Okay, so the story wasn’t 100% historically accurate. Maybe it wasn’t even 50% accurate. The regiment was not Welsh, their so-called regimental song (led by the stalwart Welsh baritone, Private Owen) was not “Men of Harlech” but “The Warwickshire Lad,” and they did not sing it at the crucial moment of the battle. Nor did the Zulu warriors retreat out of respect for the bravery of the outnumbered British soldiers. They were driven off by a British relief column.
Who cares? “Zulu” is a wonderful film. It feels like a western, the way it poses moral questions while pitting the British forces against a host of Zulu warriors. The stock characters display their mettle in stock ways—I particularly like how the malingering ne’er do well, Hook, almost single-handedly rescues the entire hospital unit after the Zulus set it on fire—and the ending is completely satisfying.
The story behind the story is also satisfying. “Zulu’s” director, Cy Endfield, was a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter living in London, getting no credit for the projects he worked on until this one came along. So here’s a guy who was forced to flee his country because he refused to sign a loyalty oath, who disobeyed the authorities, making a film all about loyalty to one’s country, and obedience to one’s commanding officers.
But maybe it’s not so strange after all because Endfield’s version of the story shows the British army as an honorable and courageous unit, worthy of loyalty. Lieutenant Chard, the besieged unit’s commanding officer, even tells the Afrikaner officer not to worry, that this is his country, after all. The British are just there to help out. And the Zulu are depicted with dignity, not simply as “the enemy.” After the real battle, the British soldiers killed the wounded Zulu warriors, and it wouldn’t be long before the British were at war with the Afrikaners. Needless to say, the film does not go there.