Zulu Dawn

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Before the Fall: Colonial Arrogance and Tactical Incompetence in “Zulu Dawn” (1979)

Aug 25, 2001
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Pros:Good history, should be required viewing for those interested in military tactics--what NOT to do.

Cons:Burt Lancaster's now-you-hear-it, now-you-don't accent provides unintentional comedy.

The Bottom Line: A movie about history that actually gets the history right, "Zulu Dawn" benefits from some fine acting and presents budding military tacticians with a lesson in what NOT to do.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie's plot.

It was the twilight of the British empire. Fifty years later, they would be reduced to little more than their single island off the coast of Europe. But in the nineteenth century, they controlled all Africa. Until their own arrogance nearly cost them their foothold.

Zulu Dawn was written by blacklisted American writer Cy Endfield as a companion piece to his 1964 film, Zulu. The original film chronicled the day-long siege of Rorke’s drift, a small British outpost manned by only a hundred soldiers, pitted against thousands of Zulu warriors. The movie enjoyed commercial success at the time, helped make a star of Michael Caine, and is rightly considered a classic today.

Zulu Dawn, also written by Endfield, details the events that led to that battle, climaxing in the massacre of over a thousand British soldiers at Isandhlwana. It is not as good a movie as the 1964 picture, suffering from pedestrian direction and a lack of dramatic focus. But it does a good job demonstrating the colonial arrogance that led to a war with the Zulu, and the series of tactical mistakes that preceded the massacre.

The British colony at Natal and Zulu territory are clearly divided by a river. As the film opens, British officials have sent a message across that river to the Zulu chief, an ultimatum to disband his army and change his ways of governing and punishing his people. The chief refuses, pointing out that he “does not go (into their lands) and tell them how to rule.” He states that he will not attack the colony across the river, but warns that he will defend his territory if the British attack him.

Upon receiving the chief’s reply, the governor of the colony announces that they are now at war. Lord Chelmsford (Peter O’Toole) is charged with the task of subduing the Zulu. And the overconfident Chelmsford proceeds to make a series of mistakes that lead his men to disaster.

O’Toole is extremely good as Chelmsford, playing him as an intelligent man who is simply too arrogant in his own Englishness to realize that he is making poor decisions. His mistakes are strikingly similar to the mistakes General Custer made prior to the Battle of Little Bighorn. He ignores basic rules of defense when setting up base camp at Isandhlwana, refusing to order his men to make their wagons into a barrier around the camp. “British firepower is a defense that can be formed in a moment,” he declares. He brushes aside reports of the Zulu’s position to the north, deeming a crossing to the north too difficult. He does not even bother to investigate those reports before moving half of his forces off to the east, leaving a much smaller force behind. A reporter observing his campaign questions this move, pointing out that it is unwise for a commander to split his forces when he is not sure of the enemy’s position. “That might hold true if we were fighting a European army with guns, rather than savages with spears,” Chelmsford’s secretary replies. This is Chelmsford’s gravest mistake: he refuses to respect his enemy, and it is his men who end up suffering for it.

Burt Lancaster is the experienced Colonel Dunford, the man who understands the Zulu and how to fight them, but is ignored by Chelmsford because of his lack of social standing. Dunford is initially left to guard the colony at Natal. Later, he is left behind at Isandhlwana, while Chelmsford pursues false leads to the east. “Am I to fight the Zulu or simply observe their habitat?” Dunford complains, not yet realizing how desperately he soon will be fighting. It is a solid performance, with Lancaster lending his formidable screen presence. It is hardly his best work, however, suffering from an attempt at an Irish(?) accent that is as ill-advised as it is inconsistent. As a reviewer, I really should complain about Lancaster’s forgetting the accent in half his scenes. But as a viewer, I only wish he had forgotten it for the other half, too.

The movie’s big set piece is, of course, the battle at Isandhlwana. Lord Chelmsford’s claim about the defense of British firepower is put to the test. The soldiers have only a moment’s notice to set up that wall of firepower, as tens of thousands of Zulu warriors come pouring down at them from the hilltops. Chelmsford’s wall quickly crumbles as the soldiers start running out of ammunition. The man at the ammo truck is slow to replace the waning bullets, refusing to issue a single shell to any soldier unless he is first given the proper paperwork. And the Zulu keep on coming, not even slowing as they fall by the hundreds. It becomes frighteningly clear that there is little for the British to do but die.

The battle scenes are well-staged, and there are a handful of striking visuals. The moment where Dunford and his scouts peek over a hillside and see the entire Zulu army covering the landscape is a terrifying one; as is the very first shot of the Zulu descending on Isandhlwana, moving like an enormous wave of black death. But there are too few of these visuals; and even the handful that are there are not sustained. Instead of letting the shots stay on the screen for that extra second or two that would let them really sink in, director Douglas Hickox continuously cuts away, usually to less effective medium-shots and close-ups of the same action. He does well with the actors and the action scenes, but Hickox seems simply unaware of how to direct an epic. A film like this needs a huge sense of scale. The original Zulu had that sense, though it ironically covered a much smaller action. This film covers more ground, and climaxes in a more brutal battle. But with his love of close-ups, Hickox makes a movie that feels disappointingly small.


The film ends as Chelmsford returns to Isandhlwana, too late to save the men he left there. He is struck speechless, staring numbly at the massacre site. When a scout tells him that the Zulu are attacking Rorke’s drift, and asks if they should follow, the rudely-humbled Lord cannot find the strength to answer.

The film’s final shot is of Chelmsford’s stricken face, realizing the full cost of his arrogance in battle. It is to Peter O’Toole’s credit that his expression in this long, final close-up is as powerful as any of the battle scenes before it. And, for possibly the only time in the film, the director knows better than to cut away from it.

Rating: ***1/2 out of *****

Directed by: Douglas Hickox. Starring: Burt Lancaster, Peter O’Toole, Simon Ward, Denholm Elliott, Bob Hoskins, Ronald Pickup, John Mills.

Year Released: 1979
Rated: PG (Contains Mild Profanity, Brutal Violence)
Running Time: 118 minutes (released in the U. S. at 98 minutes--this shorter version is not recommended.

Available on VHS Home Video and DVD*

*(the DVD version currently available, unless there has been a more recent re-issue that I'm not aware of, is not recommended. A poor transfer that is not even presented in proper widescreen, it has the unfortunate distinction of being even lesser in quality than the VHS version, a transfer which is of only adequate quality in itself.)

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: VHS
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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