Dwarfing the mightiest, Towering over the Greatest, this was the tag line that I remember for ZULU, and it is 51 years ago that the movie opened to excited audiences in the UK in the January of 1964. Hailed as the greatest British war movie ever made, the film is a classic in every sense of that words meaning, it set Michael Caine on the road to stardom and further established Stanley Baker as the iconic British actor that we all now know and love of course Baker also co-produced the film. I wonder what Baker would have made of the success and also the longevity of the film if he were alive today. Although essentially flawed historically in the storyline department, ZULU still attracted the audiences and I am sure if it were to be re-released today in cinemas it would still pack em in. It was a great adventure movie I suppose the stuff that boys dreams are made of, brave soldiers defending what is thought to be a hopeless position against overwhelming odds but in the end triumphing and managing to hold out. 4,000 Zulu warriors made their way to the mission station at Rorkes Drift on the Buffalo river in Natal Colony South Africa, to basically wipe it out, they aimed to kill the British garrison that was there, a garrison of just over 150 men many of whom were sick.
It was to be the second victory of the Zulu army or so they thought, the first being the massacre of 1,500 British soldiers on the slopes of the mountain Isandlwana on that morning. Lord Chelmsford had made a fatal mistake and thinking that he was fighting an inferior trained force decided to split his column, leaving one half camped on the mountainside whilst he took the remaining force up country towards the royal kraal of Ulundi, this proved to be one of the biggest military blunders in the history of Great Britain. In fact the battle at Rorkes drift would not have taken place if it were not for the insubordination of the Zulu Kings half Brother, who decided after pursuing survivors from Isandlwana that it would be a good idea to take his impis of warriors over the river into natal and attack the British at the mission station, the Zulu King Cetshwayo had forbidden his army to invade Natal.
The film was a success no doubt of that but there were many historical blunders in the screenplay, some of which were basically an insult to the memory of both the British and the Zulus. Henry hook for example was a disciplined and model soldier and after the battle became a sergeant, but in the movie was depicted as a lazy good for nothing who had been taken into the army because he was a thief, he was also depicted as drunk, when in real life Hook was teetotal, the performance by James Booth although being an entertaining one for the purpose of the storyline, was totally inaccurate and at the premiere of the movie in London the real life daughter of Henry hook walked out of the cinema in disgust at the films depiction of her Father.
The colour sergeant Frank Bourne, portrayed by Nigel Green and a popular mainstay of the cast, was also incorrect, Green’s character came across as a seasoned veteran of numerous campaigns with years of experience, in reality Bourne was just 24 years of age in fact he was the youngest colour sergeant at the time in the British army, his subordinates often referring to him as “THE KID”. In the movie the character displayed a number of medals on his tunic, this too was fictitious as he would not have been allowed to do so. After the battle Bourne was offered a commission but because he lacked the money necessary to be a commissioned officer he refused it, but eleven years later he did accept the commission, Bourne was the last surviving member of the garrison at Rorkes Drift and became a full Colonel, before his death which was in 1945. The song MEN OF HARLECH that was used in the movie was also incorrect, in fact at the time of the battle the regiment although based in Brecon was not technically a Welsh regiment, it was the 24th but attached to the 2nd Warwickshire, regiment of foot. They did not become The South Wales Borderers until three years after the battle in 1881. The song did eventually become the regiments song, but at the time of the Zulu war their regimental song was THE WARWICKSHIRE LAD, and of course there was no battlefield singing contest between the British and the Zulus. William Allen who was a corporal and in the movie depicted as a model soldier had in fact been demoted from sergeant for drunkenness just prior to the battle. Corporal Christian Ferdinand Scheiss who was attached to the Natal native contingent was depicted like Colour sergeant Bourne as a seasoned Zulu fighter in the movie despatching a number of the attacking warriors even though he was himself injured, in fact Scheiss was just 22 at the time of the battle. So if the movie was to be re-made nowadays with all the PC that is around maybe it would be a very different tale that it would tell. One thing that remains unblemished and still as fresh and vibrant as the first time I heard it is John Barry’s magnificent score, which although short in its duration is probably the film score that set the composer on the road to becoming one of the worlds leading film music composers. Yes he had already achieved success with the James Bond movies DR NO and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, but with Zulu we saw another side to Barry, he took traditional Zulu stamps or dances and arranged them converting them into a score that was dramatic, exciting and in many ways as savage as the action that was taking place on screen. The composer very cleverly used his score sparingly, but each time the music was utilised it underlined and elevated the scenes superbly.
Zulu was my second soundtrack LP, it was released on the Ember record label and was on sale for the princely sum of 39 shillings and 6 pence which in today’s money would be just under two pounds I guess, with the A side being occupied by Barry’s epic score and the B side of the album being taken up by the composers take on some of the other Zulu stamps and dances which he had arranged and given an upbeat sound which was not dissimilar to some of the hits he had enjoyed with THE JOHN BARRY SEVEN it was an essential purchase. Although the movie was historically incorrect in places, it is still a classic film and one which has endured the test of time, an epic production the like of which I do not think we will see again.