Policemen Ali Sokhela and Brian Epkeen investigate the brutal murder of a young white woman, apparently provoked by the availability of a new illegal drug and somehow connected to the disappearance of black street children.
Two Lieutenants, Chard of Engineers and Bromhead find that their 140 man contingent in Natal has been isolated by the destruction of the main British Army column and that 4,000 Zulu warriors will descend on them in hours. Each has a different military background in tactics and they are immediatly in conflict on how to prepare for the attack. Nearly a third of the men are in the infirmary, as the welsh company tries to somehow survive with no help in sight. Based on a true story.
If you watch only the first two minutes of 'Zulu', it will be worth your while. The superbly dramatic theme music, followed immediately by Richard Burton's striking Welsh narration, are utterly entrancing. The rest of the film is not bad, either!
In January 1879, during the Boer War, at Isandhlwana in South Africa, over one thousand British troops are annihilated by King Cetshwayo's Zulu army. Standing between the four thousand Zulus and victory is the mission station at Rorke's Drift and about one hundred and forty British soldiers, some of whom are wounded. Commanding the military operation is the young Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker, also co-producer of the film) with Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine, in his first major film role). Against the unimaginable odds, the British troops - the B Company of the 24th Regiment of Foot, South Wales Borderers - manage, with exceptional courage and stoicism, to hold off the Zulu attacks until morning. The valour of the men defending Rourke's Drift resulted in the awarding of eleven Victoria Crosses. The roll of honour is recited by Richard Burton at the film's end.
Baker and Caine are very convincing in the two lead roles as Chard and Bromhead, the rival lieutenants from different social classes who come to respect and even like each other. Their first meeting emphasises the psychological as well as the physical distance between them. Chard, the Engineer Officer, in his shirt-sleeves, is up to his waist in water; Bromhead, the upper-class blue-blood, in his helmet and fine cloak, is on horseback, having just returned from hunting. However, as the battle progresses, this rivalry is forgotten as their prime concern is the job in hand. Their exchange when Chard is injured and Bromhead goes to his aid is telling. By the end of the film, as they stand together in the burnt-out ruins of the hospital, they are equals.
The incredibly virile Stanley Baker (one wants to say, "Fwhoar!" every time he appears on screen) co-produced the film because, like most Welshmen, he was extremely patriotic and wanted to publicise the bravery of the Welsh soldiers at Rorke's Drift. Michael Caine auditioned originally for the part of Hook but was offered instead the part of Bromhead as his looks were considered more suited to those of an upper-class officer than a Cockney private.
Good support is given by the other actors in the supporting roles. James Booth as Private Henry Hook is probably the most memorable character, portrayed (historically inaccurately) as the company ne'er-do-well, yet who wakes up to his duty at the moment of crisis and fights almost to the death. Jack Hawkins and Ulla Jacobssen are effective as the well-meaning but naive father-and-daughter missionaries, the Witts. The outstanding bravery and selflessness of the other (mainly) Welsh soldiers is brought out by all the actors in the subordinate roles.
What I think is very admirable about 'Zulu' is its lack of jingoism. Far from it crowing about British supremacy over the natives, it portrays the bravery of the Zulus as equal to or even greater than that of the British. At the end of the battle, there is no great rejoicing; it was just a job which had to be done because they were there. In the ruins of the hospital, when Chard asks Bromhead how he feels, Bromhead replies, "Sick." Their dialogue continues:
Bromhead: There's something else. I feel ashamed. Was that how it was for you? The first time?
Chard: First time? Do you think I could stand this butcher's yard more than once?
Bromhead: I didn't know.
Chard: I told you. I came up here to build a bridge.
No more needs to be said.
Although the character names and events are factual, the film does sometimes sacrifice historical accuracy for dramatic effect. How much real rivalry there was between Chard and Bromhead is unclear - although it is true that Bromhead ceded command to Chard. Private Hook was not the thief and ne'er-do-well as played by James Booth. Colour Sergeant Bourne was a short man and quite unlike Nigel Green in appearance. Most of the Victoria Cross winners were English, not Welsh. And the film itself was shot not at Rorke's Drift but at a location some miles away.
Interestingly, neither Chard nor Bromhead lived to a great age. Both died in their forties, Chard of mouth cancer in 1897 and Bromhead of fever on active service a few years before. Neither ever married. Nevertheless, their names are immortalised in 'Zulu' - as are the deeds of the tremendously brave men, Welsh, English and Zulu, at Rorke's Drift on 22nd/23rd January 1879.
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