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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.
It has since become a Bank holiday television perennial, and remains beloved by the British public.
But the story behind the film’s making is as unusual as the one that it tells.
On its initial release, in 1964, it was one of the biggest box-office hits of all time in the home market.
It is not an anti-imperial diatribe any more than it is a celebration of colonial conquest.
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.
When he was cast for the part I couldn’t see it but I think (and hope) I was wrong.” This must have been a common reaction.
Not quite an unknown, the 30-year-old Caine was already making a name for himself on television but was becoming type-cast in working-class Cockney parts.
Its main purpose was frankly commercial, but Baker also saw the story as an chance to pay tribute to his Welsh homeland.