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Film / Zulu

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Private Cole: Why does it have to be us? Why us?
Colour Sergeant Bourne: Because we're here, lad. No one else. Just us.

A classic 1964 war film set during the Anglo-Zulu War, directed by Cy Endfield and featuring Michael Caine in his breakout film role. The cast also includes Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson, and James Booth.

Based on true events, the film is the story of a Last Stand that the defenders managed to win. The Battle of Rorke's Drift was the result of the Battle of Isandlwana, at which the British expeditionary force of 2000 sent to crush the Zulus had been destroyed through a combination of skilled Zulu leadership of fearless legions of warriors and the incompetence of British commanders. 139 British soldiers in a farmstead, assigned there to protect colonials and wounded (about one third of the 139) held out against 4-5,000 Zulus for 12 hours. The battle is held to this day as one of the very best defenses in all history. Eleven of the soldiers got the VC, the highest number of this medal ever awarded for a single action.


It was followed fifteen years later by a prequel, Zulu Dawn, about the disastrous Battle of Isandlwana that took place earlier the same day. The film was released on the centenary of the battle. It was written by Cy Endfield and starred Burt Lancaster, Peter O'Toole, and Bob Hoskins, and is generally regarded as being better history but the inferior film. It is also much more openly critical of the Anglo-Zulu War, emphasising the fact that the British instigated the war in order to seize Zululand.



