On the 22nd January 1964 an epic in Technicolor was premiered in London. Composer John Barry’s dramatic orchestral opening faded as Richard Burton narrated the despatch note from Lord Chelmsford to the then secretary of state for war. As Burton read of the disastrous loss of life on the mountain battlefield of Isandlwana the camera pans across the scene. In glorious Technicolor men in red tunics, their white pith helmets scattered, lay dead. Some on burning wagons, some on the golden straw-like grass, others slumped across cannons. Enter from stage left members of the victorious army collecting rifles for their next encounter. Wearing traditional skins and carrying cattle hide clad shields and spears. Here were the films title bearers: Zulu.
As a boy I grew up watching Tarzan, westerns and war films from all periods. From black & white to full colour. From Johnny Weissmuller wrestling crocodiles, to Peter O’Toole leading the Arab army as Lawrence of Arabia. In my boyhood I had a blue US cavalry outfit complete with yellow neckerchief. I was one of General Custers finest. After all I would have looked silly patrolling the streets around my home in a red tunic and white pith helmet. I still channel hop looking for a film when I can and particularly love an epic with a huge cast. But if I had to pick a favourite, which is extremely tough, it would be Zulu.
For the film industry 1964 was a good year as 633 Squadron, Goldfinger, and A Fist Full of Dollars all hit the big screen. But I am marking 50 years since the release of the film Zulu. The story is of 150 men defending a once trading post, now mission station, being used as a military hospital at Rorke’s Drift. The site is named after its original Irish owner and is located in a remote rural area of KwaZulu Natal. The ‘drift’ itself was a crossing point over the Buffalo River between the then Natal Colony and Zululand.
Richard Burtons opening words tell of the huge defeat inflicted on the British army at Isandlwana in the hours leading up to the battle about to take place. Now over 4000 Zulu warriors who had not blooded their spears in battle were running to Rorke’s Drift. Their intention was to inflict yet another defeat and add to the British carnage. It is a David versus Goliath spectacle where outnumbered underdogs become collective heroes. The film is based on fact and is wonderfully shot. For hour after hour, from daylight to darkness, the gallant red coats fend off attack after attack. Tried and tested military tactics are implemented and the fire power of the few is too much for the brave masses of the Zulu’s.
This was Michael Caines first major role and under the direction of Stanley Baker they make an ideal team gallantly taking the fight to their attackers. Caine plays Lt. Gonville Bromhead the upper class military man. Baker is Lt.Chard, an army engineer who takes control of the garrison. It is a cast that as you watch, even if you do not know the names, it will have you thinking “what have I seen him in before?” Nigel Green, Jack Hawkins, Glynn Edwards and Ulla Jacobson are just a few of the huge cast. A cast that also included over seven hundred local Zulus who were paid mainly in live stock. This was not due to a filming budget but due to the way they could be paid under the old apartheid government rules.
Zulu depicts what was a battle for life and death. The Martini Henry Rifle initially kept the attackers at bay. Overwhelming numbers meant that fighting progressed to hand to hand and spear to bayonet. Unlike the heavy losses at Isandlwana only seventeen defenders lost their lives where as it is estimated that over five hundred Zulus were killed. Eleven Victoria Crosses were won that day. Dead Zulus are shown strewn around the battlefield, their spears and shields piled high, highlighted in brilliant Technicolor.
Of course like most stories retold on the big screen the facts are intermingled with the need to add glamour. Please do not get me wrong, to me this is a wonderful movie, and I will not give too many secrets away. However there was hardly a Welshman at Rorke’s Drift. The stunning scenery of the Royal Natal National Park in the Drakensberg Mountains World Heritage site also made a far better back drop than that of the actual battle site.
As a boy in my cavalry uniform I never imagined that I would visit South Africa. In 1994 I made my first visit and met my now wife Melanie. It turns out that her family home is only just over a two hour drive from Rorke’s Drift. It is also only a short drive to the Royal Natal National Park, so I have been to both. I have now visited Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana several times. On my last visit I stayed at Fugitives Drift Lodge and found the tour of both Battlefields quite emotional. Not only was I visiting the actual battle scenes from my favourite film. I was hearing the story of the struggle and loss of life. This has become more than a film to me. Fred Symons, or as my wife would have known him, Great, Great, Grandfather Fred, rode with Lord Chelmsford. He had been to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift and survived the Zulu War. Great, Great, Grandfather Fred left the family with his original handwritten diary complete with frank accounts of his time in Zululand. I have my own typed copy which links family and film spanning the generations.