attitude that's given us entire legions of monocle-wearing Nazis, whooping feather-headdressed Injuns, baby-bayonetting Huns (/Hessians/Redcoats), Commie nogoodniks, and scheming, profiteering Yids.

I await the director's cut where British soldiers are tying Zulu women to railroad tracks so that viewers can at last be certain that colonialism is wrong.
posted by Palindromedary at 8:50 PM on October 23, 2014 [22 favorites]


On preview: find a new language if you don't like British colonialisation kids.

no
posted by Greg Nog at 9:06 PM on October 23, 2014 [7 favorites]


I've always divorced the film from history or politics and focused on the core plot: The vastly outnumbered group defending a post against an overwhelming force. In this respect, it does extremely well, and it's exciting whether it's Brits against Zulus, Samurai against bandits or Cops and Criminals against a street gang.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 9:10 PM on October 23, 2014 [9 favorites]


From the Telegraph piece:
The real Hook, however, was a teetotal Methodist and a model soldier. He was even awarded good conduct pay shortly before the battle, and his elderly daughter walked out of the film premiere in disgust at his portrayal.
whoa, what
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:22 PM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


On preview: find a new language if you don't like British colonialisation kids.

oh yes of course i recall reading the EULA when i installed english into my brain as a child

iirc it read LOL U NOW SUPORT SLAVERY N GENOCIDE BYE
posted by poffin boffin at 9:28 PM on October 23, 2014 [11 favorites]


That's the attitude that's given us entire legions of monocle-wearing Nazis

Perhaps not legions, but it was a style of the period. (yes, yes, strictly speaking, Wehrmacht High Command does not always equal Nazi party member, but I hope you see my point)

To be fair, MI5 did have a monocled master interrogator, known as Robin "Tin Eye" Stephens.
posted by chambers at 9:36 PM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


I saw Zulu on its first run when I was nine on a giant screen in the afternoon with my pals. I remember being very impressed with the line dancing native girls.
posted by wrapper at 9:45 PM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


A very good solitaire wargame about the battle. A review of the game.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:45 PM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


This may seem like it comes from the Dads thread, but it's apropos here.
My Dad loves this movie. A couple of details for reference: He's Irish Catholic, his grand-dad was in the IRA when it was a proper army and not a terrorist organization, and Dad will say that Britain's first and last colony is Ireland ("Ask the Welsh and the Scots about that, Dad").
Dad went to Boston College where there are, as you might imagine, a few other Irish Catholics of his like. The story goes that Zulu was one of the most popular films on campus when it showed because vast groups of undergrads would gather together and root for the Zulus against the British. Clapping along to the war chants. Booing Michael Caine.
Now, as it's easy to see that there's a world of difference between moderately privileged white kids and Africans crushed under colonization. But I like that there was that little bit of common ground between the one and the other, based on the common sentiment of "Fuck the Brits!" It's hardly the worst banner for a disparate group of folks to get behind.
posted by aureliobuendia at 9:48 PM on October 23, 2014 [6 favorites]


I briefly fell in with this group of dudes in high school. They had booze they had cigs, they had the promise of girls if not any actual girls. They were tough and outsiders and that's how I saw myself. I started to join the group.

One day about a week into me being a part of the gang, they said "let's go to Jimmys dads place and watch Zulu movies."

I'd never heard of a Zulu movie but it sounded interesting. As they were cueing up the VHS tape one of my new buds turns to me and says "ready to watch a million niggers die!"

My heart sank. I have a lot of issues but racism has always made me sick. They cheered the movie, completely misunderstanding it. I think it was Zulu Dawn. I never hung out with those guys again.
posted by chaz at 10:04 PM on October 23, 2014 [5 favorites]


"Don't you throw those bloody spears at me!"

And yes, the film is a perfect representation of the postwar British psyche in the twilight of empire.

