Remaking ‘Zulu’ today

Zulu (1964) - Rotten Tomatoes

I re-watched the classic British film ‘Zulu’ the other day. The film is set at the battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879, in which a small post of around 100 British soldiers held off a force of around 4,000 Zulu warriors.

Now, the politics and history of ‘Zulu’ would make it ‘problematic’ to use the fashionable word, today. The very name of the film suggest an alien, menacing ‘other’. And of course, despite the title, the film is entirely presented from the point of view of the British garrison. I wouldn’t, as some would, call it ‘racist’ exactly. It’s old fashioned. The Zulus are terrifying, but respected as a worthy adversary. They are presented as the aggressors, when in fact, it was (the reader will be unsurprised to learn) the British who provoked a war that the Zulu king did everything he could to prevent. The British invaded Zululand, not the other way around. But I’ll come back to all that.

What’s striking is how good a film ‘Zulu’ still is. Some of the hand to hand combat scenes are unrealistic from a modern cinematic point of view – there are lots of bayonets passed under arms, for instance, lots of bloodless wounds, lots of men collapsing after a weak blow, in one case of a crutch. But the film expertly ramps up the tension and makes for a sense of dread, as if the garrison could be overwhelmed at any time.

The characters are also sparingly, but very believably, drawn. Chard the reluctant engineer officer takes command over Bromhead the arrogant and resentful aristocratic officer. They squabble and their hands shake with fear as the Zulus approach. Hook the ‘damned ranker’, comes good when the chips are down. Colour Sergeant Bourne presents the epitome of British stolidity and ‘stuff upper lip’. The Welsh soldiers, one of whom says, ‘this land isn’t a bit as good as Bala’ wonder what they are doing there, then sing the Welsh nationalist hymn ‘Men of Harlech’. At the end, the officers, having fought their first action, admit to feeling guilty and sick at the slaughter.

This was the postwar generation. Both Stanley Baker, the director, who also played Chard and Michael Caine who played Bromhead, had done their National Service and Caine had actually fought in the trenches of the Korean war. There is something of a sense of familiarity with the military and with the true horror of war that one just does not get with most modern war films.

The landscape of South Africa is expertly used to to give a sense of vastness and remoteness. No one is coming to help the small garrison.

And the Zulus are actual Zulus, recruited as extras for the film and incidentally, paid equally to the white extras, who were recruited from a South African infantry battalion, contrary to the directives of the Apartheid era government in South Africa. Longtime Zulu political leader (and later divisive leader of the Inkatha party) Mangasutho Buthelezi, appears, representing the king of 1879, Cetshwayo. When performing both ritual dances, songs and combat manoeuvres in the film, it is quite clear that the Zulus know exactly what they are doing. I suspect that even rural Zulus of today are much more cut off from the traditional way of life – including warrior training – than were the rural Zulus of the early 1960s.

So I come neither to bury ‘Zulu’ nor entirely to praise it. It is a product of its time, which is both a strength and weakness.

But to come back to my title; how would we remake ‘Zulu’ today, should we ever have the chance?

One temptation would be to remake it entirely from the Zulus’ point of view, which would be interesting, but to work, this would have to go to some lengths to portray the actual worldview of Zulus of 1879 and not a lecture in which modern college educated actors infused the nineteenth century Zulus with 21st century liberal and racial politics. Nothing would be more tedious, for it would merely be an exercise in seeking approval and would give us no insight into the Zulus, then or now.

The Zulus of 1879 lived in an absolute monarchy, in which all males were trained from adolescence in war and military tactics. Indeed they lived for most of their young manhood in military units named Ibutho until, at the King’s order they were allowed to marry and disperse to their own homesteads, but were called upon to muster for war or other service, again at the King’s order. The Zulu kingdom resembled Sparta more than anything else. It was from this that the Zulu regiments developed their intense discipline and tactical skill.

It was also a hierarchical society, in almost every way, with hierarchy determined by birth, by lineage and of course, by gender. Most normal life was spent herding cattle, the main source of wealth and attending the daily chores of life. How to get inside the heads of such people would be difficult, and would probably be a task best given to a writer who was native to Zulu traditional, rural culture.

But leaving that aside, the fact is that ‘Zulu’ baldly misrepresents the context of the war of 1879. The opening scene of the film has the missionary Witt and his daughter attend a marriage ceremony at the Zulu capital Ulundi when word comes in of the Zulu victory at Isandlwana. The character of Witt utters the immortal line, ‘while I was here talking of peace, a war has started’ and the Zulus then set off to destroy Witt’s mission station at Rorke’s Drift because it has a British garrison.

There are many things wrong with this (for a start, Witt was not in Ulundi, nor would he have been), but here are the main points: The battles of Isandlawana and Rorke’s Drift on January 22, 1879, took place eleven days after the British forces had invaded Zululand in three columns and about five weeks since the British governor of Natal Bartle Frere had issued an ultimatum to the Zulus that they must accept or face war.

The terms included a demand to disband the Zulu military system and accept a British governor as well as handing over of several prominent Zulus to be tried by the courts in Natal and Transvaal. (These latter were the result respectively of the abduction of two women in a marriage dispute, who had fled from Zulu territory and a border dispute between the Zulus and the Boers). All of which terms the British knew that the Zulus could not accept. In fact the ultimatum was a ploy by Frere so that he could invade Zululand and incorporate it into British ruled South Africa.