  • '70s Hair: Well... the 1870s anyway. The long sideburns on the men wouldn't look out of place a century later.
  • Anachronism Stew: Due to either a lack of Martini-Henry rifles or .570 blanks, a decent chunk of the weapons wielded by British forces in the film are actually anachronistic Lee-Enfield Mark is with the telltale magazine removed, as well as Webley Mk. VI revolvers, not introduced until 1915. This is due to a lack of functional Beaumont-Adams revolvers used in the actual battle.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The 24th Regiment are identified as a Welsh regiment, but were actually predominantly English with Welsh and Irish filling out the ranks. They would not be known as the South Wales Borderers until two years after the battle.
    • The portrayal of Colour Sergeant Bourne as a towering, middle-aged veteran soldier. The real Bourne was actually slightly-built and in his mid-twenties (he was, in fact, the youngest Colour Sergeant in the British Army at the time). He was even young enough to be the last survivor of the battle, dying on 9 May 1945 (appropriately enough, on the day after the war in Europe was won).
    • The Zulus didn't charge headlong at the British riflemen with nothing but spears and shields over open ground, which is part of the reason they won at Isandlwana and the events of the film happened in the first place. They used rocks and broken terrain as cover until they were within a few yards of the British positions, then they charged the riflemen with their spears.
    • The real Commissary Dalton wasn't the prissy pen pusher the film shows him to be. He was actually an experienced former soldier who may well have talked Chard and Bromhead out of abandoning the position in favour of fortifying and defending it.
    • The movie makes it look like Cesthawayo's main army won the Battle of Isandlwana, then descended on Rorke's Drift. In reality the attacking Zulu force was a reserve impi who hadn't been engaged at Isandlwana, and disobeyed orders to cross into Natal and attack the British.
    • The portrayal of Private Hook was so offensively wrong (in real life he was a model soldier and a teetotaler) that his daughter walked out of the film premiere.
    • Otto Wit wasn't a pacifist (he helped the British soldiers plan their defense) or a drunk, and he only left so as to alert his family at his farm a little while away (he also wasn't a widower or had an adult daughter; he had three children at the time, the oldest of whom was seven years old).
    • Averted in the case of Lt. Bromhead, who is often described as being partially deaf. According to one of the most detailed and comprehensive books on Rorke's Drift, this seems to have been a misinterpretation of primary accounts that Bromhead was withdrawn and quiet after the battle towards officers attached to reinforcements. These are symptoms that could just as easily be the result of PTSD (which didn't have a name in the 1870s) than deafness.
    • While the dueling war chants/songs makes for good film, it would be wholly inaccurate. Both the British and the Zulus took army discipline quite seriously during battle.
  • Bad Vibrations: "Damn funny.'s like a train in the distance."
  • Bash Brothers: Chard and Bromhead begin the film unable to stand each other, but by the end of it, they have proven themselves quite a formidable duo, and form a mutual respect.
  • Battle Chant: The battle chants of the Zulu warriors (which also include shield bashing) before the final battle are notorious; perhaps the full-throated rendition of the song "Men of Harlech" (made in response to the Zulu chants) by the Welsh soldiers could fit as well.
  • Becoming the Mask: During the "Men of Harlech" scene you see dozens of weary demoralized soldiers who enlisted because no one else was poor enough for the job, converting themselves into the Proud Warrior Race Guys that they were singing of. If you look closely at the Zulus you can see how many are obviously youngsters out for the first time. They are becoming the mask too.
  • Bloodless Carnage: As a practical matter, 1960s special effects wouldn't have been up to the challenge of faking hundreds of bayonettings and large-caliber bullet wounds on bare-chested Zulu extras, so there is no blood shown from this. However the spearheads and bayonets have some.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: While our sympathies are with the protagonists who are obviously trying to avoid being slaughtered, at the same time the film deliberately avoids vilifying the Zulu forces; they're fighting back against the Boers and the British Empire trying to take their land, and the foot soldiers are following their leaders' orders just as much as the British.
  • The Cavalry: Rather cruelly subverted. A large force of cavalrymen arrive at the fort...then flee when faced with the Zulu army.
    • It should be noted that historically the cavalry actually fought in the opening stages of the battle before being forced to withdraw due to a lack of ammunition for their carbines. The cavalry unit was also mostly made up of black riders rather than white farmers as depicted in the film.
  • Combat Medic: Surgeon Reynolds, who never fights but neither does he so much as flinch at the sight of hordes of angry Zulu warriors flooding into his makeshift hospital.
  • Cool vs. Awesome: British versus Zulus. Even their choirs are manly.
  • Culture Clash: Margareta Witt is put off by the Zulu mass marriage ceremony, wondering why the young women are permitting themselves to be married off to old men. Her father reminds her that many young women in Europe have arranged marriages with rich men, and perhaps the Zulu way is better, since they know they'll be getting a brave man out of it.
  • Cunning Linguist: Adendorff gives cultural advice.