Not twiglet of empire, thank you autocorrect.
posted by fallingbadgers at 10:36 PM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


Jack Hawkins was upset at the way his character (Rev. Witt) was shown on film, and refused to attend the opening.
posted by unliteral at 10:58 PM on October 23, 2014


Slightly breathless but interesting (so far, I'm only ten minutes in) documentary about history of and battlefield archaeology at Isandlwanda.
posted by Ahab at 10:58 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


There are three soldiers who fought at Rorke's Drift in our village cemetary - two were buried in pauper's graves.
posted by dvrmmr at 11:18 PM on October 23, 2014 [3 favorites]


The immediately preceding Battle of Isandlwana is more interesting to me. It's the worst defeat for the once thought invincible British Army and was the culmination of Shaka's militarisation of the Zulus.
posted by PenDevil at 1:03 AM on October 24, 2014


My family fought in the South African wars (and later against the Irish in Ireland). I love the film because it allows a white, British, upper-middle class man like me to be a hero, for once in a movie (after 1940, and not written by Shakespeare...)

White, American, kind-of-working-class men are usually the heroes. People who look and sound like me are usually the villains, defeated by the American guy (probably called "O'Something" or McSomething"). Of course, we would be: the American Republic came out of fighting us, and lots of our subject peoples fled there. So Hollywood makes us bad guys. Makes sense. Just gets a bit boring for me on a personal level.

Of course, we arguably ARE the villains in ZULU, but that's not the point I'm trying to make. It's just fun for me to see my ethnicity as a good guy for once.

Finally, this is one of those (relatively few!) times when it's really important to get British/English right: many of the soldiers are Welsh, not English: hence the singing. The Welsh have traditionally prided themselves on their music (and literature and rugby), and whilst British, are emphatically not English. (My forebears who fought in South Africa were Scots, but would have sounded like Michael Caine and called themselves both British and Scottish, it's all very confusing...)
posted by alasdair at 1:06 AM on October 24, 2014 [5 favorites]


The Egyptian theater in LA had a Caine series in the late 90s, he couldn't attend any of the screenings but agreed to be filmed for an interview. He said he was the only one to wear his pith helmet properly to shade his eyes, though it obscured his face.
posted by brujita at 1:09 AM on October 24, 2014


I await the director's cut where British soldiers are tying Zulu women to railroad tracks so that viewers can at last be certain that colonialism is wrong.

If there's one thing the British Empire truly excelled in it was the cultivation of the twirlable moustache.
posted by sobarel at 1:14 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


For instance, the Reverend Witt: He wasn't kicked off the post, and he didn't try to demoralize the men. During the battle he carried a box of ammunition around giving reloads to the soldiers doing the fighting.

So I watched Zulu for the first time recently and the reverend struck me as the hero of the piece. After all, the fight the British are having is pointless. They are willing to die to a man to protect a gorge that isn't there, and kill many in the process. Its can be seen (I saw it) as a paen to the futility of conflict. Some of these men are quite decent, some are not, but most of them will be dead in a few days time.

I also enjoyed how remarkably rubbish the death acting of everyone is. "Oh no, I got stabbed in the armpit by a spear!" "Argh a bayonet went somewhere in the vicinity of my body!"
posted by Cannon Fodder at 1:20 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


His misrepresentations of some of the men are so egregious as to represent libel, were they still around to sue.

And yet the film was co-written by an historian whose article about the battle had inspired producer-director-co-writer Cy Endfield. I have to wonder how much of the misrepresentation was deliberate, for story purposes, versus misconceptions or debatable points amongst historians, but all I've found is a sort of miffed polemic approach.

Today it would be more common to change names or create composite characters to finesse this approach. (Last night, for example, I watched Kinky Boots, which does exactly that: "While based on real events .... etc. .... no character should be taken as a direct portrayal of any real individual.") It's also touchy because the film deals with failure, death, and survivors' guilt, so showing someone in a negative light would seem to come close to indicting them for the failure of the defense.

