A small unit of British soldiers holding off a huge Zulu assault

From the 1964 movie Zulu, a five minute clip of the final attack in which a beseiged company of British soldiers hold off a charge by Zulu warriors. This ending, in which the British survive and win the battle, is very surprising, because from the beginning of the story it seems that the lieutenant in charge of the 100 man British outpost, played by the stone-faced Stanley Baker, in refusing to retreat before a 4,000 man Zulu invading force, is consigning his men and himself to suicide. This is especially the case as the lieutenant gives no reasons for his apparently insane notion that he can hold off the Zulu attack, and his subordinates, including his fellow lieutenant played by Michael Caine, even though they think his decision is crazy, never ask him for his reasons.

I am not recommending this movie. It is extremely poorly made, with a terrible script, with a main character who seems mindless and insensible, with a lead actor, Stanley Baker (who also co-produced the movie), in the worst acted lead performance I’ve ever seen (he stands there like a statue in one scene after another), and with many creaky scenes involving uninterestng sub-plots that make the movie much longer than it needed to be. Adding injury to insult, the soundtrack in the DVD from Netflix was mostly imcomprehensible. It is also imcomprehensible to me that this movie was critically acclaimed when it came out and is still highly praised today. However, the Zulu warriors are very impressive and aesthetic, and some of the battle scenes are good, though the hand to hand fighting is not realistic and the rifles sound like pop guns.

Wikipedia tells about the movie and the Battle of Rorke’s Drift that it depicts.

- end of initial entry -

August 27

Richard N. writes:

Ardent admirer of your site that I am, I was somewhat mystified by your recent review of the film Zulu.

You may have found the ending “very surprising,” for example, but since it is based on actual events it would seem nonsensical to criticise it on those grounds. Indeed, it is the miraculous nature of the outcome against such heavy odds—not to mention the heroism involved—that makes the story so intriguing and so worthwhile. [LA replies: But I did not know how it would end. Before seeing the movie, I watched the first minute of the five minute video of the final assault. When the British, seemingly in a hopeless situation, begin singing, it reminded me of an incident (perhaps from the Great War) in which a small group of British are surrounded and know they are imminently doomed, and they all shake hands with each other. That singing struck me the same way, as a very English way of a military unit facing their death. Furthermore, when we began watching the movie itself, in which the Zulus have just wiped out a very large British force and are now coming for a mere company, and when the British commander insists on holding the position instead of retreating, and the commander seems insensible and gives no reasons for his insane-seeming command, everything about the movie said to us that the British were doomed by the British commander’s decision. So the ending, in which the British survive the Zulu assault, did come as an enormous surprise.]

Several of your other criticisms also miss the point. The fact that Baker’s character gives no reasons for his defence the outpost, for example, may seem perplexing by modern standards, but this was the height of the Victorian era. In those days duty, glory and the prospect of dying for one’s country were seen as positives and pretty much taken for granted. There were many wounded and injured men at Rorke’s Drift (it was a field hospital, after all) and the concept of abandoning them to the Zulus is simply not one that would have occurred to a man like Chard. British history is replete with other examples of a similar nature, whether it was Captain Oates walking into the snow, Gordon’s death in Khartoum or the Charge of the Light Brigade. [LA replies: But then you are supporting my point that the British commander seems to be giving an order that dooms his company. Second, The commander’s own subordinates openly express the view that his order seems insane. So the lack of any discussion of the pros and cons of the order is striking. It is true that British soldiers have a tradition of going stoically to their death. But it is also true that the British military has a tradition in which the commander discusses with his subordinates the reasons for his orders—and this was entirely missing from the film.]

Similarly, I find it hard to accept your criticism of Baker’s acting in the film. He was playing an officer in the British armed forces in the days when such men adhered to a very strict code of behaviour. Stiff upper lips were very much the fashion then and I think that his performance simply reflects this fact. In other words, you can criticise the underlying philosophy of such actions and behaviour if you want but they were far from inexplicable or exceptional given the prevailing standards. As an aside, I would have thought that you of all people would have understood and even praised such actions and behaviour. [LA replies: But other actors, such as Michael Caine, were not so expressionless. Further, Baker was not just playing a man with a stiff upper lip; he was playing a man who seemed to be a robot. There were many moments in the movie when Baker is standing there blank-faced, seemingly not knowing what he’s supposed to be doing with his character, wondering blankly what his character’s motivation is supposed to be. “What am I doing here?” his expression seemed to say. It was dreadful acting. To defend Baker’s dreadful acting as good acting of a character with a stiff upper lip is incorrect in my opinion.]

Incidentally, I write as an Englishman and can tell you that one of the reasons for the film’s enduring appeal is that it serves to remind us what a great country we once were and what great people we once produced. Sad to say, those days are all but over! [LA replies: I agree with you that the ending of the movie, in which the British outpost survives and the commander’s approach is vindicated and the Zulus even sing in honor of the British, is stirring.]

Laurence B. writes:

I don’t often agree with your reviews of movies, but I find myself largely in line with your critique of Zulu.