  • Darkest Africa: Takes place there.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Bromhead, very much so.
      Chard: Don't worry, Miss Witt. The Army doesn't like more than one disaster in a day.
      Bromhead: Looks bad in the newspapers and upsets civilians at their breakfasts.
    • Adendorff also has his moments.
      Bromhead: We've dropped at least sixty!
      Adendorff: That leaves only 3,940.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The film starts off with Otto Wick and his daughter Margareta watching a mass Zulu marriage ceremony. You'd be forgiven for thinking they'll be more involved in the plot of the film, but the attention soon switches to the soldiers at Rourke's Drift.
  • Dirty Coward:
    • Private Henry Hook is portrayed as this until he has a change of heart and becomes a hero, saving the lives of at least a dozen patients in the hospital.
  • The Engineer: Lt. Chard was only a Royal Engineer assigned to Rourke's Drift to build a bridge across the Buffalo River.
  • Ensign Newbie: Bromhead, though in Real Life both he and Lieutenant Chard were inversions: they were old for their rank, having been repeatedly passed over for promotion as unlikely to amount to much. It's often claimed that Bromhead was at least partially deaf, but the latest authoritative study of the 1879 campaign suggests this was a misinterpretation of Bromhead suffering PTSD in the immediate aftermath of the battle.
  • Foreshadowing: The Boer character makes a few Deadpan Snarker remarks about the British and Boers fighting on the same side for now, united against a common enemy. But he suggests after the war with the Zulus, things may well be different. In Real Life, the first Boer War happened a little over a year later. This was a direct consequence of the hamfisted way the British prosecuted the Zulu War, followed by a botched peace settlement and the British administration seeking to grab what it could after the collapse of the Zulu Empire. This alienated the Boers of the Transvaal and drove them into open revolt. And twenty years after the Zulu War...
  • Hell Is That Noise: The first hint of the approach of the Zulu forces is the sound of them beating on their shields; Bromhead, unnerved for the first time in the film, says it sounds like an oncoming train. The Zulu continue to do it several more times as psychological warfare, terrifying the soldiers of the outpost.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Henry Hook wasn't the cowardly drunk the film portrayed him as, but a model soldier.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: what the British and the Zulus do to each other whenever the Zulus' Zerg Rush manages to get through the British's dakka.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Bromhead spends the first hour or so of the film being a snobby, entitled prick to Chard, giving him backhanded advice and willfully acting as unhelpful as possible. When the shared reality of their situation finally slaps him in the face, he proves himself a courageous, capable officer who comes to acknowledge Chard's abilities, and by the end of the film, the two of them have become Bash Brothers.
  • Laughing Mad: After a day and night being attacked by Zulus, Bromhead starts having a case of the giggles when it looks like they're in for Round 2, only to be told they're actually saluting the Brits.
  • Loveable Rogue: Private Hook (the real Hook was a churchgoing teetotaler, and his elderly daughters were not happy at the way the film portrayed their father). The "Private Hook" fictional character was shown performing the actions of several of the real life historical convict soldiers.
  • Minored In Ass Kicking: Bromhead, although portrayed as an aristocratic officer whose job is squarely one of command and leadership, is skilled with his pistol and at one particularly dire point trades his sword (intended as a badge of rank), for a rifle and joins the ranks of the flying platoon to repel Zulus breaching the perimeter.
  • Mohs Scale of Violence Hardness: It's rated a 4, because blood is not an infrequent sight during the battle scenes. That being said, it might've been rated higher if the violence in it looked more realistic.
  • More Dakka: The chief tactic of the British.
  • Nipple and Dimed: The first TV screenings of this film cheerfully screened it in its entirety, including the mass wedding sequence near the start where several hundred Zulu warriors dance their way into wedlock with a line of several hundred very exuberantly bouncy Zulu maidens. On the elsewhere mentioned African tribeswomen principle, this protracted scene of southern African pulchritude was always left in, regardless of the time of day of screening, throughout the 1970's, 1980's, and 1990's. Yet in the early 2000's, all this abruptly changed and British TV adopted a strictly censored version with all the bouncy toplessness left out. There was no clear reason given for this change of mind on the part of the broadcasters, and it was noticeable that later graphic scenes depicting mass slaughter of Zulu warriors under concentrated British riflepower were left in.
  • Not So Different: The "Men of Harlech" scene emphasizing the mutual warlikeness of the British and the Zulus.
  • Oh, Crap!: The British soldiers have an appropriate reaction when they first catch sight of the enormous Zulu army facing them on the hilltops.
    • The audience gets one when we see a group of Zulu warriors lying prone. Then one stands up and points at the fort...with a rifle.
  • Pet the Dog: Cesthawayo saving the Witts from being killed as war breaks out. He even has one of his own men executed to help them escape.
  • Planet of Steves: Discussed by some of the soldiers. The Welsh have a rather limited range of names, so soldiers with similar names go by their serial numbers to avoid confusion.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Both the British and the Zulus. More or less the whole point of the film.
