Because the Zulus, who were playing the extras in the film, had never seen a movie, Stanley Baker held an outdoor screening of a Gene Autry movie for them, so they would have an idea of what movies were all about.
The 700+ Zulu extras were largely descendants of the actual warriors who took part in the battle, among them the then chief of the Zulu Nation, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, taking the role of his predecessor, Cetawayo.
During the performance of his one-man show, Michael Caine related that he finished his audition, he was rejected for the part. A few months later he was attending a cocktail party, which Joseph E. Levine, the film's executive producer, was also attending. Levine asked Caine if he still wanted the part, and Caine reminded him that his audition was considered "terrible". Levine replied that the original actor took very ill, and the crew was leaving for South Africa from Heathrow the next morning. Caine Levine's hand, left the party and went home to pack his bags.
It had been reported that because of the strict apartheid laws enforced in South Africa at the time, the Zulu extras could not be paid equivalent rates to their white counterparts. To get around this director Cy Endfield gifted all of the animals bought for this film (particularly cows) to the tribes.
Colour Sergeant Bourne, shown as a much older man in the film, was only 24 during the defense of Rorke's Drift, and was the last defender of the post to die, as an honorary Lieutenant Colonel, on VE Day, May 8, 1945, at the age of 91.
Jack Hawkins was upset at the way his character (Rev. Witt) was shown on film. He admitted he did not like the way his scenes had been edited in his 1973 autobiography "Anything for a Quiet Life", although he denied reports that he had left the premiere.
The Epilogue, narrated by Richard Burton, states that 11 soldiers from the battle were awarded the Victoria Cross, which is correct. However, 12 soldiers were actually nominated for the award, the 12th being being Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne (played by Nigel Green). On being informed of his nomination, Bourne requested that he be given a commission instead, which the army agreed to do, awarding him the Distinguished Service Medal instead of the V.C. Bourne was the youngest colour sergeant in the British Army at the time, and went on to have a distinguished career, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. When he died in 1945 he was the last surviving British soldier from the battle.
Stanley Baker owned John Chard's Victoria Cross (and other medals) from 1972 until his death in 1976. Originally thought to be what is known as a "cast copy", the Victoria Cross was later proven, after a series of tests, to be the original. Unfortunately, Baker died, never knowing he had the real V.C.
Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who came from a long line of Zulu warriors and royalty, played the part of his ancestor, King Cetywayo in the film: "I played my great-grandfather. The director had actually identified a radio announcer [to play the part], but when he saw me he said that he saw a family resemblance and persuaded me to take part as an extra."
In real life, Pvt. Henry Hook (played by James Booth) was nothing like the hard-drinking, insubordinate, malingering malcontent portrayed in this film. In fact, Hook was never a discipline problem and was known among his fellow soldiers as somewhat of a prude.
One of the film's technical advisors was a princess of the Zulu tribe, and also the tribe's historian. She knew perfectly the strategy of the battle, so she drew it on the sand and Cy Endfield shot it exactly how she drew it.
A new set of lyrics for the Welsh Anthem "Men of Harlech" was written just for this film. People still mistake this version of MOH for the "Original". The "Zulu Film Lyrics" are: Men of Harlech, stop your dreaming: Can't you see the spearpoints gleaming See the warrior pennants streaming O'er the battle field Men of Harlech, stand ye steady It can not be ever said ye For the battle were not ready -- Welshmen never yield! From the hills rebounding Let this war cry sounding Summon all at Cambria's call The mighty foe surrounding -- Men of Harlech, on to glory This will ever be your story: Keep these burning words before ye -- Welshmen will not yield!
The actual Battle of Rorke's Drift took place between 22-23 January 1879. British casualties were reported at 32, including dead and wounded. Zulu casualties were roughly 851, including dead and wounded.
Stanley Baker had no difficulty obtaining financing, because Joseph E. Levine said he would back any project Baker wanted to do. Baker said there was a project he was planning. Levine asked what it was called, and Baker replied, "Zulu". Levine said, "Zulu! I like that title. I will back you". Baker told this in a radio interview in England, and this account is confirmed by his widow in one of the extras on the DVD.
Stanley Baker, an active socialist off-screen, tried to make the film as anti-racist and pro-Zulu as he could. He had to be talked out of addressing a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) rally in case this affected the film's performance at the U.S. box office.
James Booth's character, Pvt. Henry Hook, was required to be in the field hospital, which consisted mostly of interior shots. Therefore Booth did not travel with the cast and crew to South Africa for the filming.
Because the film was shot in South Africa, the cast and crew were lectured on the need to refrain from fraternizing with the topless tribal dancers, since the penalty for interracial sex in the country at the time was seven years hard labor.
In real-life, Chard and Bromhead were considered less than remarkable officers by their superiors, and were in fact considered to be too old (Chard was 32 and Bromhead 33) for their rather junior ranks of Lieutenant. The defense of Rorke's Drift galvanized their careers--Chard was a colonel at the time of his death (of cancer at 49) and Bromhead reached the rank of major before succumbing to typhoid at 46.
