Zulu Dawn (1979) is the prequel to the 1964 film Zulu which tells the story of a proud British army which suffered the worst defeat ever inflicted by a native army during the Victorian era. Burt Lancaster (Colonel Anthony Durnford), Peter O’ Toole (Lord Frederick Chelmsford), Simon Ward (Lt. William Vereker), Bob Hoskins (Sgt-Major Willams), James Faulkner (Lt. Melvill and film’s producer), Denholm Elliot (Lt. Col. Henry Pulliene), and Sir John Mills (Sir Henry Bartle Frere) head the cast of British officers and bureaucrats which began the legendary Anglo-Zulu war.
The film is a rather well researched account of the battle at Isandlwana. This was in Zulu land which bordered the British colony of Natal in South Africa. In January, 1879. Sir Henry Bartle Frere (Mills) is the High Commissioner for her majesty Queen Victoria who along with Lord Chelmsford (O’ Toole), insight a war against King Cetshwayo, the King of the Zulu people who rules in ways that the British view as a threat to their colony and hegemony in the region.
After a British ultimatum to disband his army, Cetshwayo refuses to capitulate to the British and the war begins. Lord Chelmsford leads his army which consists of two battalions of the 24th regiment of foot, to cross the Buffalo River which divides the border of the Zulu territory. Believing that their technological superiority will aid them in victory, the British send 1350 troops against a Zulu army of 25,000. I first saw this film when I was about five. I remember my father watching it as a channel 5 afternoon movie. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I found the film on the shelves of a local electronics retailer. I scrutinized the cover for a few seconds and realized that I knew the film and that it was the prequel to one of my favorite films. I have always been a fan of historical period pieces, especially those which relate to this weekly blog. British colonialism of the 19th century has always been a favorite era of history of mine and I love films like Zulu Dawn.
The cast does a somewhat decent job of playing their historical counterparts. Burt Lancaster who has always been considered by me to be American royalty, tries to pull off a decent Irish accent as Colonel Durnford, the man whose expertise concerning Africa is overlooked by the smug Lord Chelmsford. Lt. Vereker (Ward) is a young inexperienced officer who is eager to prove himself in battle and respects the tactics of the Zulus. Col. Pulliene (Elliot) is an indecisive commander whose failure to lead his men in the battle results in their demise. The pacing of the film is very good. It holds your attention and when the battle begins on the afternoon of January 22, 1879, it shows with great intensity the massive force of Zulu warriors the British faced.
The costumes which the British wear are very accurate to the actual tropical uniforms soldiers wore in the late 19th century. The production designers even dyed the white pith helmets in tea water as to dull the color ( an actual practice that British troops did to reduce the glare from a distance). The one thing that I noticed now, was that it must have been impossible to aquire a significant amount of Martini-Henry rifles (the breach loading rifle that the British soldiers used in the battle). A majority of the rifles were calvary carbines which were a smaller version of the Martini-Henry. Other slight inaccuracies in the film include Col. Pulliene’s being killed in his tent while writing a letter to his wife. In actuality, he was killed by a stray bullet during the battle. Fearing the battle lost, Col. Pulliene entrusts the Union Jack to Lt. Melvill who is to carry the colors to safety by alerting the smaller garrison at Rorke’s Drift (where Zulu takes place).
The flag was wrapped up and placed in a leather pouch to protect it from damage. The scenes concerning the flag being taken off by the Zulus is pure Hollywood fiction. A solar eclipse happened during the battle which the Zulus believed was an omen for their victory in the battle. That was never shown in the film. And lastly, when Chelmsford’s column arrived at Isandlwana that evening to view the outcome, his force was within firing range of many of the army who were now heading towards Rorke’s Drift to attack the small garrison there. Certain historical pieces are somewhat difficult to recreate, but Zulu Dawn does a decent job at depicting the events which unfolded at Isandlwana. It is a film that when released, did not do very well at the box office but today, has garnered a place among cult and historical film fans alike. Zulu Dawn can be purchased through Amazon, and can be rented through Netflix, or through other streamlining sites.