What's so great about Zulu? To answer that question properly, you need to pass this test first.
1) Do you know Men of Harlech off by heart?
2) Can you name at least half of the 11 Victoria Cross winners in the film (by their nicknames where possible) without resorting to Google?
3) Have you ever found yourself stirred to ridiculous feelings of patriotism by John Barry's magnificent film score on the morning commute?
I really hope someone else answers "yes" to all three, otherwise you can chalk me up as a lone madman.
Zulu - released 50 years ago last week - is a film about a glorious British myth. And that glorious myth goes like this: the Battle of Rorke's Drift in 1879 was the British Empire's finest hour - even finer, perhaps, than the Battle of Britain, 60 years later.
Against all the odds, 150 British and colonial soldiers (about 40 of them hospital patients) fought off a fearsome army of 4000 Zulu warriors. To the Victorians, it confirmed their every prejudice: brave British underdogs in red tunics had triumphed over terrifying African savages, whose women didn't even cover their breasts!
Men of Harlech - the song belted out by our heroes during the film's climax - evokes similar themes of battle. "Hark! I hear the foe advancing," it goes. Yes, that'll be the thundering sound of thousands of Zulu assegai (stabbing spears) slamming down on cowhide shields. "The haughty foe surrounding." The British had rifles, of course, but they were outnumbered by about 25 to one. "Britain scorns to yield!" And yet they vanquished the enemy - killing hundreds of Zulus and forcing them, eventually, to abandon the attack.
In a way, it's extraordinary that this exciting story was filmed as late as the 60s. But as with every great myth, the truth was stretched - and stretched again. The Battle of Rorke's Drift was, in reality, little more than a footnote after a far more important (and far more gory) battle earlier in the day, 18km away at Isandlwana.
There, on January 22 1879, a large British force was surprised, overwhelmed, killed and mutilated by about 20,000 Zulus. It was the ultimate humiliation for the British Empire.
Why? Because for decades, its forces had been used to easy victories over badly equipped native armies. Spears and clubs, commanders thought, were no match for European massed firepower and strict discipline.
I hardly need to mention imperial theories about racial superiority. But perhaps they were what led the hubristic Lord Chelmsford, the commander-in-chief during the Anglo-Zulu War, to take half of his soldiers away from Isandlwana to hunt for the Zulu enemy.
In his absence, as the opening shots of Zulu reveal, the other half didn't survive.
The Zulu king, Cetshwayo, had ordered his men: "March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers."
That's roughly what they did and nearly repeated at Rorke's Drift.
A few months later, a British war correspondent, Archibald Forbes, visited the site of the massacre at Isandlwana. This is what he saw: "Some [of the dead men] were almost wholly dismembered, heaps of yellow, clammy bones. I forbear to describe the faces, with their blackened features and beards bleached by rain and sun. Every man had been disembowelled. Some were scalped. And others had been subject to even ghastlier mutilations. The clothes had lasted better than the poor bodies they covered, and helped keep the skeletons together."
Forgive the horrendous detail, but this is why serious historians doubt the popular narrative about Rorke's Drift - the one expounded in Zulu. As Prof John Laband, who has written a book on the two actions, puts it, the battle provided the British authorities with "much-needed propaganda to counter the Zulu success at Isandlwana".
He argues, instead, that the battle "merely diverted a large Zulu raiding party from going about its short-term business".
So there's another reading of those 11 Victoria Crosses. Were they really about bravery, or about drawing attention away from one of the worst British defeats of the 19th century?
Sir Garnet Wolseley, the man who succeeded Lord Chelmsford as commander-in-chief, certainly had his doubts. "It is monstrous," he said, "making heroes of those who, shut up in buildings at Rorke's Drift, could not bolt, and fought like rats for their lives which they could not otherwise save."
It may be monstrous, but it certainly makes for good cinema. And we mustn't let history get in the way of a good myth with po-faced academic studies. You only need to watch Zulu Dawn, the 1979 prequel about Isandlwana, to appreciate that. The film's cast is stellar - it includes Peter O'Toole, Burt Lancaster and John Mills - but the historically accurate result is dreary. Who wants to watch a painful British defeat unfold over two agonising hours? Not many people, apparently. It was a box-office flop. (The only stirring moment is when Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill die trying to save their regiment's Colours - another two VCs, by the way.)
Zulu, by contrast, embraced the Victorian myth about Rorke's Drift and gave it a new, blockbuster reinterpretation.
Take Henry Hook, a leading character played by James Booth, who is a drunken malingerer in the film, confined to the hospital. "Hookie" redeems himself by saving the lives of the patients there and, in doing so, earns a VC. The real Hook, however, was a teetotal Methodist and a model soldier. He was even awarded good conduct pay shortly before the battle, and his elderly daughter walked out of the film premiere in disgust at his portrayal.
The American director, Cy Endfield, was probably responsible for such artistic licence. He had been blacklisted in the US as a "Communist" in the early 50s. So he came to work in Britain and - having chanced upon an article about Rorke's Drift - relished the idea of turning it into an epic film. His friend Stanley Baker, who plays Lieutenant John Chard in the film, was happy to join the venture.
But the film didn't come from these two men alone: Zulu is very much of its time. Thematically, you could say it's roughly a Western, only with British soldiers for cowboys and Zulus for Indians. Baker and Endfield acknowledged as much: because many of the 700 Zulus hired as extras for the film had never been to a cinema before, the two men set up a projector in order for them to watch a Western starring Gene Autry. After that, the Zulus understood their precise role - to make lots of noise and fall over when
shot. (They were reportedly paid in cattle.)
Baker and Endfield could just as easily have put on 55 Days at Peking, which was released in 1963 and dramatises the siege of the foreign legations' compounds in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion. Or The Alamo (1960), with its siege and gripping finale.
Khartoum, another imperial era epic, was released a couple of years later in 1966.
Zulu, however, is a superior film to them all. Indeed, its extraordinary impact was highlighted recently by museum curator Bill Cainan, in Brecon in Britain. There, at the regimental museum of the Royal Welsh, the mementoes of the battle are on display, including 10 of the 11 Victoria Crosses won at Rorke's Drift. Cainan is trying to prevent the museum's closure.
He says: "Zulu is both a blessing and a curse. If it wasn't for the film, it would be another forgotten foreign war." But, he admits: "It's a curse because most people seem to think it's a documentary, which of course it isn't."
Thank goodness for that. Zulu is a story of real-life heroism seen through the lenses of Victorian propaganda and Hollywood epic cinema. It may not be truthful - but, my God, the result is thrilling.