It was the British who were, unequivocally, the aggressors. It was they who had invaded Zululand and the crushing of the British column at Isandlwana was, by any standards, an act of self defence by the Zulu kingdom. And while the British defeat there was a surprise, the state of war was not, after all it was the British who started it.

The Zulu force that attacked Rorke’s Drift was actually the reserve force from the battle of Isandlwana. They had not fought at the battle apart from mopping up a few British fugitives and, commanded as they were by a relative of the Royal House and brother of the King himself, Dabulamanzi ka Mpande, they were looking for their share of glory. In their enthusiasm, or perhaps Dabulamanzi’s caprice, they actually disobeyed Royal orders not to cross the border with the British province of Natal, on whose side of the Buffalo River the mission station at Rorke’s Drift lay.

The Zulus were mostly older married men in their thirties or forties of the uThulwana ibutho and had run over 30km from the battlefield at Isandlwana, pursuing fugitives and fighting skirmishes. They must have been tired and hungry but confident of victory.

So a remake of ‘Zulu’ from a Zulu perspective should show: the men being mobilised from their family homesteads as the King mustered his army in defence of the Kingdom as the British prepared to invade. Their peripheral part in the battle of Isandlwana and their fatigued state as they approached Rorke’s Drift as the evening drew in. Dramatic tension could be supplied by Dabulamanzi’s hotheadedness, crossing the Natal frontier to get a victory of his own, against his orders and the advice of his calmer officers or Indunas. It might be a story of Zulu fortitude as much as British.

Reaction to calls to ban Zulu film screening

The battle itself should be much less grand and much more desperate than is portrayed in the 1964 film. There was not calmly directed volley fire from the British soldiers and sweeping charges directed by the Zulus as shown in the film. Rather there was a desperate close quarter struggle. The Zulus took advantage of dead ground, a shallow dip in the ground from which they assaulted the British position throughout the evening and into the night.

The British, huddled behind piles of mealie bags, were far less orderly than the redcoats of the film, with their calmly delivered volleys. Rather they fought for their lives, firing as fast as they could load their rifles and bayoneting any Zulu who managed to jump over their barricades. The 100 odd men fired between them about 20,000 rounds (fortunately for them, the post was an ammunition depot) so that their rifles became too hot to touch, their faces were blackened by the powder smoke and their shoulders (in some cases both shoulders) were too bruised to hold the rifles into.

The British troops on campaign would not have resembled the pristine Redcoats of ‘Zulu’ at the start of the battle and most certainly not by the end of it.

By the next morning Zulu bodies were piled up on the ramparts,almost to the top, where they had tried to climb over. It was a terrifying and traumatic ordeal for both sides, but the Zulus suffered far more -17 British soldiers were killed compared to about 500 Zulus. A remake would have to show not only the desperate British defence but the resolve that made the Zulus attack into a storm of fire again and again throughout the night and the courage of their indunas, many of whom were killed.

While ‘Zulu’ depicts the Zulus sniping at the post with Martini Henry rifles captured at Isandlwana; ‘our own damn rifles’ Michel Caine’s character complains, in fact the Zulus who did climb up the Shinaye Terrace overlooking the mission station and fired down into it, were equipped with obsolete flintlock muskets, which explains why their fire was so ineffective. Most Zulus in 1879 carried a musket as well as their traditional shield and spears.

‘Zulu’ has a stirring scene where the departing Zulus salute the bravery of the British, but this of course, did not happen. In fact the battle had a much more bitter aftertaste. The hundreds of Zulu wounded found around the post were all killed with the rifle butt or bayonet by British troops and their bodies dumped into the nearby river.

This was partly the result of the British relief column, in fact that larger part of the invading force, which the Zulus had evaded on their way to attack the camp at Isandlwana, having passed through the carnage left at the camp, where the Zulus had killed and ritually mutilated (by slashing the abdomen), every British and auxiliary soldier they could catch. The fighting at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift engendered not so much mutual respect as mutual fear and loathing. The film should show this.

Finally, a good way to show the sad irony of the fight from the Zulu point of view would be the reception that the uThulwana and the other units received when they returned home. The King upbraided Dabulamanzi for having disobeyed his orders not to cross into Natal and the warriors themselves were mocked as cowards and belittled for having failed to take such a small post, in contrast to the great victory over a much larger British force at Isandlwana.

Many of the British participants long afterwards exhibited symptoms of trauma from the battle, nightmares, listlessness and bouts of irrational, violent behaviour, as well as physical scars and deafness from the incessant gunfire. Bromhead, one of the two lieutenants who commanded the post, would never speak of the battle and found it ‘most distressing’ when he was asked to write a report of the action.

A remake need not pander to modern identity politics to show a grittier look at the ferocity and tragedy of colonial warfare in the nineteenth century.

(See also my more in depth article on the Anglo Zulu War on my other site The Irish Story).

Zulu War
A real photograph of the Zulu commander at Rorke’s Drift, Dabulamanzi ka Mpande, with his bodyguard.

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