In 1879, the British suffer a great loss at the Battle of Isandlwana due to incompetent leadership. Despite the defeat, the Zulus are first humiliated at Roark's Drift and then crushed at the Battle of Ulundi.
Burt Lancaster ... Col. Durnford
Simon Ward ... Lt. William Vereker
Denholm Elliott ... Colonel Pulleine
Peter Vaughan ... Q.S.M. Bloomfield
James Faulkner ... Lt. Melvill
Christopher Cazenove ... Lt. Coghill
Bob Hoskins ... C.S.M. Williams
David Bradley ... Pte. Williams (as Dai Bradley)
Paul Copley ... Cpl. Storey
Donald Pickering ... Maj. Russell R.A.
Nicholas Clay ... Lt. Raw
Phil Daniels ... Boy Pullen
Director: Douglas Hickox
Codecs: DivX 5 / MP3
Released in a badly cut version in 1979 just before the resurgent interest in Burt Lancaster for his performance in "Atlantic City and Peter O'Toole for "Stunt Man", this fine historical epic died an ignominious death at the box office, on the second half of a double bill with the horror film "Silent Scream". It was originally planned by Cy Endfield as a companion film to his 1964 classic, "Zulu". That film opened with a voice over of Richard Burton speaking Lord Chelmsford's communication to Prime Minister Disraeli detailing the massacre that befell a British column of about 1,800 British Infantrymen and native contingents at the hands of Zulu warriors at Isandlwana on January 22, 1879. This disaster left the 155 men at the mission post at Rorke's Drift to fend for themselves against several thousand Zulu warriors headed their way. "Zulu Dawn" chronicles the chain of events that led up to the British debacle at Isandlwana, the worst defeat ever suffered by a professional army at the hands of native forces in history.
Director Douglas Hickox keeps the film moving along and the film is an excellent example of adapting historical events to the needs of cinematic form and drama. In a little less than two hours the causes for the war as well as the roots of the disaster are laid out in clear, if simplified terms. The arrogance of the British Empire as personified by Sir Henry Bartle Frere, (John Mills in another stiff upper lip performance) and his chief lieutenant, Frederick Theisger, Lord Chelmsford, (Peter O'Toole, nicely understated and subdued) are in the filmmaker's view clearly responsible for a war that need never have been fought at all. The film also makes clear that Sir Henry initiated the conflict without the knowledge let alone consent of the British Government. But the arrogance and sense of entitlement that blinds Sir Henry to dealing with the Zulu in a just and legal manner affects all the participants involved, from the highest government official to the lowest private. It is the mistaken belief that technology, (exemplified here by rockets, cannons and rifles) somehow gives nations the right to take by force whatever they want. Handing Chelmsford his orders, Sir Henry asks, "Does this cover, Frederick what we both know to be right?" "Most excellently, Sir Henry." He replies. It is as if they both need spoken confirmation that the crime they are about to commit is in fact justified.
This English disdain is not just reserved for the Zulu, but for fellow countrymen as well. After Col. Hamilton-Brown, robustly played by Nigel Davenport refuses his table in order to be with his men still on the march, Chelmsford contemptuously warns his aide-de-camp, Lt. Hartford, sensitively played by Ronald Pickup to, "Learn nothing from that Irishman, except how not to behave." But his real distaste is reserved for Col. Anthony Durnford, a rough-hewn Irishman who has a way with the native troops. With his understanding of the Zulu warrior and his knowledge of the topography, Durnford would obviously be of great use in the coming campaign, but almost immediately there is tension between the two men. And with Burt Lancaster as Durnford it is easy to see why Chelmsford might feel threatened. Even with the use of only one arm, he is a natural leader of men, intelligent and charismatic and unlike Chelmsford he respects the Zulu. It is one of Lancaster's sage portrayals and this time he sports an Irish accent. Dialects were never one of his strong points and this one doesn't completely convince, but it is consistent and it underscores Durnford's isolation among the English who make up most of Chelmsford's staff. More importantly, even at 65, Lancaster has a bravado and dash which makes it understandable how he might warm the heart of beautiful young woman. Fanny Colenso so loved the older Durnford that she went on a one woman crusade to clear his name when the official inquiry into the disaster attempted to shift the blame for it onto him.
A great cast is well used in many telling vignettes. Denholm Elliot as the gentle Col. Pulliene has a moving death scene. Simon Ward as William Vereker represents what is best of the British aristocracy abroad and he quickly becomes disenchanted with the war, ("A very dirty business, indeed.") Michael Jayston as Col. Crealock, Chelmsford's secretary catches all the charm and tact needed for that difficult position. Freddie Jones and Anna Calder-Marshall as Bishop Colenso and his daughter Fanny, having lived among the Zulu are righteously indignant at the prospect of war. Ronald Lacey as Correspondent Norris Newman delights in skewering the official lies about the war. Peter Vaughn as Quartermaster Bloomfield, whose obsession in accounting for every cartridge and shell would have such horrific consequences is marvelous. Simon Sabela makes a very impressive King Cetshwayo in one of the opening sequences to the film and Bob Hoskins as tough Sergeant Major Williams is a lot of fun. With great battle scenes and a rousing score by Elmer Bernstein, "Zulu Dawn" is a worthy companion to "Zulu".
I like "Zulu Dawn," but maybe for strange reasons. I'm glad that it favors plot over characterization, and I appreciate its attention to detail and tactics. Too many modern war movies ignore tactics, and don't place battles in their proper contexts. Here, it's easy to follow exactly what's happening, and why.
What makes the film especially memorable is that it's the story of a military disaster - the biggest defeat of a "modern" army at the hands of a "primitive" one (though I believe the Zulus suffered higher casualties than the British did). The script pretty much telegraphs the battle's result from the beginning; Peter O'Toole, as the British commander, is clearly too stubborn and blind to danger, so the attentive viewer should realize fast that he's heading for a fall.
The ending is somewhat misleading, though. The final caption might suggest to some viewers that the Zulus won the whole war. Sadly, they were beaten pretty rapidly and suffered some hideous defeats. I guess that's what makes this initial Zulu victory so noteworthy - almost unbelievable, really.
As is often the case in war movies, "Zulu Dawn" features big-name actors playing real soldiers. This makes it easier to tell the somewhat thin characters apart. Though nobody gives a career-best performance, it's great to see O'Toole, Burt Lancaster, Bob Hoskins and a solid cast of British character actors together in one movie.
I don't suppose they'd ever make this today. The politics are too awkward; I don't think a modern audience would have much sympathy for the British or the Zulu. And, of course, contemporary movies have rejected old-time spectacle, electing to replace sweeping landscapes and huge crowds of extras with fake-looking CGI.
But, in this case, old-fashioned is good. "Zulu Dawn" is definitely worth checking out
# John Hurt was cast in this film but had to be replaced after the South African authorities confused him with the actor John Heard who had been arrested on an anti apartheid march and refused him a visa.
# Bob Hoskins got infected by a worm while making this project