Only a few classic war films have stood the true test of time. “The Longest Day,” “Green Berets,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Apocalypse Now” come to mind immediately. The 1964 British classic, “Zulu” is also one of these well-made electrifying films. It’s a must-see MovieZoot.com Watchlist film this week. From the stirring musical score to the outstanding cast and from the epic battle scenes (the last hour of the film) to the intimate character portrayals, “Zulu” has it all.
“Zulu” brings us the history of two clashing nations, both aggressive, expansionists. Through trade expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain suddenly possessed an empire encompassing one quarter of the Earth. The Zulus, under warrior-king Shaka Zulu, had become a society dedicated to warfare. Right up there with the Spartans over two thousand years before them, they were the most fearless soldiers the world had ever witnessed.
Based on true events in the Boer War, “Zulu” recounts the amazing story of the battle of Rorke’s Drift in January 1879, where 150 British soldiers heroically staved off around 4,000 Zulu warriors. This battle is preceded the previous day by Britain’s disastrous Battle of Islandlwana, when 1,800 British and allied troops were decimated by 20,000 Zulus, thus launching the Anglo-Zulu war. The Zulus, who were still looking for a fight, marched to Rorke’s Drift, a garrison standing on the border between the British colony of Natal and Zulu territory. Against the worst odds imaginable, the B Company of the 24th Regiment of Foot, South Wales manage, with exceptional courage, to hold off the Zulu attacks until morning. The valor of the men at Rorke’s Drift resulted in the awarding of eleven Victoria Crosses. The roll of honor is read by Welsh actor Richard Burton at the film’s end.
Survivors from the earlier battle had alerted the soldiers at Rorke’s Drift to the planned attack. Led by Lieutenant John Chard (played by Stanley Baker, who also produced the film along with director Cy Endfield), a member of the Royal Engineers who was there to oversee a pontoon bridge’s repairs, the unit quickly began beefing up their defenses. The garrison was actually commanded by Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (played by Michael Caine in his first true starring role) who allowed Chard to assume command of the unit due to receipt of his commission three months before him. Baker and Caine are effective in the lead roles of rival lieutenants from different social classes who come to respect and like each other.
“Zulu” introduces movie fans to many notable character actors, including Nigel Green, who is cast as Color Sergeant Bourne; Jack Hawkins, who plays Otto Witt, the well-intentioned, fervent missionary; and James Booth, who plays Private Henry Hook, a malingerer in the garrison’s hospital with a surprising heroic side.
Perhaps, the most remarkable and significant footnote in this film though is the involvement of future Inkatha party and real-life Zulu tribal leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who actually plays his own distant relative in the film, King Cetshwayo kaMpande. The producers of “Zulu” had visited him in 1963 to discuss extras for the film, but then ended up offering him the role of the Zulu King Cetshwayo, his own great-grandfather. Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi also acted in “Tokoloshe” (1965) and “Talking With David Frost” (1991).
In 2014, commenting on the filming of “Zulu” during apartheid in South Africa, Dr. Buthelezi said, “In a sense we forgot we were in this country at the time. Whites and blacks could mingle without any fuss. You might say it was a very small thing but for this country, which was so racist at the time, it was something of great significance for us. The film helped restore to pride about where we come from – about how our people resisted the mightiest army in the world at the time, even though we were poorly equipped with cow-hide shields and spears.”
Dr. Buthelezi, great-grandson of King Dinizulu and direct descendent of warrior-king Shaka, was born Ashpenaz Nathan Mangosuthu GATT Buthelezi on August 27, 1928, at Mahlabatini, near the traditional Zulu capital of Lend. (King Dinizulu was banished and died in exile after the 1906 Zulu rebellion against British rule.) As heir to the Chieftainship of the Buzelezi tribe, Buthelezi’s royal Zulu ancestry was as vital to his political standing as his own political skills.
This iconic royal black actor went on to play a leading role in South Africa’s political history. Throughout most of the apartheid era, Buthelezi was considered one of the foremost black leaders on the continent of Africa. He also played a key role in creating a framework for a negotiated solution to South Africa’s racial conflict, signing the landmark Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith in 1974 with Harry Schwarz. Founder of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and heir to the Chieftainship of the Buzelezi tribe (1953—), he was elected Chief Executive Officer of the KwaZulu Territory in 1970, Chief Executive Councilor of the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly in 1972, and Chief Minister of KwaZulu in 1976. He also served as Chancellor of the University of Zululand and Minister of Home Affairs of South Africa from 1994 to 2004, in Nelson Mandela’s coalition government.
Check out Mangosuthu Buthelezi on MovieZoot.com in his first starring role in Zulu.