Anyway, the attitudes of friends like those of chaz, above, kept me away from the film for a very long time, even though it was freely available on WGN-TV and run rather often. It was only when I started to get a real interest in Michael Caine as an actor and I read a fairly brief reference to it as a fantastic portrayal of an historical incident that I eventually watched it and discovered what a great film it is (regardless of historicity). I don't even think it's particularly racist, even though it would by no means be made the same way again.

I think it's particularly interesting the way it portrays a battlefield loss (well, at best, a pyrrhic victory), which allows anti-war and anti-imperialist interpretations (even if the film itself doesn't foreground them).
posted by dhartung at 1:40 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


I loved it. The Zulu were given an enormous amount of credit in it, I thought. Someone mocks them, and a Boer who escaped to give warning pulls the guy up sharply to talk about what bad asses the Zulus are, and how cleverly they fight.

I loved all the little character pieces with the reverend, and the sergeant on his sickbed screaming how he made a soldier out of 'ook', and the Welsh dudes with numbers instead of names, and the imperturbable bible quoting drill sergeant, and the exciting finish and the sickness at the devastation at the end, and how Stanley Baker reveals it's his first combat action at the end. And the singing.

And Michael Caine doing a fop.

Funny exciting and brilliantly shot. Top class movie. It doesn't matter to me whether it's accurate or not.
posted by Swandive at 3:41 AM on October 24, 2014 [4 favorites]


I loved it. The Zulu were given an enormous amount of credit in it, I thought. Someone mocks them, and a Boer who escaped to give warning pulls the guy up sharply to talk about what bad asses the Zulus are, and how cleverly they fight.

That exchange contains my favorite quote:

Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead: "Damn the levies man... Cowardly blacks!"
Adendorff: "What the hell do you mean 'cowardly blacks?' They died on your side, didn't they? And who the hell do you think is coming to wipe out your little command? The Grenadier Guards!?"
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 4:21 AM on October 24, 2014 [6 favorites]


find a new language if you don't like British colonialisation kids.

Qapla'!
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:26 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


IT'S IMPERIALISM GUV'NA!
posted by blue_beetle at 5:48 AM on October 24, 2014


wrapper wrote: I saw Zulu on its first run when I was nine on a giant screen in the afternoon with my pals.

And here I thought I was all alone and adrift in this metafilter sea of youth. *sniff*
I saw it with my parents and little brother at a drive-in when I was ten.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 5:56 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


I love this movie as well, and enjoy the "prequel" Zulu Dawn too. One of my ex-girlfriends used to say that she would have never known anything about the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 if she hadn't dated me.

Being of Welsh-American heritage myself I take a bit of pride in the story. Watching this film with my Jewish roommates earned me the nickname of "dozy Welshman".

The films do give the Zulus enormous credit, which they certainly earned, considering how bravely they fought. However I'd love to see how things were from the Zulu point of view, or, especially, see the story of Cetshwayo on screen.

Also, while the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift are well covered, nothing has ever gone to film about the Siege of Eshowe, which was the third battle that day.
posted by smoothvirus at 7:13 AM on October 24, 2014


I rather liked the interview with the Zulu politician and leader who played Cetshwayo - the interviewer keeps on bringing it back to 'but isn't it awfully racist?' and the Zulu's just like "nah, it was fine, no bothers, it was just a thing of its time".
posted by YouRebelScum at 8:05 AM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]


On preview: find a new language if you don't like British colonialisation kids.

no
posted by Greg Nog


Aww, crap. Do we really have to go with Spanish, Greg Nog?
posted by Seamus at 8:52 AM on October 24, 2014


Mr Hall's book, Zulu: With Some Guts Behind it, has been out of print for ages and fetches in three figures.

Rumor has it that the second edition will be out before the end of next month in paperback and at a much more affordable price.

Now I can answer the what do you want for Christmas question.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:00 AM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]


YouRebelScum: and the Zulu's just like "nah, it was fine, no bothers, it was just a thing of its time".

Well, more like "It is a historical representation of our people. Our ancestors' songs sung by us are not blackface."
posted by IAmBroom at 10:02 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


End of the film. Guy appears on the horizon accompanied by tens of thousands of others. He leads them in song to praise the fallen dead.

