Busting the myths of Rorke’s Drift

Zulu, if I’m honest, is one of my favourite movies of all time. The 1964 film depicting the Battle of Rorke’s Drift is now rightly thought of as a classic. Who could forget Michael Caine as the posh officer, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead or Stanley Baker as the pragmatic engineer officer, Lieutenant John Chard and Nigel Green as the calm Colour Sgt Bourne. The film was beautifully shot and the soundtrack evoked all the splendor of Southern Africa. While the film was a box office and critical success, it did have a number of historical flaws in it. Now normally, I’m not the sort of person who sits in the cinema picking holes in movies but some of the flaws in Zulu are quite major and unfair to some of the participants

A Welsh Regiment?

In the movie, the 24th Regiment of Foot described as a Welsh Regiment. A famous scene has Chard getting the men to sing Men of Harlech to help inspire them before the last charge.

In reality the, 24th was based in Brecon but its designation was the 24th (The 2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot. It didn’t become the South Wales Borderers until three years after the battle. The regimental song was ‘The Warwickshire Lad’

Chard and Bromhead

Both characters in the movie were portrayed brilliantly by the actors but a few inaccuracies do occur. Bromhead (pronounced Brumhead) was partially deaf, a fact never mentioned in the movie, he also sported substantial facial hair and was a lot older than portrayed.  There was never a discussion as to who commanded the station, Major Spalding had placed Chard in charge when he left.

Another major error (and a slight to Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton) was that Chard organized the building of the defensive ramparts at Rorke’s Drift. By the time Chard reached the station (he was down by the river when he heard of the disaster at Isandhlwana.) Dalton had already organized the building of the ramparts using the Mealie bags and boxes of Biscuits. Chard did order the building of an inner redoubt and used his engineering skills to strengthen the ramparts.

In the film Dalton is portrayed as an effete individual who just handed out Ammunition. This belies the fact that he was awarded a Victoria Cross and many believe that a large chunk of credit for the defence should go to Dalton and his assistant Dunne.

Private Hook.

One of the worst injustices to come out of the movie, is the treatment of Private Henry Hook. In the movie, Hook is a thief, malinger and a drunk. At the time of the battle he is under arrest in the hospital. During the battle, Hook defends the hospital valiantly and helps to rescue the sick and wounded when the hospital is on fire. For his actions he is awarded the Victoria Cross. The producers explained that they wanted an anti-hero who would come good under pressure but Hooks elderly daughters were so disgusted by his portrayal that they both walked out of the premiere of the movie

This was a gross injustice to Hook, he had been a model solider, who would eventually be promoted to Sergeant. He was teetotal and had been posted to the hospital to help defend it. When the hospital came under heavy attack, Hook with the help of Private John Williams helped the sick and injured patients to escape the hospital. Hook ran out of ammunition and had to defend himself with just a bayonet against numerous Zulus. For his actions in the hospital, Hook was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Colour Sergeant Bourne

Colour Sergeant Borne is one of my favourite characters in the movies. He is the classic British sergeant. Solid, Dependable, the backbone of the British army and the rock upon which Britian’s enemies dashed themselves. He is portrayed by Nigel Green as Middle aged, barrel chested and at least 4″ too tall.

In reality, Bourne was only 24  at the time of Rorke’s Drift which made him the youngest Colour sergeant in the British Army. He was small for his age at 5′ 6″and his men called him ‘The kid‘. Bourne was always in the thick of the action and any time it looked like the Zulus would enter the compound, Bourne would be there, directing fire and distributing ammo. For his actions at Rouke’s Drift he was awarded the DCM and offered a officers commission. He turned down the commission due to a lack of means but had a distinguished military career. He served in the First world as Adjutant of the School of Musketry at Hythe and had been given  honorary rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and awarded the OBE. He died on VE day 1945, the last surviving defender of the Rorke’s Drift.

One final inaccuracy that I wanted to deal with, is the scene where the Native soldiers of Captain Stevenson’s NNC company deserted their posts.  While this did happen, what the film failed to show was that their white NCO’s also ran with them. The men of the 24th, outraged to see fellow white men running, opened fire on them killing one White NCO. This was completely over looked in the film.

There are many more minor inaccuracies that you could nitpick about but unless you were a student of military uniforms and weapons of the 19th Century then they really won’t bother anyone. Zulu is still a great film and I’m guessing it will be on sometime over the Christmas period, so if you get a chance to watch it, just remember not to believe everything you see on screen!

The bravery shown by the men of both sides cannot be done justice by the film, so if you want to read up on Rorke’s Drift and the events leading up to it, then I can heartily recommend Mike Snook’s two books on the subject. Easily the best books I have read on the disaster of Isandhlwana and then defence of Rorke’s drift.

How Can Man Die Better: The Secrets of Isandlwana Revealed

Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke’s Drift



About readinggivesmewings

Father of two girls with two passions, Reading and history. If I can combine the two then I am a happy person!
This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Busting the myths of Rorke’s Drift

  1. Harvey Black says:

    One of my favourite films, watched twenty times at least. But everyday, we find that our perceptions of event driven films are’nt always what they seem. You never stopm learning. HB

  2. Harvey Black says:

    One of my favourite films, watched twenty times at least. But everyday, we find that our perceptions of event driven films are’nt always what they seem. You never stop learning. HB

  3. Bruce says:

    One of my favorite movies as well. I’ve irritated my family pointing out historical inaccuracies in films and will look forward to doing the same with Zulu the next time my son and I watch 🙂

  4. Jonathan says:

    Good article.

  5. Fred Ford says:

    When you watch Zulu you understand why the sun never set on the British Empire.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s