So much in that movie is overblown and loose, but there is a very powerful scene towards the end that is, surprisingly, a triumph of the understated. As the gruff sergeant is reading out roll-call, the two commanders stand and admit to each other that, for both of them, this is their first combat experience. They both are exhausted, bewildered, and still reeling from it all. The voice of the sergeant continues to ring off in the background: business as usual for him. They both pause, very briefly, in a moment of recognition that the sergeant, despite his lack of braggadocio of fanfare, is the real foundation of the unit. He was the one with the experience, the one who took every problem and addressed it with calmness and decisive action. He does not even get a medal for his efforts, though many others do. It didn’t even seem to occur to him that they had just done the impossible in turning back the attack. I’ve always been struck by that scene, if for no other reason than that the director didn’t spell it all out for the audience, whereas everything else in the film was painfully blunt.

BD writes:

Your criticisms are noted, but I liked the movie and still watch it from time to time. I thought the movie had a fair degree of historical accuracy. Stanley Baker did a poor job of portraying the heroic Lt. Chard, but Michael Caine, appearing in his first major role, was terrific. The skill and bravery of both sides was well depicted. I don’t think the British had any Gatling guns at Rorke’s drift (and they’re not shown in the movie), but they would have made a real difference, as they did at Gingindlovu.

LA replies:

Also, my harsh evaluation of the film is unfairly colored by the fact that the sound track was so poor we could only understand about half of what the characters said.

David B. writes:

I once read an interview with Michael Caine in which he discussed his role in Zulu. Caine said he was supposed to play Bromhead as an aristocratic type and decided to base his characterization on Prince Philip.

The role made Michael Caine’s career.

James P. writes:

Richard N. is incorrect that the British decided to make an “insane” stand because they were Victorians who believed in glorious, stoic death. The decision to stand made excellent military sense. Firstly, Rorke’s Drift was a supply depot, so the defenders had very plentiful ammunition. Secondly, the position could be (and was) strongly fortified. Finally, the British troops were not especially mobile, and if they tried to run, they’d probably have been caught and destroyed in the open.

As I recall, the movie does not explain that the British unit was there in order to guard the supply depot, and the Zulus attacked Rorke’s Drift because it was a supply depot. Thus, the British were not blockheads and the Zulus were not mindless, swarming army ants.

Dan K. writes:

I saw Zulu in London, when I was a student traveling in England during the late spring of 1967, just before starting post doctoral studies. My traveling companion, another student who was in the same hiatus between graduate school and a post doc, talked me into seeing the movie. It was being shown in a large theater, if my memory serves me right, near Piccadilly Circus. The theater had been showing the movie continuously since its release three years before. It was that popular. The place was filled with people and there were cheers, shouting and clapping at times during the film. At the end when the soldiers begin singing “Men of Harlech” many, many in the audience sang along.

I remember liking the movie at the time and thinking it was well done. The actor who played Chard as I recall seemed to me to be quite adequate and portrayed an officer who knew to show the men under him that he was in charge and was competent, actions that kept discipline and maintained morale.

Mark Jaws writes:

I think your critique of Stanley Baker’s performance is off the mark. The storyline makes it abundantly clear that the character played by Baker is an engineering officer, untrained for the challenge and out of his league when it comes to infantry tactics. Anyone in such a situation would be unsure of himself, awkward, and not exactly Pattonesque. Baker’s character comes to rely on the real infantryman, played by Michael Caine, and only in the crucible of combat does he grow more confident and daring.

Richard N. writes:

I am enjoying the discussion—even if I seem to be coming off worse!

By the way, I agree with just about everything else you write. Keep up the good work.

LA replies:

But based on the two comments preceding yours, the pro-Zulu forces are staging a comeback.

JC in Houston writes:

I’d like to second the opinion that it made good military sense for the British to stand and fight. The Zulu attack was in fact made in defiance of King Cetswayo’s orders, which specified that the Zulus were not to cross the Buffalo River after the victory at Isandhlwana earlier in the day. Cetswayo realized that attacks on fortified positions like that at Rorke’s Drift were very costly. The attack was ordered by Cetswayo’s half brother Dabulamanzi, who was looking for some glory of his own since his unit had not participated in the battle at Isandhlwana. In actuality there was no final assault as pictured in the movie. The Zulus left of their own accord about 4:00 a.m.

As for the casting , it’s interesting that the actor Nigel Green was cast as Color Sergeant Bourne, the grizzled old veteran. Frank Bourne was actually aged 24 at the time of the battle, the youngest color sergeant in the British Army. He was the last survivor of the battle, passing away in 1945. For those interested in Isandhlwana, Rorke’s Drift and the entire Anglo-Zulu war, one of the best books is The Washing of the Spears by the late Donald R. Morris.

LA writes:

Another thought I had, which I expressed repeatedly while we were watching the movie, was that the Zulu army could have easily wiped out the British. All they had to do was use all their forces at the same time, and charge the British outpost from all directions at the same time, and simply overwhelm the British through sheer force of numbers. Remember, the Zulus had 4,000 men, the British had one hundred! So the partial charges by the Zulus, in which they used a relative handful of their total force to attack just one side of the British fort at a time, thus allowing the British to drive them back, seemed like very poor generalship.

I’d be most interested to hear any reply to my observation.

Richard N. writes:

Incidentally, I can’t help but feel that the challenge faced by the British force before the battle serves as an excellent analogy to that faced by conservatives and the West in general today. Only this time the outlook is even more bleak as the enemy has already infiltrated the compound and we don’t seem to have a Chard.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 25, 2012 07:24 AM | Send

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