Directed By: Douglas Hickox
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Burt Lancaster, Bob Hoskins, Denholm Elliot
It’s a common lament that Hollywood endlessly recycles material, resurrecting fifteen year old franchises with sequels and prequels that no one is asking for. Of course this isn’t even a new phenomenon. Hollywood has always recycled case in point; Zulu Dawn the 1979 prequel to the 1964 Zulu.
Zulu was a critical and box office success. Like many prequels Zulu Dawn wasn’t. Zulu was a tight suspenseful tale of mounting gloom, desperation, sacrifice, heroism and finally relief. Zulu Dawn tries to recapture that success and while a quick Google reveals that Zulu Dawn is the more historically accurate of the two films ironically it’s the less entertaining. If you’ve seen and loved Zulu then Zulu Dawn will fill in some more of the story just don’t expect quite as good a movie.
I’m going to paint in some broad and possibly inaccurate strokes here as most of my knowledge of the Anglo-Zulu war comes from Zulu and Zulu Dawn. The South African British province of Natal is bordered by the Zulu Empire. Certain British officials in Natal believe that war with the Zulu king Cetshwayo and his thirty thousand warriors is inevitable. So rather than wait for the Zulu to attack on their terms it is deemed it would be more advantageous to come up with a pretext to invade Zululand on the British’s best terms. At least according to the movie many of the British settlers in Natal and even officials in London thought the chance that Cetshwayo would invade Natal was miniscule.
This is where Zulu Dawn starts. Lord Chelmsford played by an aloof and confident Peter O’Toole commands the British troops in South Africa while Sir Henry Bartle Frere played by John Mills serves as the High Commissioner. Chelmsford and Frere both believe that war with the Zulu is inevitable and to head off an invasion, which people who know the region much more intimately think is extremely unlikely, they issue an ultimatum to the Zulu that they are certain will be rejected. This is the pretense they will use to preemptively invade Zulu. It’s the old “we have to burn the village to save it” argument in 1879 terms.
This throws an interesting wrench into the narrative however. Lord Chelmsford and Sir Henry Frere are clearly the villains, but the Zulu’s aren’t really the protagonists either. While Cetshwayo is depicted as a competent leader and you get to know a handful of the Zulu warriors you are clearly meant to identify with certain of the British soldiers. Despite the minor humanizing efforts in the end the Zulu come across like a force of nature instead of an army full of real men with families and crops and a homeland to defend. The people who we are supposed to root for and cringe for when they get speared are the same people taking orders from racist imperial warmongers. Cy Endfield and Anthony Story the screenwriters knew this of course and they go to great lengths to explain how otherwise good honorable men end up fighting on the wrong side. It all boils down in the end to soldiers fighting for the men to their left and to their right. For example there’s Colonel Durnford played by Burt Lancaster who is dubious of Chelmsford’s plans and competence but still follows orders and does his best to take care of his men. Then there is Sergeant Williams played by Bob Hoskins who is the stereotypical hard as nails Sergeant who trains his men hard but only because he knows it will save their lives, except for when it doesn’t.
So putting aside all of that baggage is the movie any good. It’s okay. The movie looks great. It was shot in South Africa, much of it at Isandlwana, the location of the actual battle. The African sunsets and sunrises are absolutely gorgeous and there are several sweeping shots of the landscape that are near breathtaking. The acting is variable. Peter O’Toole is great as the reserved and coldly malicious Chemlsford. Lancaster is certainly serviceable as Dunford and Hoskin chews up every scene he is in. The pacing is excellent, slowly building to the inevitable end of the tale but where the movie really falls down is the direction of the battle scenes. A lot of time is spent setting the pieces on the board and there is exposition explaining why this or that is bad idea but when the Martini-Henry rifles start firing and the spears start flying all I really understood was that the British were being overrun and everybody kept falling back until there wasn’t anyone left to fall back, which is actually what happened in a nutshell so maybe I’m being a little too critical. It’s hard to look at the film with 1979 eyes as well. While I don’t expect every film to be a filled with hyper realistic blood and gore Zulu Dawn seemed to have an inordinate amounts of spear piercing and gunshot wounds that may have been something to show off thirty five years ago but today they just look cheesy. Maybe that’s not a fair criticism but it is what it is. I enjoyed Zulu Dawn but given the choice I would rather just watch Zulu again.
The movie is presented on two discs, a Blu Ray and a DVD. The Blu Ray is a 1080p transfer with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio which really makes those big vista shots pop. The color is good but it does have that slightly under saturated look you associate with movies from the seventies. I never noticed any moiré or aliasing of any other digital artifacts.
The audio is presented in both DTS-HD Mater Audio with a mono mix and a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix. The mix is fine and the score by Elmer Bernstein is one of the better things about the movie. There are no subtitles.
Packaging and Bonus Features
The two disc set comes in a standard Blu Ray case and I rather like the artwork. The menu is rather striking as well. It shows a shot of Zulu warriors charging through the grass at a line of British soldiers while periodically cavalry or other batches of Zulu warriors fade in and out of the grass like phantoms. There are three interesting featurettes included which fill in some historical background about the battle and the political climate in Britain and South Africa that brought it about and how the movie dealt with the facts. There is a theatrical trailer and some outtakes included as well, actually a nice size selection of material for a nearly thirty five year old movie.
Overall (Not an Average) 7/10
The Movie 6/10
The Video 8/10
The Audio 7/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 8/10