It always and always will sound like Gary Glitter at the start of Do You Want to be in my Gang?
posted by vbfg at 11:17 AM on October 24, 2014


I recently re-watched the movie Gladiator, and I was struck how the Barbarians in the beginning (Visigoths? Gauls? I actually don't remember where the battle took place) used pretty much the same battle chants as the Zulu warriors in this movie.
posted by sideshow at 12:33 PM on October 24, 2014


I used the "buffalo horns" against many, many enemies when I was a pretend nobleman in an imaginary kingdom. Which I learned because Dad loves this movie.

I also adapted "Men of Harlech" into a national anthem for my fictional fiefdom, but I was the only one who knew the tune. Which I learned because Dad loves this movie.

I never saw it in the way chaz's friends did, but I always saw the message of the movie as anti-war. What was the point of brave men dying in such a battle? There wasn't one, and the same is true of many battles.
posted by ob1quixote at 2:11 PM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


I watched these both in the last two weeks and was struck by how much more...forced, I guess, Zulu Dawn was, and I think the movie-watching experience suffered for it. Zulu Dawn just seemed so much more self-aware than Zulu.

There probably could have been excellent movies made about both battles that hewed closer to historical truth, but simply from the perspective of sitting down and watching a movie for entertainment, I found Zulu Dawn really lacking. It laid on the "British are so arrogant and evil" more thickly than I needed, I guess.

Also, Burt Lancaster's accent! God in heaven, ugh.
posted by MoonOrb at 2:57 PM on October 24, 2014


I used the "buffalo horns" against many, many enemies when I was a pretend nobleman in an imaginary kingdom. Which I learned because Dad loves this movie.

Same tactic predates this by a long millenia.

When something works....
posted by IndigoJones at 4:37 PM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


What's amazing about the Zulu's militarily at that time was that Shaka came up with the organization and the tactics entirely on his own, without any knowledge of military science from elsewhere in the world.

His basic infantry tactics pretty much replicate those of Roman Legions. The spear was effectively a short sword (they never threw them). The soldier held the spear in the middle, with the shaft of the spear acting as counterweight (as a replacement for a pommel). And in southern Africa those tactics were revolutionary and Shaka conquered a large territory with them.

However, at the time of the Battle of Rorke's Drive, Shaka had been dead for a long time, and there was no equivalent contemporary genius to update things. Zulu weapons and tactics had been stagnant for decades.

After these two battles, the British changed their doctrine and began to treat groups of Zulus attacking as if they were cavalry. The British would go into square, and that was even more effective against the Zulu impis than it was against cavalry.

At Isandlwana they had fought in line and tried to drive off the Zulu with gunfire, which didn't work because it underestimated Zulu morale. Eventually their battle line was flanked, and then they were slaughtered.

A square has no flank. It's vulnerable to cannon fire, but the Zulu had no cannon. So it was perfect.

The remaining battles of this war went badly for the Zulu, because Chelmsford learned from his mistakes. In the final battle he formed a divisional square and advanced in that formation.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:10 PM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]


IndigoJones: Same tactic predates this by a long millenia.

When something works....
No disagreement. Still, I didn't learn about Cannae until I was an adult. I learned about the buffalo horns when I was a boy because Dad loves this movie.
posted by ob1quixote at 7:06 PM on October 24, 2014


The spear was effectively a short sword (they never threw them). The soldier held the spear in the middle, with the shaft of the spear acting as counterweight (as a replacement for a pommel).

My understanding is that the shortened iXwa wasn't thrown, but the traditional longer isiJula was thrown on approach.
posted by zamboni at 7:21 PM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


Which sounds an awful lot like the Roman Pilum, doesn't it?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:03 PM on October 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


The Secrets of the Dead: Isandlwana episode that Ahab linked above is excellent. Recommended if you haven't seen it yet. (All the Secrets of the Dead episodes are great.)
posted by Lexica at 10:35 PM on October 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


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