Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A superb epic and a remarkably mature look at colonial politics and the roots of foreign wars, Zulu Dawn is a terrible casualty of audience taste and the collapse of the British film industry. This prequel to 1965's mega-hit
Zulu by necessity takes a different approach to its historical battle between African natives and British regular troops: Instead of a glorious, victorious last stand, this conflict is an ignominious rout and resounding defeat. An analytical review follows below.
Unfortunately, while this Tango disc release is recommended because the movie is so good (and so relevant to the world today), the quality of the disc is not good at all. That bad news is further discussed below as well.
1879. Sir Henry Bartle-Frere and Lord Chelmsford (John Mills of Ryan's Daughter and Peter O'Toole of Lawrence of Arabia) overreach their authority and countermand Queen Victoria's policy by launching an invasion from Natal into Zululand. King Cetshwayo (Simon Sabela) has no choice but to abandon his harvest and mass his 40,000 warriors in defense. Although the incursion will only number about 3,000 British soldiers, invading general Lord Chelmsford is confident that modern weaponry and strategy will easily repel an enemy armed only with spears. Bishop Colenso (Freddie Jones of
The Elephant Man) is advised to mind his own business when he objects to what is an illegal grab for power and glory, while his daughter Fanny (Anna Calder-Marshall) must say goodbye to her two suitors, the one-armed leader of native mounted cavalry Colonel Durnford (Burt Lancaster), and Lt. William Vereker (Simon Ward of
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed), a local farmer eager to defend his land. Local Boers consider Chelmsford's attack plan foolhardy, and even the invasion force's cynical quartermaster Bloomfield (Peter Vaughan of
Die! Die! My Darling!) talks of the Zulus as a formidable horde of asagai-wielding killers. Younger officers are delighted to be undertaking a 'marvellous spree,' while untested but loyal commanders like Colonel Pulleine (Denholm Elliott of
A Room with a View) and Irish packmaster Col. Hamilton-Browne (Nigel Davenport of No Blade of Grass) make do as best they can. Meanwhile, tough color sergeant Williams (Bob Hoskins of
The Cotton Club) and
Chelmsford's aide Col. Crealock (Michael Jayston of Nicholas and Alexandra) officiate over the invasion from both ends of the chain of command. The force crosses the Buffalo river into Zulu territory, where Cetshwayo cleverly lulls Chelmsford into thinking he's unopposed, so he will split his command into several parts.
Whereas Zulu was a 60s Queen-and-country feel-good movie, 1979's Zulu Dawn is another story altogether, a revisionist post- Vietnam look at colonial warmongering at its worst. We tend to think of the English as benign colonials because classic Hollywood movies tended to favor them while making the Dutch, Spaniards and Germans into villains. Englishmen of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were definitely men of different times and different outlooks, but not that different from today's plunderers: They didn't claim the choicest pieces of global real estate for their empire by being nice guys.
Thus we have the Zulu wars, which according to this movie began as a territorial grab by the governor of Natal, citing the 'barbaric' customs of the Zulus as a pretext. He and Lord Chelmsford (a relation of Victoria) issue an ultimatum in her name, even though her communiqués instruct them not to incite violence. The ultimatum warns that Natal 'will have no choice' but to invade, whereas the decision to do so was never in question. Contemptuous of the enemy, Chelmsford thinks that victory will be a walk in the park. His only fear is that Cetshwayo will avoid engagement, and "not offer his Impis (armies) for destruction."
As his troops flow into Zululand Chelmsford positions Durnford, his only commander with local experience, as a rear guard to insure that the charismatic officer will not steal the spotlight. He warns the London Times correspondent "Nogs" (Ronald Lacey of Raiders of the Lost Ark to stick to the facts. Nogs insolently tells Chelmsford that he sees a deliberate and unprovoked invasion of Zululand. All that puzzles Nogs is the Why. For sport? Reputations?
Under a stirring, expectant score by Elmer Bernstein (one of his best of the 70s), we witness the invasion on a grand scale. Director Douglas Hickox (Theatre of Blood) stages giant panoramas of troop movement and maneuvers as a huge pageant and captures the action with multiple cameras, many with telephoto lenses. The only drawback to the filming style is the use of coral filters to dull down the bright colors, reducing the crimson wool jackets to a sickly orange. The idea must have been to keep the film from being too pretty, but the result is that Zulu Dawn has a slightly dated look.(Wrong! Apparently all video copies of the film have been mistimed. See this footnote from the original Director of Photography. ) 3
The pre-battle tension is almost intolerable. Poor Colonel Pulleine has to camp at Isandlwana, a place he cannot pronounce. 1 The Zulus dispatch expendable 'spies' to pretend to be captured, and after savage beatings, 'volunteer' false information. Cetshwayo even sacrifices a small force of older warriors just to give his enemy a false sense of security. Chelmsford splits his army into two (perhaps three if you count reinforced patrols) and goes on ahead to reconnoiter, eating a lavish lunch while his men go hungry waiting for their mess tents to catch up.
