Sunday, May 15, 2005

Black As Hell And Thick As Grass

I have just received an email correspondence inquiring as to quite how Zulu is historically inaccurate.

It's a fair question and understandable given that Zulu is not, in contrast with, say, Braveheart, renowned as a film that plays havoc with history. Unfortunately it is, in fact, extremely sloppy indeed. Mistakes range from those likely only to get up the nose of the real buff to wholesale and gratuitous alterations made to real life characters on a scale as bad as anything to come out of Hollywood in recent years.

A few problems (not an exhaustive list):

First off, it is a complete myth that the garrison of Rorke's Drift was predominantly Welsh. They were overwhelmingly English. Although the regiment involved is referred to as the South Wales Borderers, the pre-Cardwell battalion actually involved was the 2nd 24th, which drew mostly from England.

There are numerous technical details that are off. The soldiers wear white foreign service helmets with metal regimental plates. In reality the helmets would either be covered with a khaki cloth cover while on active service or alternatively they would have the brass plate removed and be stained brown (sometimes with tea). Regulations forbad the shaving of the upper lip and in contrast to the images presented on screen, moustaches were, in fact, universal and beards very nearly so. Close examination of the battle scenes shows large numbers of the troops armed with bolt-action magazine rifles with Martini-Henry bayonets crudely affixed to the front (one can only assume that the M-H was in relatively short supply and enough could be procured only to equip actors in small scalle close-up shots). The film portrays the attacking Zulus as being armed with Martinis scavenged from dead British troops on Isandlwana when in reality the Zulus involved at Rorke's Drift took no part in the earlier battle and were armed with obsolete, privately purchased firearms and jury-rigged ammunition (hence in large part the general ineffectiveness of Zulu fire, even when in a position to overlook the British positions.

The real scandal, however, comes with the portrayal of several of the key characters:

Adendorff (Boer soldier) - The historical record is disputed as to whether or not Adendorff was actually present at the battle.

Surgeon Reynolds - Reynolds is shown operating from within the mission chapel. In reality he gave medical aid outside within sight of the mealy-bag perimeter and, far from his portrayal in the film ("Damn you Chard! Damn all you butchers!"), plied the rifle and bayonet with gusto when not required to attend to injured troops.

Colour Sergeant Bourne - In the film, Bourne is portrayed as a seasoned old salt; the quintessential grizzled old NCO. In reality the opposite was true - he was the youngest member of the garrison (and the last man among them to die, in 1945) and had an easygoing style and a popular reputation within the company.

Hook - Perhaps the most scandalous and bizarre misrepresentation of all. Portrayed in the film as a drunk, a malingerer and a rough diamond cockney rogue, Private Hook was in reality anything but. In fact - you couldn't make this up - he, almost alone among the men of B Company, didn't drink. The only time he was known to touch it during his service was immediately after the battle when liquid fortification was being distributed to the men, Hook was observed to be in line for a mug. When Colour Sergeant Bourne expressed surprise at his presence, he responded, "Well! I think I deserve something after that!" Additionally, far from being in the hospital due to a malingering disposition, he was present as an assistant to Surgeon Reynolds. All contemporary accounts point to him being notable for his hard work, reliability and popularity with both officers and men.

Commissary Dalton - Although it is noted that Dalton was awarded the VC at the end of the film, the uninitiated viewer might be forgiven for wondering why, as Dalton is portrayed as a stammering, pompous, upper class buffoon and pen pusher who does very little of merit before getting himself shot and put out of action. In reality, Dalton conformed fairly closely to the sort of character of the fictionalised version of Colour Sergeant Bourne and played a pivotal role in the defence of the mission station. In 1879 he had extensive active service experience under his belt and had fortuitously been sent on a mid-career training course in the construction of field foritifcations. He took the lead role in convincing Bromhead and Chard to fight from prepared defensive positions (as opposed to abandoning the mission station and striking out into the mountains) and at zero notice personally designed and oversaw the construction of the fortifications. During the fighting proper he took a place in the line alongside the ordinary troops, directed fire and was eventually put out of action temporarily by a bullet wound.

So much for the characters. The film also has rather a clumsy anti-war undertone, as with the aforementioned "Damn all you butchers!" outburst and Bromhead and Chard's post battle soul searching. In reality this is entirely fictional and has no grounding whatsoever in the historical record. Both Chard and Bromhead were enthusiastic regular officers, who demonstrated no sign of having had their appetite for active service dimmed by their experiences and who largely revelled in the celebrity they garnered in the wake of events.

And, on a final note, there is no evidence at all that the men of B Company met Zulu battle chants by singing Men of Harlech.

It's still a fantastic film. But in its own way it's no less of a farrago than Braveheart or U-571.


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