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In 1879 South Africa, the administrators of the British Cape Colony have designs to eliminate the Zulus as a hindrance to their colonial economy. To that end, the British present King Cetshwayo with an impossible ultimatum to provoke a war they are sure they can win easily with their rifles and artillery against native spears. However, that war proves more difficult than the arrogant British commander, Lord Chelmsford, expects as his overburdened army fruitlessly searches for the elusive enemy. However, in the shadow of a hill called Isandlwana, the overconfident British army learns to its sorrow just how badly they have underestimated the tactical skill and might of the Zulu nation.Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This was shown on ITV on Boxing Day 1980, less than eighteen months after its initial release, which was very unusual at the time. The theatrical window for movies on television was at least three years then. See more »
The crossing at Rorke's Drift was filmed at the actual location, but it was filmed showing the column crossing from Zulu Land into Natal. See more »
Sir Henry Bartle Frere:
[proofreading aloud the ultimatum he has just drafted]
Cetshwayo's Zulu army to disband and the warriors permitted to return to their homes.
See more »
Opening credits prologue: One hundred years ago the British Colony of Natal in Southern Africa was surrounded by a vast and independent Zulu Kingdom.
In 1879, a battle took place that was forever to alter the course of Colonial history: ISANDHLWANA See more »
Ostensibly a detailed retelling of the defeat of British forces at Isandlwana, and an attempt to duplicate the success of the earlier "Zulu" (about the battle at Roarke's Drift, a British "Alamo" situation that the British won). However, "Zulu" had a taut storyline and the tension never leaves until the end. "Zulu Dawn" is necessarily more diffuse, covering the folks at home (both in South Africa and Zululand) and the converging of battle forces and the division of the British between Lord Chelmsford's column and the men at Isandlwana. Through it all, stock military characters (the crusty cockney Sgt. with the caring heart, the Gomer Pyle recruit, the commanding officer who can't even pronounce the name of the camp, the far-sighted outsider who gives satiric barbs about everything (in this case, newspaperman Norris-Newman, played with wonderful acidity by Ronald Lacey), the military commander who thinks he's omnipotent, the jolly young chaps in the officers' mess . . .
A lot of fine actors (Nicholas Clay, Simon Ward, James Faulkner, Ronald Pickup, Donald Pickering, Michael Jayston) wind up without much to do other than lend their names to a prestigious cast headed by Peter O'Toole, Burt Lancaster, and John Mills. Nigel Davenport comes off well with a flamboyant Hamilton-Browne and Lancaster and O'Toole are always dependable. But there's no focus in the story and there's little sympathy for either the British or the Zulus, such as they were able to impart in "Zulu".
Also, the movie takes the easy route through Isandlwana. Instead of ascribing any of the blame for the defeat to Col. Durnford (who should be considered the commander at Isandlwana rather than Pullein), all the blame is accounted to the hubris of Lord Chelmsford (the chilling Peter O'Toole). Though Chelmsford gives terse reasons for, say, not laagering his wagons, his reasoning should not be dismissed as specious. And it's never clear (as the fact was) that Chelmsford's was the _major_ column and not the camp at Isandlwana.
The main cause for the British disaster is fairly clear in the movie, and that's the method of giving out bullets. Peter Vaughan gives a crafty performance as the quarrelsome quartermaster who demands that each bullet be accounted for at the head office. The niggardly way the bullets were dispersed to the men, who were holding the Zulu back until they ran out of ammunition on the front lines while crates of bullets were held back in the wagons, was the primary cause of the disaster. It would've been nice to have broken with tradition by laying some blame on Col. Durnford for dividing the force, though Lancaster's Durnford is never anything less than the hero of the movie.
Most viewers probably don't care about the facts of the disaster, but they will care that the feature itself is not compelling. Nevertheless, if one can sit through it, it makes a companion piece to "Zulu" that does set up the tense drama and excitement of that better movie.
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