Why ‘Zulu’ (1964) is an absolute masterpiece

One of the most captivating memories from my childhood are of a quiet family evening when we sat down on a rainy Saturday evening and watched an African adventure film – Zulu, a 1964 movie based on the historic Battle of Rorke’s Drift when over 4,000 Zulu warriors besieged 150 British Army regulars in the heartland of South Africa.

Since that day, the movie has taken a special place in my heart, and captivated my childhood imagination, and rightfully so.

It is a perfect example of a classic movie, with all the necessary elements present, including epic battle scenes, breathtaking shot of the landscape, stellar performances by actors, yet the one thing that puts this movie above all else is the way it portrays both sides in an equal manner, getting the audience to root for and admire both the Zulus and the British, with no cheap demonizing tropes used. The Movie does so much justice to both sides that as a kid, I found myself torn between rooting for the British or supporting the Zulus.

While I may be a tad bit biased in my statement, this was the movie that captivated my childhood imagination and sparked my love for history. It is a movie that had a profound effect on the world, with influence seeping into modernity as well, an example being a number of Zulu themed South African online slots. So for the sake of Justice, in this review, we shall delve into this prime example of the classic cinematography, and the exciting history behind it.

The History behind Zulu

The movie is set in South Africa in 1879, in the heat of Colonisation by the British Empire. The conflict between the Zulus and the British was brewing, being halted by the truce between the two sides, which upheld the peace till that point, with the British were continuing their colonization expansion into South Africa, while the Zulu maintained their way of life. The peace was shaken with the discovery of Diamonds some 800 miles away from the Zulu land.

While far enough for the Zulu lands not to directly infringe upon the lucrative diamond mining in Kimberley, this discovery gave push for the British Empire to reconsider its general role in South Africa, and the way the Zulu Empire figured in British Plans, fueled by the renewed interest in South Africa’s natural resources. With Zulus sitting on vast deposits of natural resources, and European settlers pushing in to make a fortune, the war was an inevitability.

As the border skirmishes between the settlers and Zulu warriors became commonplace, the British Empire issued an ultimatum to the Zulu King Cetshwayo kaMpande, which outlined a number of British demands, including the one disbanding the Zulu army and abolishing the regiment system, all with the deadline of just 20 days. The regiments system was an integral part of the Zulu way of life. Zulu were a very militaristic society, with major aspects of their life revolving around warfare, not too dissimilar to the Spartans of Ancient Greece.


The Zulu regiment system was an integral part of that society, which was a system of conscription for the Zulu army, where boys above the age of 14 would be conscripted to constantly train and swear their allegiance to the King. Beyond a system of forced conscription, it was the backbone of the Zulu society, upon which the rest of the culture relied upon.

Demanding this system to be abolished was a grave insult to the Zulu, and once the deadline of 20 days had passed, the British got their casus belli to launch a campaign against Zulu, and the 12,000 strong British expedition marched to war. The British were overconfident in victory against a technologically inferior foe, expecting Zulu to avoid direct confrontation, instead relying on guerilla tactics.

With this in mind, the British expedition was split into two, with the majority marching deep into Zulu land, and about 1,500 men staying behind to guard the rear. It was soon after this when the scouts of the rear guard accidentally stumbled upon an entire Zulu army, a host of 20,000 warriors, and the battle ensued, resulting in a crushing British defeat, going down as one of the worst defeats in British military history against a technologically inferior enemy.

Movie portrayal

It is here that the movie truly shines, in the way it portrays the Zulus. While the movie comes from the British perspective, and thus the Zulu are displayed as the antagonists, the film goes great lengths to portray the Zulu in the positive light, while not being patronizing or condescending.

To give you an example, each time Zulu are dismissed as savages, primitives and backward people by one of the characters, there’s always another character there to challenge the racist narrative, putting them in their place. This is a truly commendable feat from the filmmakers in the period when racial segregation was still widespread, and Apartheid was in full swing.

In a racial climate like that, it would have been easy to make a film that portrayed Zulu as savages and British as enlightening heroes. Instead, we get a movie that goes a great length to illustrate the intricate details of the Zulu culture as well as possible, and portraying each side as having their own agendas and motivations – With British trying to survive overwhelming odds, and Zulus fighting for their homeland against a superior foe.

No side is portrayed as inherently evil, instead, we venture into the grey area of morality, where each side can be sympathized with, creating a much stronger emotional impact as the movie develops.

Tale of two officers

Looking at the British camp of the battle, an intricate subplot develops, delving into the concept of how the British army functioned and what the British officer embodies.

We get two lead characters, officers in charge of holding out a siege, one officer coming from the lower ranks of the society, and the other coming from a long line of successful military officers, plagued by the insecurities of failing to live up to his family’s expectations. Each having their own beliefs of how the officer should act like, bringing an internal conflict to the surface.

Throughout the movie we witness how the realities of war alter people, being faced with slim chances of surviving, all notions of social status and the romantic portrayal of warfare are thrown out, replaced by hard pragmatism, and seeing how hardships sets differences aside, bringing people together.

The battle

It is here when the most exciting part of the movie comes up, the battle of Rorke’s Drift. To this point there was a buildup of the Zulu reputation as formidable warriors, foreshadowing the difficulty of the battle that the British would be facing. As the battle is about to commence, we the audience take position alongside the British soldiers who are all but helpless to sit and wait for the enemy to arrive, all while hearing the Zulu war march and battle cries as they slowly approach. As the British soldiers stand their ground to face the enemy, despite all the instincts telling otherwise, the sense of dread is overshadowed by the sheer numbers of the Zulu army.

The battle is a masterpiece of a well-researched display of strategy, clashing the Zulu battle style of horns strategy with the British Volley fire-tactics. As the lines clash, and the Zulus nearly manage to break through the British lines on a number of occasions, the final Zulu charge is about to take place, culminating in the best scene in the entire movie, when the Zulus start singing and the British, helpless and shocked look onto them, when suddenly they start singing a song of their own – Men of Harlech, turning the battle into a sing-off. As the Zulu warriors charge to their deaths onto the British line, the British are left victorious, yet no celebration takes place, no chanting and no cries of victory.

Instead, we are left to witness the horrors of war and the trauma of the event taking its clear toll on the characters, who are left questioning their values, and the victory they have seized that day.

The end of the battle is marked by a heartwarming scene, where Zulus, instead of slaughtering the last of the British soldiers, instead salute them in solidarity, showing respect from one warriors to the others, and although being a fictional addition to the real events, indicates that even though the grim reality of war, the hope of humanity can still shine through.