Director: Cy Endfield
Screenwriter: John Prebble, Cy Endfield
Starring: Stanley Baker, James Booth, Michael Caine, Richard Burton (narrator)
Release details: Paramount Pictures, UK 1964, 138mins
Full details: IMDb
Genre: War drama
Rating: 10 out of 10
In 1879, during the Zulu wars, man of the people Lt. John Chard (Stanley Baker) and snooty Lt Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine) are in charge of defending the isolated Natal outpost of Rorke's Drift from tribal hordes, holding out during an Alamo-like seige until they are overwhelmed, losing the battle, but going down in history as heroes.
It's impossible to overstate the resonance that this real-lfe event had at the time. The British expedition in Africa was faring so badly that there were calls in parliament and in the newspapers to abandon it and to concentrate on trying to quell unrest in Jamaica and India. But newspaper reports of the heroism of the men at Rorke's Drift changed the tide of public opinion permanently. Without the victory, the British Empire would probably not have included Africa at all. And the military achievement is not to be overlooked, either. There were 100 fit and 40 injured men at Rorke's Drift and they faced 3,000 Zulus. And the Zulus were no savages: they were a modern nation with advanced military strategy and organisation.
Cy Endfield, director of this hymn to the British Empire, was an American Communist sympathiser driven to European exile by the blacklist, which explains why the script, by he and left-wing historian John Prebble, pares away the jingioistic flag-waving of previous Empire epics to concentrate on the rigours of life at the end of the world and the remarkable clash between the highly trained troops and the Zulu warriors. It concentrates on the Kipling-like qualities of the red-coated Welshmen who stand against the impressive Zulu armies through wave after wave of attack, providing a spectacle at once visceral and moving.
A television perennial, this is one of those films that gets better with each viewing, thanks especially to the performances of Baker as the gritty lead, Caine as his effete comrade, Jack Hawkins as the alcoholic missionary, Rev Otto Witt, Nigel Green as the old-school colour sergeant and James Booth as the roguish Private Henry Hook.
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This amazing film is devastatingly accurate in its depiction of the Rorke's Drift action, and is superbly directed by Cy Endfield, whose battle scenes are some of the most terrifying ever committed to film.... US TV Guide
The regimental song featured in the film is Men of Harlech.
Diana Blackwell has her own site for actor James Booth. It's an extensive, astonishingly well-researched tribute to Caine's Zulu co-star. You could lose yourself for hours in the reviews section alone.
RorkesDriftVC.com is an impressive site dedicated to preserving the memory of the 11 soldiers who were awarded the Victoria Cross for their efforts at Rorke's Drift. There's a section on the film version, which assesses not only the film itself, but how close it was to actual events. There's also some exclusive photos, like Sir Stanley Baker at the grave of John Rouse Merriott Chard, the officer he portrayed in the film. Highly recommended.