Shaka. Shaka can't. A&E has released Shaka Zulu, the 1986 miniseries that purports to tell the story of the notorious Zulu leader's birth, rise, and fall as the monomaniacal uniter of various South East African tribes during colonial England's expansionist period. Starring Henry Cele as Shaka, along with Edward Fox, Robert Powell, Fiona Fullerton, Dudu Mkhize, Conrad Magwaza, Patrick Ndlovu, and Roland Mqwebu (and brief appearances by Trevor Howard, Christopher Lee, Gordon Jackson, and Roy Dotrice), Shaka Zulu's long, long running time certainly qualifies it as an "epic" miniseries, but a consistent lack of cohesion in the narrative works against compelling individual sequences, ultimately giving Shaka Zulu a choppy, unsatisfying feel. No restoration that I can tell for this full-screen re-release, with no new bonuses, either.
Told in a series of regressive flashbacks, Shaka Zulu opens in 1882, as the current and defeated Zulu king asks Queen Victoria (Erica Rogers) for his nation's sovereignty, a request denied on the advice of her various council, who state that due to the messianic nature of the Zulu peoples' veneration for their dead king Shaka (Henry Cele, the best thing in the miniseries), the Zulu nation would rise again―a concept of utter defeat to your enemies that Shaka himself embraced. Flashback to 1823, where Lord Bathurst (Christopher Lee) of the Colonial Office, tries to convince a libertine George IV (Roy Dotrice) that England's greatest weapon against the likes of the Zulu nation is England's civilization. Troops being sent to Cape Town is vetoed, but a go-ahead is given to adventurer Lieutenant Francis Farewell (Edward Fox) to take a small team of men to land on the hostile Natal Coast and parlay with Shaka to hammer out an alliance with England. Among his team are Dr. Henry Fynn (Robert Powell), a humanist who's doubtful of profiteering Farewell's true mission, and guide Zacharias Abrahams (Kenneth Griffith). Once Farewell and his men finally encounter Shaka, they realize just how precarious their situation is, as the intelligent, savage Shaka decides day by day how long he'll let the foreigners live before he's gleaned enough intelligence from them about the inevitable appearance of more British "tribes." Flashback again to 1787, where we see the birth of Shaka, from the illegitimate union of Nandi (Dudu Mkhize) from the eLangeni tribe, and Zulu chief Senzangakona (Conrad Magwaza). A union opposed by Senzangakona's spiritual advisor/witch doctor Sitayi (Nomsa Xaba), Sitayi warns that Shaka will grow to challenge Senzangakona, as proscribed by prophecy, a warning that leads to Shaka's and Nandi's exile, and subsequent brutal ostracizing―a physical and psychological torture that drives the unbalanced Shaka to become a remorseless warrior bent on conquering all of South East Africa.
I remember catching an episode or two of Shaka Zulu back in 1986 when it showed up on syndication here in the States, but truth be told, I didn't find it completely successful then...and it hasn't improved much over time (to be fair, there was a bit of snobbery back then with regular TV viewers who looked at international co-production, first-run syndicated "events" like Shaka Zulu as somehow inferior and not worthy of "proper" Big Three network runs). After watching the miniseries, I looked up some information about the real-life Shaka...and quickly determined there was no point in trying to discuss, even briefly, whether or not Shaka Zulu was faithful to the historical figure: theories and postulations differ wildly about this shadowy figure, so he's pretty much up for grabs for any moviemaker interested in his life―which is exactly what all biopics do, regardless of documentation.
Shaka Zulu is a tough miniseries to either recommend or dismiss because individual aspects and sequences of it are quite good, while its overall structure and focus are distressingly weak. The size of the mini alone qualifies it as an epic miniseries, not only in the scope of material covered, but also in the physical production itself, which includes many sequences of impressive visual grandeur. Those elements alone justify checking Shaka Zulu out if you're a fan of these kinds of miniseries or long-form historical dramas. Within these oftentimes rambling 500 minutes are sequences that stick with and impress the viewer with their tense suspense and barbaric splendor. Scenes such as Shaka figuring out new battle techniques, including designing a new spear, or Shaka exacting horrific revenge on his boyhood tormentors (there are a lot of impalings in this minseries), or Farewell and his few men squaring off against hundreds of warriors as Shaka coolly watches, indifferent to their plight. Or the mini's best scene, the extended sequence showing Farewell and his men encountering Shaka at his kraal for the first time―a sequence of nerve-wracking suspense that puts the viewer in the anxious position of trying to imagine how they would tread lightly with this murderous warrior king...lest they wind up with a large telephone pole pounded up their ass. Taken individually, these scenes and more like them are executed by director and co-writer William C. Faure with an effective straightforwardness that's admirable.
However, the overall cohesion of these scenes can be surprisingly slapdash, with major story points left either undramatized (we keep hearing about that all-important prophecy concerning Shaka...but only second-hand) or underdeveloped by Faure and co-writer Joshua Sinclair (Some Like It Cool, Just a Gigolo), such as Farewell's last minute conversion to Empire-hater. Narration sporadically goes in and out, when more of it might have actually helped bridge the importance of sequences and whole episodes, with unnecessary repetition (lots of Shaka craziness) mitigating the mini's overall impact. Reading over some online reviews for Shaka Zulu (just to see if I was the only one who found the mini wanting), I was struck by how many reviewers called it "even-handed," as if Faure and Sinclair just took a bird's eye, dispassionate view of the events and recounted them like a documentary (...as if there is such as thing as an unbiased documentary). Clearly, though, Shaka Zulu does not stay even-steven with this history, siding with Shaka over the British right from the start. Right or wrong, the British are shown as either double-dealing hypocrites with colonial rot at their very core (the grotesquely funny portrayal of George IV by the wonderful Dotrice), or brash adventurers who ultimately see the folly of British "civilization" (Fox), or tormented humanists who all along distrust their government, while they fail to argue convincingly for their own religion in the face of the more savage but more "honest" egoism of Shaka's (Powell).
As for Shaka, his genocidal crimes are indeed shown, in graphic detail (although Faure calculatingly chickens-out from showing what really would have turned off viewers to Shaka: the mass killings of babies, as decreed by him). However, his acts are ameliorated in the script by the political conceit that what he did he did for African nationality, with his outrageous, murderous excesses excused away by, of all things, a Freudian nightmare concoction of aggressive revenge against his childhood tormentors and a really bad case of "mother love" turned homicidal. Refusal by the director and subsequent reviewers to brand the Shaka of Shaka Zulu an insane mass murder is the worst kind of moral and cultural "equivalency." It gives a pass to a historical figure who killed thousands and thousands of his and other tribes' people through impaling and live burial, by the same critics and viewers that would reduce and wholly denigrate the noble efforts of another father of his country, George Washington, for―in context with Shaka―owning slaves. Of course, this kind of nervous cultural equivalency ignores the central illogic of a mini like Shaka Zulu that views the British as morally repugnant for employing methods that are no different than those embraced by Shaka. Why are Shaka's brutal, heinous empire-building efforts "good" to Faure, while the British's are "bad?" Shaka Zulu won't tell you....
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.