  • Plunder: Zulus are shown rifling British dead at Isandlwana.
  • Punch-Clock Hero / Punch-Clock Villain: Both sides are soldiers doing their respective jobs for their respective countries. It is not even considered necessary to worry about which government is in the right from the political point of view.
  • Rated M for Manly: Manly Zulus fighting the manly British Army in a very manly manner.
  • Reality Ensues:
    • The Zulus are pragmatic enough to take rifles and ammunition off of the British dead at Isandlwana, and take them to Rorke's Drift. What started out as a battle of guns against spears turns into a fight of guns against other guns. After the initial surprise (because the defenders weren't expecting the Zulus to have looted rifles), reality sets in and it isn't as decisive: just because the Zulus know how to fire and reload rifles doesn't instantly make them expert marksmen, that takes prolonged training. One of the British officers notes that the Zulus thankfully aren't great shots (they've never had any experience firing rifles before. A historian of the war notes that without training, the Zulus did not understand how to align or calibrate the rifle sights, did not realise what they were for, and simply pointed at the target and fired - most bullets therefore went hopelessly wide). They also realize that the Zulu commander isn't going to have his few men with rifles fire at the same time that his main force charges in with spears, for fear of hitting his own men.
      • Even so, more than a few times the Zulu riflemen get lucky with their shooting and several British soldiers find this out the hard way.
    • In a much less dramatic example, when the British are preparing to meet the Zulu for the first time, Bromhead orders them to fix bayonets, which they do in precise, formation style...and one of the men drops his.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: The Zulus' dialogue and chanting isn't translated.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Colour-Sergeant Bourne coolly despatches Zulus with his bayonet, commands ranks of riflemen and quotes Psalm 46 before the battle.
  • Scary Black Man: The Zulus. Very much justified by Real Life.
  • Sergeant Rock: Colour-Sergeant Bourne is the trope image. Corporal Allen, although not a sergeant, also qualifies.
  • Soldier vs. Warrior: The British are shown firing controlled volleys where the Zulus advance in an individualistic way. A bit of a subversion though as a Boer tells the British in no uncertain terms that the Zulus are not a mere warband, but are themselves a regimented and disciplined force who fight with a well developed and effective tactical doctrine. Also why the Zulus are show being less organized in marching ranks, in battle they are more than capable of coordinated attack as shown when a British soldier in melee with a zulu is killed in a backstab from behind by his nearby friend.
  • That Makes Me Feel Angry: Played for pathos in the scene in which Colour Sergeant Bourne takes register.
    Bourne: Beckett?
    1st Soldier: He's wounded, sir.
    2nd Soldier: He's dying, sir.
    3rd Soldier: It's sad.
    Bourne: [with surprising gentleness] Keep your voices down.
  • Theme Music Power-Up: Men of Harlech. Seconds earlier, the British garrison is getting visibly demoralised by the Zulu war chant. Then they start singing, and it's like a psychological warfare No-Sell.
  • War Is Hell: "Do you think I could stand this butcher's yard more than once?"
    • In fact, he did. The real John Chard was also there for the war's finale, the Battle of Ulundi.
  • We Have Reserves: The Zulus. There are so many that they are able to expend several simply to test the firing strength of the British.
  • What a Senseless Waste of Human Life: A couple times, and wrong on both counts.
  • Worthy Opponent:
    • The Zulus appear to be massing again to wipe out the British, but it turns out they're saluting the British for their bravery before departing for good. This is a small fabrication: in real life the Zulus left because they weren't supposed to be there in the first place - Prince Dabulamanzi, the Zulu commander of the force, was King Cetshwayo's half-brother, and noted for his rashness and aggressive command behavior. In fact, the attack at Rorke's Drift was a direct violation of orders from the king, specifically that the Zulu forces were to act only in defense of Zululand, and under no circumstances to invade British-held territory. In reality, the Zulus had just disappeared by the dawn after the final attack, and only one more Zulu impi was briefly sighted by the men, retreating about an hour ahead of the British reinforcements.
    • Chard is wounded and goes for treatment. He tells Bromhead that he is in command now, and adds, "It's what you wanted, isn't it?"
  • You Are Number 6: The Privates Jones refer to each other by the serial numbers of 593 and 716. We also meet 612 Williams. In Welsh regiments where an awful lot of people might be called Williams or Owen or Jones (Wales doesn't have that many surnames), this was, and remains, standard practice. Although the Toms themselves prefer to use distinguishing nicknames where possible. Invention tends to fade after about the thirtieth Williams...
  • Zerg Rush: Again and again, the Zulus' chief tactic, though more by necessity than ignorance. Early in the film, Chard, Bromhead and Ardendorff discuss the Zulus' envelopment tactics, and decide that fortifying themselves within the mission negates the enemy's advantage. When the Zulu's attempt to draw the British out from the defenses fails, Cesthawayo brings his riflemen into action, which has limited effect. Only then do the attackers resort to frontal assaults.

