Late January 1879, in South Africa and as a mass wedding is being staged with full cermony among the Zulu tribe of the Natal region there, the missionary Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins) looks on at the side of the Chief Cetewayo (Chief Buthelezi) with his daughter Margareta (Ulla Jacobsson), who is suffering from culture shock. However, the proceedings are brought to a halt by a messenger who rushes up to the Chief and tells him of news from nearby. When Witt asks what has happened, he is informed there has been a battle which has seen a great swathe of British soldiers wiped out...
If there's one thing Zulu, the film, has suffered from it's an unease about its subject matter, something which continues to this day, especially among those uncomfortable with its depiction of Britain's Imperialist past. Any movie showing a bunch of white invaders battling against the natives is going to provoke a reaction and even get it accused of racism, which made it ironic that the man who instigated this project, star Stanley Baker, was committed to being as evenhanded as possible in the way the story played out. Certainly there were liberties taken with the facts, as is the case with the majority of historically-based films, but Baker didn't want empty gung ho action, he was seeking a particular psychological truth.
That being of the bravery of the individual soldier pressed into service by the powers that be, whatever side they were on, so while they could do nothing about their orders, they could act as capably as possible under the extreme circumstances of war. This was not a work to make excuses for the rights and wrongs of international affairs as Baker's Lieutenant John Chard realises he has two options: flee from the post at Rorke's Drift and be pursued, or stand his ground with his hundred men and see where this takes them. For the first half, every character who expresses doubts about the reason for doing the latter is undermined, most obviously the Witt preacher, the pacifist who is shown to be a weak-willed alcoholic.
Funnily enough, Jack Hawkins was furious about the way he came across in the finished film (had he not read the script?), but you can see why, when almost everyone else in the story emerges with heroic qualities, whereas he is a miserable craven beast who skulks off halfway through after trying to turn the general mood with his scripture quotations. So you can perceive why anyone seeking peace would not be accepted, though you could well argue if they hadn't fought they would have been killed regardless, sooner or later. Thus the plot develops, much as the events had, as a siege as the Zulu warriors assemble and cleverly wear their opponents down with wave after wave of well-planned attack.
Where some have criticised this for its perceived racism, in spite of this being a story worth telling for both opponents, others feel it falls down on its accuracy. The character of Private Hook (James Booth) has prompted much dismay because he wasn't the conniving malingerer seen here, he deserved his Victoria Cross as much as the record number of others who were awarded one did, though the star-making performance of Michael Caine as Lieutenant Bromhead was more laudable than it might initially appear, as he makes a genuine contribution to the battle. The action sequences are tough and brutal for the era, oddly appearing to have been an influence on Night of the Living Dead and all those countless zombie movies which arrived in its wake as the Zulus implacably advance on the dwindling Brits. The excitement was only matched by the admiration intentionally generated by the combination of striking visuals, John Barry's stirring score, and the sense of desperation flowering into qualified victory: the sing-off scene was masterful. One of the great war films.