Director Cy Endfield wanted a camera crane that was lightweight when disassembled, so that it could be packed and transported through the African bush. Ken Eddy designed the first Filmair Giraffe camera crane for the job, and in so doing started the world's best known camera crane company. This key piece of film gear is used in the film industry to this day.
In real-life Lt. Bromhead, played by Michael Caine as an arrogant "upper class twit", was extremely deaf. It was much more for this reason--rather than the few months' precedence in gaining his commission, which Chard (Stanley Baker) claims in the movie--that Bromhead agreed to relinquish command. Chard's precedence, historically, was closer to three years than to the much more dramatic matter of months.
According to a recent book, Stanley Baker intended the role of Pvt. Hitch to be played by "the actor from That Was the Week That Was (1964) whose surname begins with a K". He was alluding to Roy Kinnear, without realizing that the series also starred David Kernan. When Kernan turned up on the set, Baker realized his mistake but hired him anyway.
Zulu King Cetshwayo kaMpande is played by his real-life great-grandson Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who later became a prominent South African politician. Buthelezi has been the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party since 1975, and served as the South African Minister for Home Affairs, from 1994-2004.
The film was shot in the Royal Natal National Park, which is about 90 miles southwest of Rorke's Drift (the amphitheater mountain forms a dramatic backdrop in the movie). The area surrounding the actual Rorke's Drift is nowhere near as mountainous as in the film.
Commissary Dalton was in no way the upper-class twit he comes across in the film. In fact, he was the most experienced soldier there. Dalton played a major part in the defense and battle plans of the garrison. Chard and Bromhard would turn to him for advice on many issues.
The rifles in the film are Martini-Henry single-shots in .450/577 caliber. The weapons seen in the film are period-correct short lever versions (the design was modified in the 1880s, with a longer lever to aid extraction).
During the first combat scenes the powder charge is significant. In the later battle scenes the rifles buck less because the powder charge is less. This was because at close range, even blanks were still dangerous.
There is very little interaction between the characters in the hospital and those outside, and the patients are never seen taking part in the defense once the building is destroyed. This is because the hospital scenes were filmed at Twickenham studios in the UK, using locally cast Afro-Caribbean actors, and the cast members involved never went to South Africa.
Still Photographer Bob Martin and Nigel Green visited the Zulu war museum in Ladismith and found a Queen Victoria commemorative silk handkerchief on which was printed, "Bugle calls to be used in battle". Green got permission to copy these "notes" after practicing for weeks ("I had not blown a bugle since my navy days years before") and, armed with the prop bugle, Claude Hitchcock and the sound crew recorded the calls in a gorge (for echo effect) they were used in the final soundtrack of the film.
The Union Jack Club is a hotel located directly opposite Waterloo Railway station in London. The foyer features several tall dark wooden panels; they are a Roll of Honour for all V.C. recipients. It adds realism to the events to read the names of the soldiers portrayed in the film.
There is a story that Colour Sergeant Bourne declined the award of a V.C. in favor of an immediate commission. This is untrue. According to the transcript of a radio interview given by Bourne in 1936, he was offered a commission, in addition to the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but felt obliged to turn it down, as he was the youngest of eight sons of a poor family, and could not have afforded to live as an officer was expected to. He was finally commissioned in 1890, 11 years after Rorke's Drift.
During shooting Paramount sent a telegram to the producers in Africa to immediately fire Michael Caine, because they had seen the rushes and decided that he was giving a terrible performance. Caine read that telegram before the producers did, because their secretary gave it to him first. Afterwards, he was very nervous waiting to be fired, but couldn't mention this to the producers because he would get that secretary into trouble. After a few days he mentioned it to one of the producers, making up a story of how he read the telegram. The producer told him he wasn't fired, but warned Caine to keep away from his mail.
It's obvious that many of the close-combat scenes are done with more regard to safety than realism. Bayonets and spears are seen wobbling, indicating they are made of rubber or some other soft material besides metal. The walking stick carried by Pvt. Schiess' (the Swiss soldier played by Dickie Owen) is also made of soft material when he is fighting the Zulu.
In 1936 Colour Sergeant Bourne, believed to be the longest-living survivor of Rorke's Drift, made a BBC radio broadcast describing the 1879 siege and battle. Sadly, the only tapes of that broadcast were later destroyed by the BBC.
There is a great misconception due to this film that the troops at Rourke's Drift were all Welsh. In fact, they were mainly from B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot (2nd Warwickshires). Of the 122 men of the regiment that fought at Rourke's Drift, only 32 were Welsh.
On one of the DVD extras, Stanley Baker's widow, Ellen Martin, says she remembers so well how on the set they played Tom Jones hit record "It's Not Unusual" to the Zulu extras and they were all dancing The Twist to it. This could not have happened, as "It's Not Unusual" was not released until 1965 and "Zulu" was filmed in 1963.
The Psalm quoted by Colour-Sergeant Bourne (Nigel Green) and Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins) prior to the battle is Psalm 46. Between them they quote from verses 9-11, though neither quote in full, or completely accurately.