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

Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne, Zulu

(I posted this at The American Catholic and I thought the film mavens of Almost Chosen People might like it.)



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.


Published in: on January 10, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Zulu!  
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