In 1964 Zulu immortalised the Battle of Rorke’s Drift as a tale of plucky Brits defying overwhelming odds through a genius for improvisation and raw courage. As far as it went, this was true. But why was the battle fought at all? The prologue gave an indication of the fighting ability of the Zulus, and what they could do to a modern army, with a view of the battlefield of Isandhlwana, but there was no indication of how and why the British came to clash with an African people. Zulu Dawn sets out to answer these questions and, perhaps, give a bit of perspective on the earlier film.
Like its predecessor, Zulu Dawn begins with a scene set in the royal kraal or camp. The king, Cetewayo (Simon Sabele), is told by a native go-between that the British want him to disband his army and change his form of government. Cetewayo asks, not unreasonably, how the British would react if he told them to disband their army and go home.
The scene then moves to the residence of the Governor of Natal colony, Bartle Frere (John Mills), as he writes an ultimatum to the Zulus with army commander Lord Chelmsford (Peter O’Toole). To further their political and military ambitions these two plan to start a war by depicting Cetewayo as a bloodthirsty tyrant, oppressing his own people and a danger to the British (not something that could happen in our own enlightened times).
A cumbersome British military expedition is put together and we are introduced to some supporting characters: Colonel Durnford (Burt Lancaster) who understands and respects the Zulu but is sidelined by Chelmsford who wants to run the show single-handed; Colour-Sergeant Williams (Bob Hoskins) and Private Williams (David Bradley), a tough old sweat and a hapless private who provide some comic relief (similar to Corporal Allen and "slovenly soldier" Hitch in Zulu); Quartermaster Sergeant Bloomfield (Peter Vaughan) and Bandboy Pullen (Phil Daniels) who provide exposition about the Zulus in battle (“I ain’t afraid of no one man, but the Zulus… they come in the thousands.”)
Lumbering into Zululand with all the impedimenta of modern war, the British draw “first blood” by killing a few Zulu warriors. A journalist, Norris Newman (Ronald Lacey), who acts as the film’s conscience, rightly deduces the whole expedition is just an ego trip for Chelmsford. Convinced by false intelligence, and assuming he is just fighting ignorant savages, Chelmsford is fooled into splitting his force, leaving half his army camped out on Isandhlwana hill under the command of Colonel Pulleine (Denholm Elliott), an administrator, not a combat officer.
Durnford appears (defying Chelmsford’s orders) and makes an effort to stiffen the camp’s defences but it is too late. The main Zulu army pours out of its concealed position and overruns the camp. Too strung out to offer effective firepower and kept short of ammunition by officious quartermasters (including Bloomfield), the British are overwhelmed. Despite courageous last stands here and there, almost the entire force of 1,500 is wiped out. Chelmsford is walking among the slaughter as word comes that the sky is red with fire over the supply depot at Rorke’s Drift.
So how does this ‘prequel’ compare to its classic forebear? Firstly, it is not as compact. There are far more characters and much more story to pack into the running time. It is a political as much as a war film, with a clear message about the injustices of imperialism which Zulu only hinted at, so it’s not just a series of spectacular battle scenes. This might be a disappointment to some, but in historic terms it is a more balanced depiction of events.
The cast is almost an A-Z of British character actors. Burt Lancaster was presumably included for the US market. He adopts a sort of semi-Irish accent (Durnford was from Leitrim) which isn’t entirely successful. The character of Durnford actually comes out of the film quite well. His role in the campaign is still a source of controversy (did he leave Natal open to a Zulu invasion?) and his one experience of combat in South Africa consisted of getting his force lost and ambushed in 1873 (hence the paralysed arm).
The performances are generally best described as ‘solid’, good but not showy. Even Peter O’Toole’s usual fireworks are subdued. His Chelmsford is aloof, reserved, unteachable, and a complete snob who thoroughly deserves the kicking he gets. One of the best moments in the film comes when news of the fighting at Isandhlwana reaches Chelmsford over a leisurely lunch. He returns alone to his wagon and bends over the map table. With this simple gesture O’Toole tells us the guy knows he has screwed up big-style.
One of the glories of Zulu was, of course, John Barry’s music. The score here is by Elmer Bernstein. It does not (cannot) reach Barry’s heights, but has its good spots, particularly the ‘River Crossing’ sequence which does suggest the glory of the British Empire going to war. The action music for the battle is more derivative, where Barry took the trouble to incorporate genuine Zulu themes into his score. There is even some clearly ‘Western’ music, more suited to Custer’s cavalry than Her Majesty’s 24th Regiment of Foot.
The battle itself is well-depicted, at least scene-by-scene. As a whole it does get itself a bit lost, trying to depict the fate of the many individuals we have come to know in the film. Some loose ends are never tied up – does Simon Ward die at the end, or is he simply exhausted?
The photography by Ousama Rawi is beautiful and makes the most of the African landscapes and sunsets.
If you want some historic context for Zulu, then Zulu Dawn is a worthy effort, but it falls between being a history lesson and a spectacle, and will be a definite let-down for fans of the earlier film.