Tropes applying to Zulu Dawn:

  • Child Soldiers: While not serving in a combat role, the British army does have children serving in support roles. They don't survive.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: The British army tries to get information out of the three Zulus they capture by beating the living shit out of them. The Zulus figured this would happen, and planned for it.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: The first part of the movie is introducing us to several characters. Most of them won't make it to the end credits.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: And a Colour Sergeant Nasty as well. Private Williams is distracted on parade by the former yelling at a native contingent, so the CSN sends him over to the drill sergeant to say "I love you more than my Colour Sergeant." He's then made to run around the field holding his rifle over his head until as such a time as he collapses.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Pulleine is writing a letter to his wife as the Zulus overrun everything. One bursts into his tent, and Pulleine sets aside his gun and lets the man stab him.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: Or just flat-out Too Dumb to Live. They wander off, leaving their three captives to sit and think up a means of escape. Then, when one starts calling out (the old "guards! Guards!" routine), only one wanders over, and gets laid out. His buddy is too busy staring off at the hills to notice as the Zulus cut themselves free, kill the guard, and run off.
  • Handicapped Badass: Durnford's only got one working arm, but he's still a capable fighter, and lasts a long way into the Battle of Islandwana before getting downed.
  • Hate Sink: Not a flattering depiction of Lord Chelmsford at all. He's an arrogant, idiotic jackass who seems to spend near every free moment glowering at someone, or ignoring advice just 'cuz, ultimately leading to the slaughter at Isandlwana. At no point does he show anything approaching a likeable trait.
  • Ignored Expert: A Boer and his son, who have already seen combat against the Zulus (and have the assegai scars to prove it) suggest a defensive technique of circling their wagons into a laager. Chelmsford ignores them.
  • Miles Gloriosus: The trader who runs into the Zulu scouts claimed he was trailed by a dozen of them, when the British can see he was only followed by three or four. Makes his claims he'd seen more dubious.
  • Oh, Crap!: A perfectly sensible reaction to finding several thousand armed Zulus right on top of you.
  • Only Sane Man: Several characters occupy this position. Bishop Colenso who tries to talk Bartle Frere out of starting the war. Durnford, being seemingly the only high ranking officer to understand and how to fight the Zulus. Hamilton-Brown, who is openly disgusted by Chelmsford's arrogance and refusal to tend to his soldiers' well being. Harford, who desperately tries to get reinforcements sent to the outnumbered Pulliene and is continually rebuffed, and finally reporter Norris Newman who correctly predicts exactly what's going to happen when Chelmsford splits his forces.
  • Shoot the Messenger: Cetshwayo's son demands he kill the messenger relaying the British Empire's view of the Zulus. Cetshwayo does not.
  • Skewed Priorities:
    • A common problem with the quartermaster in the column. A native worker drowns in the river? Well, he's got mud all over the bullets. Later on, during the battle, he refuses to hand out bullets to soldiers out of turn, even when they need those bullets because the Zulus are overrunning them at that very moment.
    • Chelmsford. Having just wandered into hostile territory and split his forces, he decides to make camp, have a light lunch and get his picture sketched. He ignores the messages of "we're under attack" because he's too busy stuffing his face.
    • Crealock scolds Lieutenant Harford for being alarmed when he passes on the message of troops being overrun.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: The final scene of the movie is Chelmsford wandering through the ruins of the camp at Isandlwana, just staring at the devastation his bad decisions helped cause.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Lord Chelmsford, and most of his officers. They all laugh at the Only Sane Man at the luncheon, who calls them out on eating while the troops go hungry (and Chelmsford's reaction is to sneer at the man for being "poorly behaved" and Irish. Ironic too, given that Chelmsford is played by Irishman Peter O'Toole)
  • Zerg Rush: As before, the Zulu's main battle tactic. And it works for them. The British have guns, cannon, and mortars, and they still run out of bullets and get overrun.

Alternative Title(s): Zulu Dawn


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