Zulu Dawn (1979) starring Burt Lancaster, Peter O'Toole, Simon Ward, Denholm Elliott, Peter Vaughan, James Faulkner, Christopher Cazenove, Bob Hoskins directed by Douglas Hickox Movie Review

Zulu Dawn (1979)   3/53/53/53/53/5

Phil Daniels in Zulu Dawn (1979)

The Battle of Isandlwana

Everyone loves an entertaining movie but does everyone love an interesting movie? Well if you go on how "Zulu Dawn" did when released in 1979 it seems not. You see "Zulu Dawn" is an interesting historical dramatization of the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 and as such could be seen as a prequel to the hugely successful and entertaining "Zulu". But because it is a historical dramatization of the British arrogance which lead to one of the countries biggest defeats it lacks the heroics of "Zulu". It also lacks character because whilst featuring a lot of big names and recognizable faces it all feels so distant, more interested in dramatizing events than building characters. Having said that it is an epic looking production with 1000's of extras and a cinematographer with a love of the long shot to take in the scale but it is again a reason why it is interesting rather than entertaining.

With a lust for glory Lord Chelmsford (Peter O'Toole) and Sir Henry Bartle Frere (John Mills) go against orders and issue an impossible ultimatum to the Zulu king, Cetshwayo (Simon Sabela). With Cetshwayo refusing to comply they declare war on the Zulu empire and plan to invade Zululand, in their arrogance believing their technologically superior army will easily defeat the spear waving men of Zululand. But as they advance across country in 3 columns it becomes clear that they have truly under estimated not only the size of the Zulu army but also their ingenuity in tricking the British army.

Peter O'Toole as Lord Chelmsford in Zulu Dawn (1979)

Here is the thing, if you love historical dramas which aim to be interesting by trying to stick to the facts and deliver a level of authenticity then I am sure "Zulu Dawn" will be wonderful. But if after watching "Zulu" you watched "Zulu Dawn" in the hope of another character driven, action orientated drama which delivered traditional entertainment you will most likely be left wanting. In fairness "Zulu Dawn" is a very different story, it is about arrogance and war mongering which lead to one of the biggest losses and it is not the story of heroics as "Zulu" was and to treat it as such would have been wrong.

But for me the problem with "Zulu Dawn" is in trying to be authentic it is very stand offish and seems more interested in delivering an epic looking spectacle than getting in close. With a cast which features such stars as Burt Lancaster, Denholm Elliott, Bob Hoskins and Peter O'Toole as well as recognizable faces such as Freddie Jones, Chris Chittell and Simon Ward they all end up playing anonymous characters. By that I mean not one person is focussed upon and we never really get to know them, there experience or motivations, they are just flat historical figures.

And there is no denying that alongside the long list of well known actors "Zulu Dawn" is an epic production with a huge cast of extras. But in trying to deliver this big scale dramatization it far too often is stand offish with a cinematographer in love of the long shot to show off the epic scale. Yes it looks epic and you can appreciate that it was an ambitious production but in doing so it contributes to that sense of being anonymous. Although I do admit that when we do get to the action as fighting breaks out it does come into its own with action which feels raw and in your face.

What this all boils down to is that "Zulu Dawn" is an interesting movie which for history buffs will probably be entertaining. But for those who having watched "Zulu" expected a similarly entertaining movie with strong characters will be disappointed. Personally, whilst I can appreciate the epic ambitions the desire to be epic causes it to become anonymous with characters which fail to be more than one dimension.