War Movie Mondays Again: Zulu Dawn

Zulu Dawn

It’s time for another edition of War Movie Mondays Again. This week’s movie is 1979’s Zulu Dawn.

Zulu Dawn is a prequel to the 1964 film Zulu and tells the story of a proud British army unit which suffered the worst defeat by a native army during the Victorian era. It features quite a cast including Burt Lancaster (Colonel Anthony Durnford), Peter O’ Toole (Lord Frederick Chelmsford), Simon Ward (Lt. William Vereker), Bob Hoskins (Sgt-Major Willams) and Denholm Elliot (Lt. Col. Henry Pulliene).

The film is a well researched account of the battle of 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. Along with Lord Chelmsford (O’ Toole) he starts a war against Cetshwayo (Simon Sabela), the King of the Zulu people, who rules in ways 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 on the 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 and decided to take another look. 

I scrutinized the cover for a few seconds and realized I knew the film and that it was the prequel to one of my favorites. I have always been a fan of historical period pieces. British colonialism of the 19th century has always been one of my favorite eras of history.

The cast does a somewhat decent job playing their historical counterparts. Burt Lancaster, who I consider 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. When the battle begins on the afternoon of January 22, 1879, it shows the massive force of Zulu warriors the British faced. It must have been awe-inspiring. And terrifying. 

The British soldier costumes are accurate to the actual tropical uniforms worn in the late 19th century. The production designers even dyed the white pith helmets in tea water to dull the white color. This is something British troops did to reduce the glare of the helmets from a distance. The other thing I noticed is it must have been impossible to acquire a significant number of Martini-Henry rifles, the breach loading rifle that the British soldiers used in the battle.

A majority of the rifles are calvary carbines, which are a smaller version of the Martini-Henry. Other slight inaccuracies in the film include Col. Pulliene being killed in his tent while writing a letter to his wife. He was actually killed by a stray bullet during the battle.

Fearing the battle lost, Col. Pulliene entrusts the Union Jack to Lt. Melvill. He is to carry the colors to safety by alerting the smaller garrison at Rorke’s Drift (where Zulu takes place).

The flag is wrapped up and placed in a leather pouch to protect it from damage. Unfortunately, the scenes concerning the flag being taken by the Zulus are pure Hollywood fiction. In addition, a solar eclipse happened during the battle which the Zulus believed was an omen for their victory. That isn’t shown in the film either.

Also, 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. 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 over the years it has garnered a place among cult and historical film fans. Zulu Dawn, starring the actors mentioned above, is written by Cy Endfield and Anthony Storey and directed by Douglas Hickox. It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray and likely on one or more streaming services. 

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