Men of Harlech
The Battle of Rorke’s Drift between a small British army contingent and a huge army of Zulus in January 1879 was memorably presented in the splendid 1964 film Zulu which depicts how 150 British soldiers successfully held off an army of 4,000 Zulu warriors.
The battle followed on after the Battle of Isandlwana fought a few days earlier where a British army of 1,800 men was utterly defeated and routed by the Zulus.
Rorke’s Drift also saw the awarding of 11 Victorian Crosses the greatest number ever awarded for one single engagement. Also the basic premises of the film is largely true and accurate, but it is not a historical re-enactment of the actual events.
The heavily outnumbered British successfully defended Rorke’s Drift more or less as portrayed in the film. Director and co-writer, Cy Endfield, even consulted a Zulu tribal historian for information from Zulu oral tradition about the attack. There are, however, a number of historical inaccuracies in the film but in the overall scheme of things are relatively minor.
The film was largely instigated by actor/producer Stanley Baker and is also the film that first introduced Michael Caine in a major role, ironically playing a foppish British officer rather than the cockney role for which he would become world famous for.
Despite the overwhelming odds, the discipline and training of the British army enabled them to repel the first Zulu attack.
Where at the film’s climax the two armies compete against each other with their chants and songs. History tells us there was no stirring rendition of Men of Harlech but who cares, in this film it is magnificently staged as a prelude to the final slaughter.
Zulu also boasts a terrific supporting performance by the criminally under-rated Nigel Green as Colour Sergeant Bourne, a seasoned officer who plays a key role in organising and leading the British defence
Nearly 60 years after it first released, Zulu has remained a constant favourite of many a film goer in its numerous re-releases and then as a perennial television fixture. It’s been a favourite of mine ever since I saw it on one of it’s many re-releases.
In 2018 Chief Mangosuthy Buthelezi defended the film’s cultural and historical merits, stating that there’s “a deep respect that develops between the warring armies, and the nobility of King Cetshwayo’s warriors as they salute the enemy, demanded a different way of thinking from the average viewer at the time of the film’s release. Indeed, it remains a film that demands a thoughtful response.”
And as a final note, the film boasts an outstanding score by one of my favourite film composers in John Barry.