In 1964 I was in my first year of college. Two afternoons a week, I worked as a lifeguard at a local YMCA (thanks to my Lifesaving Merit Badge). One day after work, I noticed that a new movie was playing at the theater across the street. “Zulu.” I had time. I had interest. So I went in. Alone. To watch “Zulu.” WOW!
The movie “Zulu” came out in 1964 and it was Michael Caine’s first starring role. He played Lt. Gonville Bromhead – one of two commanding officers (with Lt. John Chard) of the small garrison that defended Rorke’s Drift. None other than Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the former Prime Minister of Zululand and noted South African politician, played King Cetshwayo — the leader of the Zulu nation in 1879. The scene opens with Zulus walking through the battlefield of Isandlwana. And then the scene shifts to Rorke’s Drift.
Names and characters are based on actual participants in the battle. While the movie is historically accurate, there are some Hollywoodizations — limited pretty much to personalities and not events. There was no “singing” and some of the characters are incorrectly portrayed (like “Hook” who was actually a model soldier). Nonetheless, “Zulu” is probably the best action movie I have ever seen. In 2008, while in South Africa, I couldn’t resist. I chartered a 4-seater and flew to Isandlwana and walked the battlefield. Barren, remote and silent — except for lonely white stone cairns scattered over the landscape where the 1,500 lay buried. I then went to Rorke’s Drift. The interesting thing? There was hardly a soul at either place. A Zulu guide spoke eloquently of the British defense at Rorke’s Drift. But he spoke more eloquently of the Zulu courage — and military savvy — that nearly drove the British from South Africa.