Colour Sergeant Bourne, shown as a much older man in the film, was actually only 24 years old 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, 8th May 1945, at the age of 91.
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, the director gifted all of the animals bought for this film (particularly cows) to the tribes.
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.
Several years ago Michael Caine performed in a one-man show. He stated that when he finished his audition he was rejected for the part. A few months later he was attending a cocktail party which producer Joseph E. Levine was also attending. The producer 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 shook the producer's hand, left the party and went home to pack his bags.
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 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 VC. Bourne was the youngest color 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, 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 US box office.
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, 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.
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 VC.
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".
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.
The historical Battle of Rorke's Drift took place between the 22nd and 23rd of January, 1879. The British casualties were reported at 32 soldiers, including killed and wounded. The Zulu lost roughly 851 including killed and wounded.
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. Also 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.
As none of the Zulus had ever seen a movie, it was difficult for them to understand what they were doing playing to a camera. Stanley Baker sent to Johannesburg for silent movies and ran films of Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton, which the Zulus loved.
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 began the world's best known camera crane company. This key piece of film gear is still used in the movie industry.
In real life, both Chard and Bromhead were considered less than remarkable officers by their superiors and were in fact considered too old (Chard was 32 and Bromhead 33) for their rather junior rank of Lieutenant. The defense of Rorke's Drift galvanized their careers, and Chard was a colonel at the time of his death (of cancer at 49) and Bromhead reaching the rank of major before succumbing to typhoid at 46.
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 battle chants used by the Zulu warriors were used in the opening battle scene in Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000) when the Germanic savages were held up in the treeline--no doubt a tribute from Scott to composer John Barry.
Stanley Baker had no difficulty obtaining financing because producer 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 Paramount Home Video DVD.
During shooting Paramount sent a telegram to 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--and warned Caine to keep away from his mail.
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 Private 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.
James Booth's character, Pvt. Henry Hook, was required to be in the field hospital, which were mostly interior shots. Therefore, Booth did not travel with the cast and crew to South Africa for the filming.
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.
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.
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.
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. Private Schiess's walking stick (the Swiss soldier played by actor Dickie Owen) is also made of soft material when he is fighting the Zulu.
There is very little interaction between the characters in the hospital and those outside and the patients are never seen taking part in the defence 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.
The Union Jack Club is a hotel located directly opposite Waterloo Railway station in London. The foyer of the hotel features several tall dark wooden panels that are a Roll of Honour for all VC 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 VC in favour 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, eleven years after Rorke's Drift.
The 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 to 2004.
In 1879 there was no provision for the posthumous granting of the Victoria Cross, and so it could not be awarded to anyone who had died in performing an act of bravery. In light of this, an unofficial 'twelfth VC' might have been awarded to private Joseph Williams, B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot, who was killed during the fight in the hospital. As mentioned in dispatches "Had he lived he would have been recommended for the Victoria Cross".