Made in 1964 to depict the Battle of Rorke's Drift, fought in 1879 as part of the Zulu Wars in southern Africa, this is one of the greatest war films ever made. I was introduced to it by my dad. We watched it on TV whenever it was on, and once he got it as a video tape it became a staple of Christmas. I have lost count of the number of times that I have watched it.
If you haven't seen it. Watch it now!
So, the plot is fairly straightforward. It opens at the battlefield of Isandhlwana where a British army was wiped out by the Zulu army. The film does not explain why the war was fought - it is about the soldiers and warriors, not the politics. The scene then moves to the main kraal of Zulu ruler Cetewayo [played by the then chief of the Zulu people Mangosuthu Buthelezi] where several dozen young women are marrying an equal number of retiring warriors in a mass wedding ceremony. Also present are the missionary Otto Witt [Jack Hawkins] and his daughter [Ulla Jacobson]. News arrives of Isandhlwana. Witt decides to leave to warn the handful of British soldiers at his mission station at Rorke's Drift that they are about to be attacked.
Back at Rorke's Drift there is friction between the middle class engineer officer John Chard [Stanley Baker] and the aristocratic infantry officer Gonville Bromhead [Michael Caine in his first starring role]. Chard is using Bromhead's men as manual labour to build a bridge over the river. Chard & Bromhead are given details of the disaster at Isandhlwana by Witt and by fleeing Boer horsemen. After futher bickering over who has seniority and therefore assumes command [it is Chard] they decide to fortify the mission station with walls built of biscuit tins and sacks of grain. This work is still in progress when the Zulu hordes appear over the crest of a hill. The 150 British soldiers [many wounded or sick in hospital] are faced by 4,000 Zulu.
Among the garrison are well-known British actors as James Booth, Glynn Edwards, Paul Daneman, Patrick Macgee Joe Powell, David Kernan, Gary Bond, Ivor Emmanual and many others.
The rest of the film tells the story of the defence. The battle rages for a day and a night before the Zulus finally retreat - but not before singing a song of tribue to the gallantry of the defenders.
At the time the film was made it was notable for its realistic portrayal of late 19th century colonial warfare. The producer [Baker] and director Cy Endfield went out of their way to show the Zulu as a great nation and as the highly disciplined fighting force capable of tactics and strategy - as indeed they were. Compared to other movies of the time that portrayed Africans in stereotypical ways this was a great change. Indeed, tribal historians were consulted to get the Zulu side of the battle as the script was being written. The uniforms, equipment and tactics of the British and Boers were also painstakingly recreated.
There are some great lines in the movie that I quote ad nauseam.
Of course, the film does take some poetic licence with reality to give the film some more emotional depth. Private Hook is portrayed as a troublemaker who makes good, when in fact his service record was exemplary. Similarly Witt's daughter who in the movie is an attractive young woman who excites the lust of the soldiers was actually aged 5 years old.
But these details are mere quibbles. This is a great movie. You can watch it HERE.