The crew rigged up a projector and outdoor screen, and the Zulus’ first sight of a motion picture was a Western.From then on, the “warriors” had a better idea of what they were being asked to do.
It might have remained a footnote in the history books or an anecdote told at regimental dinners had it not been for a film which dramatised the story and has kept it in the public mind ever since.
Premiered 85 years to the day after the event it commemorates, the film Zulu is 50 years’ old this week.
But a number of incidents brought home the realities of the oppressive regime.
Chatting to John Marcus, one of several professional black stuntmen employed on the film, assistant editor Jennifer Bates invited him for a drink in the bar/canteen that had been built on site for the crew.
Zulu brought him the attention which led to multi-film contracts and to top billing in his very next picture as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965). Just as the soldiers were played by real soldiers – eighty national servicemen borrowed from the South African National Defence Force – so were most of the Zulus real Zulus.
A mere 240 Zulu extras were employed for the battle scenes, bussed in from their tribal homes over 100 miles away.
By the end of the fighting, 15 soldiers lay dead, with another two mortally wounded. This makes for a remarkable tale of courage and tenacity, on both sides of the perimeter.
But historically the battle was a minor incident which had little influence on the course of the Anglo-Zulu War.
All three were committed to progressive causes, but their motives in making Zulu were not political.
It is not an anti-imperial diatribe any more than it is a celebration of colonial conquest.
Casting him as a blue-blooded officer in his first major film role represented a considerable risk, but it was one that paid off.