The native attacks are much more frightening than in the original Zulu due to the lack of an assumed positive outcome. Chelmsford's cocky young lieutenants are shooting Zulu boys for sport when they come across their real foe - thousands of warriors waiting the order to advance. The attacks are not the warrior games of the earlier film, as King Cetshwayo wants a decisive victory in order to get on with the harvest and save his people. The 1600 brits left behind at Isandlwana have a complicated technological fighting apparatus to set up, while each Zulu is his own general, once the attack command is given. As a terrified soldier on the firing line says to his neighbor, having guns may not guarantee victory -- those spears don't run out of bullets!
Armchair generals that become anxious over blunders at Pearl Harbor and the Little Big Horn will have apoplexy watching Zulu Dawn. The Brits don't realize how desperate their situation is and only a few officers are capable of improvising in the heat of battle. The priggish quartermaster is more concerned with his own authority than the calamity rising around him, and insists on doling out ammunition as if the day will be won by balanced inventory books. Our initial reaction is to want somebody to shoot him dead so the contents of the ammo wagon can be distributed immediately. It's debatable whether the boasted 'unassailable British square' of fire could hold off a sustained charge by so many massed enemy footsoldiers, even if Chelmsford's entire force were present. With the trickle of bullets reaching the lines, the Brits haven't a prayer. When one is cutting down hordes of attackers like wheat, the failure of the enemy to withdraw becomes unnerving - one knows that if they close in with those sharp, spade-like swords, it's all over. I'm sure that this particular Third World pacification problem was solved a generation later with WW1-era machine guns. But it is true that every round from those big-caliber rifles is aimed and powerful enough to cut down two or three men in a crowd. But when the bullets run out ....
The battle is a staggering spectacle, with fighting men (real men, not CGI pixels) stretching from the foreground as far as the eye can see. The foreshortening of long lenses makes the advancing Zulus appear to be seconds away from overrunning the defenses, creating a nervousness copied many years later by Paul Verhoeven for his Big Bug attacks in Starship Troopers. At one crucial point, the affectedly calm Colonel Crealock upbraids a young Lieutenant (James Faulkner, actually, one of the producers of the movie) for not keeping cool under the stress of battle. We'd like to see Crealock shot dead as well. That kind of cool only really becomes admirable under the immediate threat of death, as when the modestly competent Colonel Pulleine shows grace and poise while proclaiming the battle well-fought but lost. Unlike eveery other 'cavalry to the rescue' epic, the rout is a total wipe-out. The raiding victors slaughter everyone including cooks and the wounded in the hospital.
Zulu Dawn has a weird political effect. We're concerned for fighters on both sides, but unlike other epics are not asked to choose the Anglo cause, quite the opposite. Without condeming the brave soldiers, the script makes it clear that the war is an abomination, a sham invented by profiteers and opportunists eager to conquer weaker enemies. We have little choice but to honor the Zulu and the fighting wisdom of their 'barbaric' king.
Surely, this same anti-traditional approach coupled with the downbeat ending convinced distributors and perhaps even audiences that Zulu Dawn wasn't worth wide distribution in the U.S.. We were having troubles with upstarts in Iran at the time, ingrates who didn't appreciate our puppet tyrant the Shah. Nobody wanted to see a movie where the 'savages' win.
The all-star cast play character roles, with a romance triangle only hinted at between Lancaster, Ward and Calder-Marshall. Some parts are limited but none are cameos. O'Toole and Mills play hateful warmongers and Freddie Jones a conscience-stricken parson. The two-dozen officers are all easy to tell apart, as the script makes clear distinctions between the snooty officer's mess, the crude realities of the general infantry line (Bob Hoskins is as much a babysitter as a tough sergeant) and the local Boers and native batallions. The film is a huge undertaking and is pulled off on a colossal scale --- for a massive conflict with a real 'cast of thousands,' Zulu Dawn is possibly the most complex and detailed battle action movie this side of Sergei Bondarchuk's
War and Peace.
Savant's not hiding his predjudices here; Zulu Dawn is his favorite battle film precisely because it is so virulently anti-colonial. 'Native' populations don't like having their countries overrun with alien foreigners and tend to fight back in very nasty ways. Just to be fair to neocon readers, the creative force behind both Zulu pictures is Cy (Cyril) Endfield, a fine director who was blacklisted out of Hollywood in 1950. If you can see it (TCM showed it once, about ten years ago) his Try and Get Me! is a movie so bitterly critical of the American way of life that it had to be made by some kind of subversive genius.
