What is Zulu so well respected? Measured against the production standards of modern war-films, Zulu certainly shows its age.

When, in 1963, scriptwriter-director Cy Endfield and actor-producer Stanley Baker combined to make it, there were no computer-generated images and graphic special effects. No bodies come apart in Zulu. The killing and dying are always elegant, with clean wounds to the torso, from bullet, assegai, or bayonet, leaving no visible mark.

It is war without the nasty bits.

Perhaps that is part of the film’s success. It celebrates a legend. If it dwelt on the horrors and terrors of war, it would detract from the mix of ripping-yarn and derring-do that is the essence of what Rorke’s Drift became as soon as news of it reached Late Victorian Britain. It was seized upon as the iconic event in a war that had all the elements of an epic.

For the Late Victorian public, the Zulus – a proud, exotic, distant warrior-people – were at once fascinating and terrifying. The two battles fought on 22 January 1879 represented a complex of contradictory ideas, the European imperial mission to ‘civilise’ colliding with the independence, the rights, and the traditions of native Africans. Isandlwana was the great Zulu victory – a victory against the odds, a victory for the ‘noble savage’, a victory for native warriors armed with spears, shields, and raw courage over European soldiers with modern rifles. The loss of 1,500 men, partly through British incompetence, partly through Zulu mobility and shock-power, made a spine-chilling story. For a moment, empire itself seemed in peril.

Original Zulu Storyboard – Courtesy of the Zulu Film Store

Then, at Rorke’s Drift, against apparently impossible odds, the natural order reasserted itself. A mere 140 Europeans managed to hold their ground against attack after attack, delivered hour after hour, by some 4,000 Zulus.

To read about the Anglo-Zulu War, see the latest issue of Military Times – out now

Rorke’s Drift

Rorke’s Drift was a mission station on the Buffalo River, where some 36 men were hospitalised, and Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead’s 84 men of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, South Wales Borders, had been posted to guard the crossing into Zululand. Also on hand was one Lieutenant Chard of the Royal Engineers, charged with managing the punts at the drift and building a mud-fort to protect them.

Once it was clear that some sort of disaster had occurred, Chard, the senior officer, improvised a defensive position at the mission station by building walls of biscuit boxes, mealie bags, and overturned wagons, so as to link together the two main buildings, a storehouse and a hospital, plus a small stone-built kraal. The calculation was that any attempt to retreat would have resulted in disaster, for the simple reason that British infantry could not possibly have outpaced a Zulu impi. Even so, the odds were grim; and they grew far worse when around 200 men of the Natal Native Contingent fled immediately before the battle started. Chard’s remaining 140 men were too few to man the perimeter adequately.

The film sticks closely to the historical narrative. There are fictional elements, like the drunken ranting of the Swedish missionary (Jack Hawkins), the class tension between Bromhead (Michael Caine) and Chard (Stanley Baker), the impromptu rendition of Men of Harlech, and the Zulu ‘salute’ of their brave enemies before retreating. But much else that might be thought dramatic embellishment is, in fact, a fairly faithful reconstruction of what actually happened.

The original Zulu film poster

The men in the hospital did fight desperate, room-to-room, close-quarters battles, battering holes through walls to escape, dragging wounded comrades with them, and shooting and stabbing furiously as the Zulus attempted to follow. The hospital and western section of the perimeter did have to be abandoned, with the British pulling back to make a last-ditch defence in front of the storehouse. There was a mealie-bag redoubt in the middle of this position, supporting the main line of riflemen on the perimeter wall. And, of course, the final roll-call of 11 VCs is genuine – the highest number ever awarded for a single action, with almost one in ten of the defenders receiving the award.

More generally, the film captures the duration, intensity, and ferocity of the fighting. This we feel, as we watch, is probably fairly close to what it was actually like. Like all great movies, it has its share of classic moments. My favourite is the first appearance of the Zulu army. The tension has already been ratcheted up, the sense of desperation mounting as defences are improvised in anticipation of imminent attack. Then Bromhead asks irritably what the noise is. And you become aware of a sort of hissing sound in the background. It is, of course, the noise made by 4,000 Zulu warriors advancing to battle in the distance, beating assegais against ox-hide shields. Then you see them, appearing above the mission station on the skyline, first dozens, then hundreds, finally, as the camera pans along the ridge, thousands.

This, and many other equally memorable moments, help to make Zulu an outstanding British film.

The exhibition about it, which is just finishing a six-month run at the London Film Museum, is about to open at the Cardiff Castle Museum of the Welsh Soldier – making the next four months a perfect time to visit.

Visit the Zulu Film Exhibition – opening in Cardiff Castle 26th Feb 2011

See www.zulufilmstore.com for more information