Across the world, a sub-set of men will settle down this week to watch clips or perhaps the whole of the movie, “Zulu,” pegged to the anniversary of a battle long ago, Jan 22-23, 1879.
Love it or hate it, every Englishman of a certain age remembers the first time he saw “Zulu.” I was 15 and home alone one evening when it just came on the TV. For those of you not English and not of a certain age, “Zulu” is a stirring war movie about an incident in The First Zulu War, a colonial era conflict between the British and the powerful Zulu nation, located in what’s now the Republic of South Africa. Movie buffs may also know it as Michael Caine’s debut appearance on screen, back in 1964.
But Zulu is much more than a footnote of movie trivia. It’s a metaphor for almost every manly virtue once held dear in English hearts. Pluck. Phlegm. Duty. Discipline. Loyalty. Fair play. Calm defiance in the face of insuperable danger. Respect for your opponent. Service. Sacrifice.
These are kind of embarrassing and old-fashioned sounding values in this digital age. But for me and countless others, they can still raise a fire in the heart, and Zulu throws down the ultimate challenge to a certain type of male; will you stand your ground, and fight, and do your duty, when the situation seems hopeless. It’s a challenge that draws young men toward war in any age. It’s why you either love this movie or hate it. I enlisted a couple of years after watching Zulu the first time.
It’s the story of a tiny garrison and their fight for survival against overwhelming odds. These men occupy a converted mission station at a river crossing, called Rorke’s Drift, where the invading British army has set up a rear-area supply base-cum-field hospital.
The outpost is threatened after the main British field army is destroyed at the hands of the highly-disciplined, spear-wielding, Zulu warriors. The 150-odd redcoated British soldiers are abandoned by their allies, colonial militia and African auxiliaries, and are left alone to face a force that outnumbers them some 30-to-1. There’s no hope of relief. One perplexed squaddy asks, “why are we here? Why us?” And his unflappable Sergeant replies with immortal words that ring true for soldiers in all ages, “because we’re here, lad. Nobody else. Just us.”
That’s one of the things that strikes you about Zulu. It’s pretty progressive for a movie about a colonial war made almost 50 years ago. There’s nothing but respect for the discipline, courage and culture of the Zulu nation; there’s nothing to suggest the war was anything but an unfair attempt to add Zululand to the British empire; there’s even a sub-plot about a gay couple in the logistics corps.
Now, the movie is littered with historical inaccuracies. The British 24th Regiment is portrayed as a Welsh regiment, where in fact it was mostly English at this point in its history. The Zulu attacks were more piecemeal and less well-organized than portrayed.
But who cares? The goal is to stir up those emotions and showcase those values we talked about earlier.
The climactic scene is not even violent. The Zulus prepare for a final attack at dawn on the second day. The Brits are exhausted, low on ammo and gasping with thirst. The Zulus prepare by singing a war song. You can see morale sag in the British outpost. But then those plucky Welshmen start singing the Welsh anthem, “Men of Harlech.” Calm defiance in the face of insuperable danger.
The attack is repelled. It’s a miracle, one of the characters acknowledges. Patrols find no sign of the Zulus
Then suddenly the Zulu impis appear again. But only to sing a song of respect to their fellow warriors, before heading for home.
It’s a wonderful, mythical, stirring, chivalric portrayal of war. How war should be. Sadly it is not.
But then, I know plenty of veterans who’ll be settling down this week to watch clips or perhaps the whole movie.