As great a movie as Zulu Dawn is, Tango's new DVD is a major disappointment that will do for the moment only so that people will have a way to see this remarkable movie. The disc has handsome menus but barely suffices in any other category. In other words, here comes the bad news.
Zulu Dawn was produced in Panavision and in Dolby Stereo - the logos are there on the screen as evidence. 2 The transfer is an ugly, grainy, poorly encoded flat letterbox framed at about 1:85, with no 16:9 enhancement. The only thing that can be said in favor of the transfer is that it's formatted slightly better than the old Laser transfer of the late 1980s. That was one of those Image eyesores that pan-scanned the movie while squeezing it a bit to pull in a little more horizontal information.
This letterboxed image is indeed wider, but it itself is a 1:85 pan-scan of the full 2:35 image, cutting off the extreme left and right of the frame. This is the format decried by Europeans with their widescreen PAL televisions. The practice may have gone out of favor by now, but several years ago Savant heard many complaints from Sergio Leone fans that their western classics were being compromised by this 'chop to fit' practice.
The encoding might not look too terrible on a small television, but on a larger monitor it starts to break up and obscures detail on wide shots. The hundreds of tiny figures running in a shot should have a lot more resolution, and there's a borderline blobbyness happening all the time, like fat grain imposed on a good picture.
The mono audio is also not terrible, but Savant would die to hear this one in Stereo. Dolby tracks in 1979 were pretty sophisticated and should put the audio from the earlier film to shame.
Zulu Dawn is so good that if you find this disc at a bargain price (or are simply a millionaire with a limitless DVD budget, like most of Savant's readers) I recommend it in spite of its flaws, and perhaps to hold a place on your shelf for a decent disc someday. Obviously the rights for this one are flopping around between cheapo outfits, when it behooves some classy label to come to the rescue and do a decent disc version. As it's only twenty-six years old a lot of filming participants must still be alive and willing to talk about it for potential special edition extras. Gee, Mr. Faulkner, care to write Savant an email?
The exciting trailer is given a slightly better encoding and has full-width Panavision dimensions. The only thing good about this disc of Zulu Dawn is that Savant can finally retire his old laserdisc, which has so much laser rot that the battle of Isandlwana seems to be fought in the middle of a blizzard.
The fairly handsome box cover promotes Bob Hoskins up in the billing, from about 23rd, to first. Peter O'Toole and John Mills who?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Zulu Dawn rates:
Movie: Excellent +
Video: Poor, let me count the ways ...
Sound: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 22, 2005
1. Along with many other Zulu words, like Cetshwayo, there is a huge variety of English spellings for Isandlwana.
2. The logo doesn't say 'Lenses by Panavision,' which could mean a flat lens system rented from the vaunted camera system company, but plain old 'Panavision,' which means genuine anamorphic 2:35.
3. A Note from ZULU DAWN Director of Photography Ousama Rawi , June 17. 2006:
Dear DVD Savant, Recently your review of the Tango DVD of Zulu Dawn was brought to my attention. I would like to address some of your opinions. I was the Director of Photography on that film and I can assure you that no "coral filter" or any other image degrading or altering filter was used on that motion picture other than correctional diffusion on close-ups of some of the ladies. It was shot in Panavision Anamorphic, totally "clean" for projection at an aspect ratio of 2.35 as you correctly surmised.
I was never invited to supervise the original VHS and Laser transfers of the film nor was I invited to supervise this latest transfer for the Tango release. I would have been happy to offer my services both times and I am prepared to offer them in the future should a distributor ever consider inviting the cinematographer to a timing (grading) session of a film he or she has shot. It is a sad state how few of these older films ever get the transfer treatment they deserve. I am sure I speak for many cinematographers who all would love the opportunity to guide their films through this stage of the process. I have spoken to the producer of film who only discovered that there was a Tango release like the rest of the general public. He was not aware that the rights had been sold by the banks involved.
I'll be happy to give you more information should you desire it. My reason for writing is purely to set the record straight. The original answer print of the film was rich in colour and resolution. I was proud of the way it looked. What a pity all this work can be demolished so easily by a cheap, inferior video transfer. Regards, Ousama Rawi
An interesting and entertaining website about the Zulu Wars is
THE ANGLO-ZULU WAR. We learn that Isandlwana weakened the Zulu armies so badly that a more coordinated assault a few months later successfully conquered the territory.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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