Saturday, February 7, 2015

CRACKER? Zulu Dawn (1979)

                “Zulu Dawn” is the prequel to “Zulu”.  It was released on the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Isandhlwana.  It covers the machinations leading up to the start of the Anglo-Zulu War and carries through the battle.   The screenplay was co-written by Cy Endfield who had written and directed the earlier film.  Douglas Hickox helmed this picture, but rumor has it he was incompetent and the second unit director had to bring the film home. The film was shot on location in South Africa.  It was not a box office success.

                The movie intercuts between the Zulus and Brits.  It starts in the Zulu capital of Ulanti with some Zulu rituals.  The slaughtering of a bull is a harbinger of what is to come with the bull symbolizing the British Empire.  Zulu courtship is depicted in the most breast-laden scene in war movie history.  Meanwhile, the British High Commissioner for South Africa Sir Henry Bartle Frere (John Mills) and his commanding general Lord Chelmsford (Peter O’Toole) are plotting to provoke a war with the Zulus as “the final solution to the Zulu problem”.  Zulu King Cethswayo’s reaction to the ultimatum reaches the two plotters during a party of the British upper class.  The cricket and tennis is contrasted to the duel to the death that served as entertainment in the Zulu village.  The quaint courtship flirtations of the Brits are compared to the very unVictorian dancing of the Zulus.

"Don't worry lads, there may be thousands of them,
but we have Martini-Henrys"
                The British army crosses the river bordering Zululand with the labor of Zulu porters who are treated like slaves.  A news correspondent named Norris-Newman (Ronald Lacy) is along to question Chelmsford’s strategy and tactics.  Upon crossing the river, there is immediate combat with Zulu scouts to tide us over until the big battle.  The column moves on to camp at Isandhlwana.  “What a marvelous spree” proclaims an overconfident British officer.  Three Zulu warriors allow themselves to be captured and tortured to give false information on the location of the Zulu army.  Water boarding is too subtle, the Brits simply beat it out of them.   Chelmsford chooses to believe their lies over the eye-witness report of a Boer rancher.  He takes half of the army on a wild goose chase leaving the bureaucratic Col. Pulleine (Denholm Elliott) in command.  Chelmsford orders Col. Durnford (Burt Lancaster) and his troop of native cavalry to reinforce the camp.  A patrol led by the Lt. Vereker (Simon Ward) runs into the Zulu army where it ain’t supposed to be.  The camp has little time to prepare for the human tidal wave heading its way.  If you are a Brit, you know what happens next.  If you are an American, watch and learn.

Sgt. Williams shows him the steel
                “Zulu Dawn” must have been a contentious green light.  In many ways the circumstances are similar to the Battle of Little Big Horn.  It is commendable that the producers were willing to put so much effort into a depressing subject.  Releasing it on the centennial anniversary shows their hearts were in the right place.  Unfortunately, they overestimated the public’s desire to remember the ass-whipping.  The timing coming fifteen years after the uplifting “Zulu” was not conducive to the box office either.  I do not know how well it did in Great Britain, but it certainly was critical of the British Empire.

I have six bullets - I don't like the math
                “Zulu Dawn” is competently done.  The scale is impressive.  Filming in Africa helped with the verisimilitude.  The vistas are expansive and add to the geographical accuracy.  The cast is expansive as well and  the huge number of extras makes a grand impression.  Real humans trump CGI every time.  The professional actors are a strength of the movie.  There are a lot of familiar British faces and they all acquit themselves well.  Lancaster and O’Toole anchor the film, but it is definitely an ensemble effort.  Bob Hoskins is the standout as the gruff Colour Sergeant Williams.  Unlike other officer-centric battle films, “Zulu Dawn” spends some time with the enlisted.  Sgt. Williams has a father/son relationship with a sad sack also named Williams (David Bradley) who provides the only comic relief in an otherwise serious movie.  Although the movie is sympathetic to the Zulus and gives their perspective well, there is only one developed character (the leader of the tortured).  The music by Elmer Bernstein is excellent and fits the epic pretensions of the movie.  The river crossing scene relies totally on music as it avoids dialogue.  The cinematography is also stellar, especially in the climactic battle which features different angles, some slo-mo, and even some hand-held.

                The themes are well-developed.  British arrogance is embodied in the pompous Chelmsford, but virtually all the British are overconfident.  The movie does take pains to point out that not all of the colonials favored the war.  The news correspondent is useful in pointing out the egregious tactical errors made by Chelmsford.  There is a primitive versus modern vibe.  This is most obvious in the Martini-Henry rifles against the assegai (the Zulu thrusting spears). 

"Lord Chelmsford, we may be having a slight problem at Isandhlwana"

                “Zulu Dawn” is admirably accurate.  Frere and Chelmsford’s scheming is simplified, but gets the gist of how the British meant to provoke the war and then invade and conquer.  Cetshwayo’s position is given good coverage.  Chelmsford’s plan is not really clearly explained (a map would have been nice), but the march of his column is proper in miniature.  The events leading to the surprise attack on the British camp are shaky.  The biggest artistic license is in the captured/tortured prisoners.  The movie takes some liberties in the movements of the various units (or rather the actors) and compresses time as per a battle movie.  The battle itself is about as well done as one could ask for.  And it is one of the great combat scenes in war movie history.  The fighting is relentless (except for cuts to the clueless nondoomed) for a good twenty minutes and the non-CGI combatants make me nostalgic after recently seeing the last “Hobbit” movie.  British tactics are reenacted, but no allusion is made to the famed Zulu “buffalo horns” tactic.  The chaos in the camp is realistic and the deaths of the principals are mostly accurate.  Speaking of which, the movie has some finely acted deaths in general.

                “Zulu Dawn” is an underrated war movie.  It is unfairly overshadowed by “Zulu” and one must assume part of the reason is that it is about a loss.  In this respect it reminds me of the relationship between “A Bridge Too Far” and “The Longest Day”.  In truth, it could be argued that it is a better movie than “Zulu”.  It is more accurate, but does not have the charisma.  Watching the two in chronological order is a must for war movie lovers.  To understand the achievement, try doing the same with “Gods and Generals” and “Gettysburg”.  Prequels aren’t easy.  “Zulu Dawn” definitely belongs on my 100 Best list and is in the top ten movies covering battles.

GRADE =  A    


  1. Nice review. I remember finding this one dull and heavy-handed (especially John Mills muttering about "the final solution to the Zulu question") but it might stand a rewatch.

    1. I can see why you might feel that way. It does have those elements, but my research proved that it is refreshingly accurate in covering a depressing subject (for most). The truth is that the British were stilted and heavy-handed in reality.

  2. Seeing it on Blu-Ray was a revelation.. Much better than I remember. Highly recommended to any fan of "Zulu".

  3. Spent seven weeks on the set as an "extra" - mostly during the battle sequences. Got to meet many of the top actors, who were amazing, down-to-earth chaps. The massive amount of organisaton and preparation for the major battle scenes made me really appreciate how challenging it is to shoot a movie of this nature. Some days, after 3 days of preparation, a scene lasting just 12 seconds would emerge... Four days to shoot 12 seconds of film...

    1. Thanks for sharing. Interesting stuff. I've learned a lot about movie making since starting this blog. One thing has been the amount of time and effort that goes into the production. It sure is a lot more time consuming than I thought. That's why I get upset with a talent like Peter Jackson wastes so much time on a movie like "King Kong".

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