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By Rob Atherton


The 1964 film "Zulu" shows the story from the defence of Rorke's Drift by the tiny garrison of British soldiers who had been attacked by at least four thousand Zulus. The soldiers kept the attackers at bay while the conflicts raged in to the night of 22/23 Jan 1879. By early morning, the Zulu warriors had called off the attack.

The motion picture stars Stanley Baker as well as Michael Caine with Richard Burton narrating and was a follow up to "Zulu Dawn". That picture covered the story of the Battle of Isandlwana which took place earlier in the day. The first scenes start with the consequences of Isandlwana as Richard Burton narrates the telegram from Lord Chelmsford updating the government of the loss of Isandlwana. Zulu warriors are seen gathering up weapons belonging to the dead British troopers.

Before the battle, Rorke's Drift was a mission station operated by Swedish missionary Otto Witt. While Lord Chelmsford brought his men across the Buffalo River and into Zululand from Natal, a company from the 24th Regiment remained behind to watch the mission station that was being used as a hospital and a supply depot by the British. The 2 commanders were Lieutenant John Chard from the Royal Engineers played by Stanley Baker and Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead of the 24th performed by Michael Caine. This was Caine's 1st starring role.

The picture shows Chard as well as some troops putting up a bridge on the Buffalo River. Bromhead returns following a hunting trip and the 2 exchange words before a scouting party arrives updating them of the calamity at Isandlwana. Chard is seen to assume overall control as he was commissioned a few months ahead of Bromhead and despite the fact that this is normal procedure, it irks Bromhead. They look at their choices with Lieutenant Joseph Ardendorff with the Natal Native Contingent (NNC) who had been just one of the few survivors out of Isandlwana. Ardendorff is performed by Gert Van den Bergh. The Afrikanner talks about the Zulu "Horns of the Buffalo"? battle tactics. Bromhead is convinced they must leave however Chard makes the decision to stand and fight on ground of their choosing.

The Reverand Otto Witt and his adult daughter are also in the mission station and attempt to have the soldiers to run away in an effort to avoid a conflict. Witt swayed troopers of the NNC to abandon Rorke's Drift. At this point, Chard orders Witt and his daughter to go out of the mission station in their buggy. At the same time, shielding lines of mealie bags and wagons are now being lined out to boost the lines of defence by joining the store room and the hospital. This is carried out under the watch of CSM Frank Bourne portrayed by Nigel Green.

As the Zulu warriors approached, Boer horsemen show up at Rorke's Drift. Notwithstanding requests from Chard, the Boers leave the British garrison. Immediately the fight begins with ranks of Zulu warriors facing up to the British defences. The Zulu warriors are mown down by concentrated fire from the soldiers of the 24th and they eventually fall back. Following that, Zulu sharpshooters in the hillsides start off shooting down into the mission station and the British suffer their very first dead and injured.

The Zulus continue probing with their assaults and in due course get into the hospital, setting fire to the roof in the process. Private Henry Hook, who has so far been described as a good for nothing layabout, just takes over of the scenario inside the hospital where he aids with an escape of the unwell by hacking through the walls of the hospital. The survivors escape the burning hospital across to the final defensive position close to the store house as the battles continued through the night.

By early morning, the Zulu warriors started a war chant in preparation for a last assault. The troops of the 24th reacted by singing "Men of Harlech". The last attack see the Zulu warriors charge into a hail of British rifle fire as 3 ranks of troops fire volley upon volley straight into the onrushing Zulu warriors. With such heavy losses, the Zulu warriors finally retreat. The British begin to regroup and CSM Bourne carries out a role call. The Zulu warriors reappear on the hillsides looking over the mission station but rather than attacking, they sing in salute of the "fellow warriors".

The movie finishes with Richard Burton narrating. He reads out the names of the eleven men who were awarded the Victoria Cross for the Battle of Rorke's Drift. The men who were awarded the V.C. were:

- Corporal William Wilson Allen

- Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead

- Lieutenant John Rouse Merriot Chard

- Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton

- Private Fredrick Hitch

- Private Alfred Henry Hook

- Private Robert Jones

- Private William Jones

- Surgeon Major James Henry Reynolds

- Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess

- Private John Williams

Furthermore, 5 men were also awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal:

- Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne

- Private John William Roy

- Second Corporal Michael McMahon

- Second Corporal Francis Attwood

- Wheeler John Cantwell

As with most videos based on a true event, there are many discrepancies. Some are for artistic licence although others will be oversights for different reasons.

The film depicts the 24th Regiment of Foot as a Welsh regiment. Although, it was not named the South Wales Borderers until 1881, 2 years after Rorke's Drift. There had been a significant number (about 25%) of men from Wales in B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot but the bulk came from England.

The Swedish missionary Otto Witt was shown in the film that his daughter was grown-up. Yet, his 2 kids were both infants. On top of that he was not the pacifist the motion picture implies and had made it clear he didn't oppose the British intervention with Cetshawayo.

The British weapons were the Martini-Henry which fired a substantial .45 round. It was quite capable of causing huge harm on the human body. In the film, the wounds on shot Zulus are tiny. In one scene in the infirmary, a Zulu warrior who was battling hand to hand with Private Hook was shot in the back and Hook was unscathed. At such close range, the round from the Martini-Henry would have easily gone through the Zulu and killed Hook too.

Today, Rorke's Drift is a tourist destination for people who really want to discover more about the Anglo Zulu War of 1879.




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