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A prayer’s as good as a bayonet on a day like this.

Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne, Zulu



Tony Rennell at the Daily Mail Online has a grand salute to one of the greatest war flicks:  Zulu:

Yet Zulu thankfully avoids taking sides in this moral morass. It doesn’t play on manufactured guilt, or lecture and hector us from some anachronistic ethical high ground. It avoids self-righteous, self-serving politics and pays pure and simple tribute to human endeavour.

The moment that, for me, elevates it into a different dimension is when a young British soldier stares open-mouthed at the huge enemy  army encircling Rorke’s Drift. The situation looks hopeless, and death — skewered agonisingly in the dust — a certainty.

‘Why does it have to be us?’ he wails. ‘Why us?’

The handlebar-moustachioed colour sergeant next to him, erect and unflinching, could have replied with windy patriotic zeal and flag-waving imperialist grandeur.

Instead, this paragon of British backbone — played incomparably by Nigel Green — says calmly: ‘Because we’re here, lad. Just us. Nobody else.’

His is the authentic voice of  soldiering through the centuries — as true today for our troops in Afghanistan as it was for Queen Victoria’s footsoldiers. Men doing their duty, facing death because that’s their job. No hint of glory. No pleasure in killing.

British grit holds out against  hopeless odds, and defeat is turned to triumph of a sort. But war, we   conclude, is always terrible, an evil — if sometimes a necessary one.

And there is a price to pay for the victors as well as the defeated. As the smoke of guns disperses over the final battle scene, the British  soldiers stare in horror at the piled-up bodies of Zulu around their  sand-bagged last redoubt.

They are not triumphant but appalled at the ‘butcher’s yard’ — as Lt Chard  (Stanley Baker) puts it — which they have inflicted. ‘I feel sick,’ says Lt Bromhead (Caine), ‘and ashamed.’

Go here to read the brilliant rest.  I recall watching the film with my Dad and brother when it was first broadcast in the States circa 66 or 67.  We all three were mesmerized by it.

Zulu is a great movie, although like all movies it gets some of its facts wrong:

Alas, there was no singing of Men of Harlech.

Private Hook who received a VC for his valor was a model soldier and not the rebellious ranker portrayed in the film.

Here is a good list of the historical inaccuracies:


Having said all that, the film is a powerful evocation of this classic battle where the British Army came up against a Zulu impi, the finest pre-gunpowder military force since the Roman legion.

The hero of the movie for me is the colour sergeant featured in the film.  A colour sergeant at the time depicted in the film, 1879, was the top non-commissioned rank in the British Army.  They were addressed as colour sergeant or colour but never sergeant.  They were held in awe almost always by the men under them and usually treated with respect by the officers over them.  The colour sergeant would largely determine if a unit was well run or poorly run by how he did his job.

Frank Bourne was the name of the colour sergeant in the film, and he died in 1945, the last known survivor of the battle of Rorke’s Drift.  At the age of 22 in 1876 he had attained the rank of colour sergeant, the youngest in the army, which earned him the nickname “The Kid”.

For his courage and leadership at the battle of Rorke’s Drift, he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the second highest award for valor in the Royal Army.  He retired in 1907, re-enlisting in 1914 at the onset of World War I, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and retiring again in 1918 at the conclusion of the War.   As Kipling famously observed the backbone of any military is the non-commissioned man and Frank Bourne at Rorke’s Drift amply demonstrated the truth of that statement.


More to explorer

Even Satan Hates the Press

An Easter Egg from those brilliantly twisted folks at The Lutheran Satire.  Added bonus:  

Saint of the Day Quote: Saint Anselm

Come now, insignificant man, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a little while from the tumult of your thoughts.


  1. To read Lt Chard’s account, we find that the movie very accurately conveys the sense that they were better off than they might have first thought with the desertions that occurred before the Zulus engaged.
    Fine movie!
    Good advice for all in these difficult times, from the Colour Sergeant:
    “Look to your front!”
    and “Nobody told you to stop working.”

  2. Dieu et mon droit. Things are rarely as bad as they seem nor as good.

    Despair is a sin against Hope.

    “An’ a Zulu impi dished us up in style:” from “Fuzzy Wuzzy” (in the Sudan Fuzzy Wuzzy broke a British square!) by Rudyad Kipling.

    Less than 24 hours before the Rourke’s Drift fight, a main column of Brit regulars and auxilliaries were massacred at Isandlhwana. The reports show that the regulars were spread too thin and could not be sufficiently supplied with cartidges to keep at bay the cold steel wielded by (relatively) huge numbers of brave athletes.

    That was worse than the Litte Big Horn.

    I have the excellent book, The Washing of the Spears, which details the war.

    The generals finally figured out how to beat the Zulu mobile assegai men. Years later, the Boers (“The Boers knocked us silly at a mile,” again Kipling) similarly roughed up the vaunted sassenach regulars.

    “The Three Feathers ” is also a good Brit (Khartoum/Omdurman) war movie.

  3. The uniforms are wrong. The soldiers are dressed as if for a parade and Chard and Bromhead look as if they have just stepped out of a military tailor’s circa 1900. Rank badges were different in 1879, and worn on the collar. On campaign the sun helmets were stained brown with tea and had no plate, and the soldiers would be wearing a red serge “frock”. Most were bearded – a photograph of Chard shows him looking like an Old Testament prophet. Officers tended to wear blue patrol jackets, but at Rorke’s Drift Chard was wearing a short RE shell jacket and Bromhead an ordinary soldier’s tunic.

    Some 1960s sentiments and assumptions strike a false note. The soldiers would not have been horrified by the slaughter, in fact they went out after the battle and cheerfully despatched the wounded Zulus with bullet or bayonet. Surgeon Reynolds’s outburst: “Damn you Chard! Damn all you butchers!” would not have been uttered in that or any other war. Both Chard and Bromhead were regarded as mediocre officers; the latter was almost totally deaf and was described as “a capital fellow in everything except soldiering”. The real hero of Rorke’s Drift was Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton, aged 45 in 1879. It was he who persuaded Chard not to abandon the post and who organized the defence. He was, incidentally, a Catholic.

    There are similarities between Isandhlwana and Little Big Horn. Both Chelmsford and Custer underestimated the number of their opponents; both divided their forces. However, the greatest defeat inflicted on a European army by native troops was at Adowa in 1896 where a large Italian force was routed by the Ethiopians. Italian casualties were 11,500 (including 7,000 killed). By the way, Mr Shaw, the Scots and Irish who made up a large part of the British regular army would not have appreciated being referred to as “sassenachs”.

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