[October 21, 2019] A small group of young teenage boys sat on my living room floor to watch the movie Zulu (1964). We were good friends and all raised in small towns of rural Louisiana, but we were also insular in our understanding of the world. This movie provided us with a shocking glimpse into the real world. Based on the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, the movie showed a technologically advanced army defeated by a primitive one.
There were only two movies in my youth that scared me and drove my nightmares. The first was King Kong (1933) and this movie, Zulu. Maybe we were too young to understand the implications of either movie, but I can say, unabashedly, that we were frightened by what we saw. Of course, movies are designed to get an emotional reaction, and the Zulu movie succeeded spectacularly. See my list of 20 war movies (list here); Zulu (1964) is in my inventory.
The Battle of Isandlwana was the first and remained the single greatest defeat for the British Army at the hands of a native army. Approximately 22,000 Zulu warriors defeated a small contingent of about 1,350 British and Native troops in one of the first engagements of the Anglo-Zulu War.1 The Kingdom of Zululand was invaded by the British to expand their empire, particularly on economic grounds.
The battle was a decisive tactical victory for the Zulus. After the battle, the British took a much more aggressive approach in the war, leading to a heavily reinforced second invasion and destruction of the Zulu nation. While the Zulus won this battle tactically, the British would not stand for such a humiliating defeat and provided the manpower to defeat the Zulus strategically.
There were many reasons for the defeat of the British at Isandlwana. Failure of leadership was the primary culprit. Classic leadership failures plagued the British, underestimating the enemy, failure to prepare properly for defense on the march, ignoring requests for assistance, conflicting orders, and poor communications. The biggest leadership failure was the lack of understanding of the Zulu warrior culture and its history of victory over indigenous foes.
Fortunate for the British, the Zulus also made several tactical errors in the deployment of their army. Zulu forces missed an opportunity to destroy more vulnerable British forces and recklessly attacked a small fort, which repealed them with great loss.
As we sat on the floor, my friends and I watched as the “primitive” native Zulus attacked the great British soldiers repeatedly with overwhelming numbers. Director Cy Endfield did a good job of showing the terror of warfare. It influenced my decision later as an Infantry Officer to study the battle closely and learn from it so as not to repeat the catastrophe.