b][SIZE=16][color=orange]Zulu Dawn (1979)[/SIZE][/color][/b]
[imdb= 0080180 ]
Reviewed by Ian Knight, official historian on the 2000 Isandlwana archaeological dig. He has written over 20 books on 19th-century Zulu history, including Zulu: The battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, The Anatomy of the Zulu Army and With His Face to the Foe: The life and death of Prince Louis Napoleon.
Zulu Dawn posterZulu Dawn was a naked attempt to cash in on the success of Michael Caine's first major movie, Zulu (1964), which even by 1979 – when this 'prequel' was made – had achieved the status of something of a classic. However, whereas Zulu had sacrificed historical accuracy for the sake of compelling drama, Zulu Dawn sacrificed historical accuracy to commercial blandness.
The first film had concentrated on the famous defence of the border mission station of Rorke's Drift – arguably the only incident from the Anglo-Zulu War to have passed into British folklore – while Zulu Dawn explored Isandlwana, the battle that immediately preceded it on 22 January 1879. This was not in itself a bad idea, since Isandlwana was certainly the more important battle by far, and the film superficially follows the course of events quite well.
It begins with a cursory run-through of the events leading up to the British invasion – 10 minutes of Sir John Mills looking smug and conspiratorial as Sir H Bartle Frere, in charge of British imperial policy in South Africa. Then comes Lieutenant General Lord Chelmsford's advance to the fatal field of Isandlwana.
It is visually splendid, filmed close to the real locations. The camera relishes the spectacle of lines of red-coated soldiers crossing rivers on ferries hauled by sweating Africans, or marching in great columns through the tawny veld. Indeed, it is rather more aridly splendid than the real thing, which took place in the Zululand summer when the grass is a lush green, it rains a lot and the light is a little too unreliable for movie-making. In fact, the actual morning of the invasion was cloaked in dense mist that limited visibility to a few yards – there was clearly not much cinematic mileage in that. The crossing was filmed at the real Rorke's Drift, but the column deploys from the Zulu bank into Natal, a reversal that somehow sums up the wasted opportunities of the film as a whole.
A host of well-known British actors appear in little more than cameo roles, most of them reduced to the level of historical stereotypes. Peter O'Toole plays Lord Chelmsford with an edge of icy arrogance whereas, whatever his military failings, the real Chelmsford was noted for his impeccable manners. Burt Lancaster, brought in to secure American finance, struggles manfully with a spurious Oirish accent as Colonel Durnford: the man-who-knows-but-no-one-will-listen-to.
The British army in 1879, it seems, was populated by breezy young officers ('What an adventure we are on, what a spree!' declares one, as the advance begins), by officious quartermasters who need chits to issue ammunition even at the height of battle, and by cor-blimey other ranks who drink gin and play brag.
It can only end one way – and indeed it does. 'It serves you damn well right,' the young Zulu warrior is surely saying as he skewers Denholm Elliott's Colonel Pulleine through the chest at the film's dramatic climax. Even Burt has to die like a man, after being shot, falling off a wagon and being impaled on a spear.
In its concentration on British failings – 'Have we weaknesses, quartermaster?' – the film echoes traditional British attitudes towards the war, reducing the Zulus to exotic cannon-fodder who, on this occasion, merely serve to look good and dish up well-deserved retribution. Although the film begins with an impressive ceremony at the recreated Zulu royal homestead, it fails to offer any convincing Zulu perspective, and its apparent sympathy for the Zulu cause is undermined by an entirely fictitious gladiatorial contest between warriors that might have been written by Rider Haggard in his best 'noble savage' mode.
It is, moreover, a curiously bloodless film, in more ways than one. In the stunningly choreographed battle scenes, hundreds die but very few bleed, and the film captures little of the apocalyptic horror of the real Isandlwana. Apparently, most of the gory scenes were cut to secure a family certificate.
Come to that, the officers of colonial units didn't wear those chic powder-blue uniforms, either. [/color]