After a crushing defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana, the Zulu army is advancing on a small British garrison at Rorke's Drift to deal another blow to the British invasion of Zululand.
Meanwhile, at the garrison the British hear about their defeat. A group of bridge builders from the Royal Engineers led by Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker) join up with the contingent led by Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine) where the latter is put out to find himself outranked by Chard due to duration of service.
As the sounds of marching Zulus approaching grows louder, Chard realises he cannot outrun the Zulus, especially because of the military hospital that dominates the base. Chard, under constant scrutiny from Bromhead, orders bags and crates of food to be stacked up to form a makeshift wall. Behind this, the British make their final stand.
I enjoyed studying the Greeks and Egyptians at college and was always interested in the events during the first half of the 20th Century, but have never really looked in depth at the British Empire which I suppose says a lot for my patriotism. I suppose this is probably the reason that I'd never watched Zulu.
Having studied the Spartan defence of Thermopylae (more contemporarily known for the over-dramatisation in Zack Snyder's 300), it is a story I can relate to. I love the tactical brains behind some of the most unlikely victories in military history, especially when one army heavily outnumbers the other allegiance. The Battle of Rorke's Drift is one such event.
Rather than sugar coating the event, Zulu gets straight into the action. The character's are introduced on their military history rather than social or family values and this is scarcely developed later on. Our opinions of them are derived simply from their treatment of their fellow soldiers. The one exception to this is the rebellious Private Henry Hook (James Booth) whose previous actions are highly talked about.
A young upstart called Michael Caine (who later went on to lead in something called The Italian Job) showcases his early talent as the snobbish Bromhead who feels that military genius is inherited. This is a thought that has been believed throughout the ages - just look back at Caesar's Roman dynasty to see how quickly this theory can turn sour. Alongside Caine is Stanley Baker as the level headed Chard. They both play their parts well (Caine's Cockney adds to his character's initial irritation) as they bodge their way through the battle with little more than some stiff upper lip.
It is not the epic film it attempts to portray though; its 139 minute runtime is puny in comparison to its contemporaries (Ben Hur was over three hours - as was Doctor Zhivago) and the storyline isn't nearly as developed. Still, it's very watchable and thoroughly entertaining.