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This is Not a Review of Zulu, A Retrospective of Zulu Dawn


In 1964, a British survival adventure war film named Zulu was released, written and directed by Cy Endfield. The film is a dramatization of the battle of Roarke's Drift (part of the larger Anglo-Zulu War) where a small group of British soldiers defended a small outpost against an hostile force of Zulu warriors.

This is NOT a review of Zulu.

Today Zulu occupies a somewhat precarious place within the canon of British cinema. On the one hand it’s considered a classic, and is often hailed as one of the greatest British films of all time. On the other hand the film has come under fire over the years for its colonialist ideology and xenophobia. Similar to films like 55 Days at Peking, Black Hawk Down, or 300 the film is the story of a group of heroic white men bravely defending western civilization against a mindless horde of distinctly other enemies.

Again, this is not a review of Zulu.

Over a decade later, Cy Enfield would write and produce a prequel to Zulu, Zulu Dawn. While Zulu is a dramatization of the battle of Roarke’s Drift, Zulu Dawn dramatizes the much more historically important Battle of Isandhlwana that happened a few days before the Battle of Roarke's Drift. Where the British, one of the most formidable armies in the world at the time and at the peak of their colonial power, were soundly defeated by the Zulu army. A defeat that (though the Zulu would ultimately lose the war) would resonate as the greatest defeat of a 'modern' army by a 'primitive' fighting force, a flashpoint in anti-colonialism and to this day remains a point of South African national pride. In bringing this truly historic victory to glorious life as a cinematic epic Zulu Dawn ends up challenging Zulu on all of its controversial points and serves explicitly as the post-colonial answer to that film. 

Before truly getting into why Zulu Dawn is such an important movie, it's important to explain the historical and cultural context behind the Anglo-Zulu War.

Under the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901, the British empire grew to become one of the largest empires on the planet. The empire would reach the status of ‘largest empire in history’ in 1922 when it absorbed several colonial holdings from Germany after their defeat in World War I. At that time the British Empire covered 35,500,000 square kilometers or 13,700,000 square miles. Roughly a quarter of the Earth's total land surface. 

A common descriptor of the British Empire was ‘The empire on which the sun never sets’.

The period of expansion under Queen Victoria saw the empire grow through trade, industrialization, conquest and consolidation. In the 1870s that consolidation fell upon Southern Africa where the British stepped into a loose collection of colonies, mining towns, private property, and indigenous kingdoms and brought them under organized imperial control. In 1879 the British set the task of bringing the Zulu people of KwaZulu-Natal under British rule.

By the time tensions with the British peaked in 1879, the Zulu were already renowned as one of the most formidable warrior cultures on the continent and, as later scholars would add, in history. It had already been decades since Shaka had organized a people divided by clan conflict into a more unified culture with an organized military. Historically, the Zulu are often compared with the Spartans for sheer mastery of spear and shield based melee fighting. To this day the Zulu remain proud of their history and their status as a warrior culture. When Zulu and Zulu Dawn shot on location in KwaZulu Natal (a province in present-day South Africa) the Zulu extras didn't need much in the way of props and costumes, many of the outfits worn and the weapons carried had been passed down through Zulu families since the Battle of Isandlwana and even before.

The British had ordered the Zulu King Cetshwayo kaMpande to disband his armies, knowing he wouldn't and giving them the pretext they needed to invade and score what they believed would be an easy victory. After all, the British military was globally respected and had won many wars already. They hardly expected a native army armed with spears and cowhide shields to pose much of a challenge.

The following defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana was such a shock and blow that it remains an important part of British and South African history to this day. Zulu Dawn even ends with a title card quote from British Prime Minister in 1879 Benjamin Disraeli when news of the defeat reached parliament:

"Who are these Zulus, who are these remarkable people who defeat our generals, convert our bishops and who on this day have put an end to a great dynasty?”

Even though the British ultimately won the Anglo-Zulu War it didn't soften the cultural impact of the defeat at Isandlwana, today it occupies a similar place in British culture as the Siege of the Alamo does in American culture.

On the South African side, the victory at Isandlwana remains a point of national pride to this day, not Zulu pride but national pride. Anecdotally, my maternal grandfather (of the Basotho people) had a painting hanging in his home of the battle, a painting he kept up even during the apartheid years. In 1981 the South African band Juluka released their album African Litany which features the song Impi which retells the Battle of Isandlwana in the form of a bilingual rock song. The track was briefly banned by the apartheid government but remained an underground hit and today is one of the most popular songs associated with Juluka and its front man Johnny Clegg.


Now, as you will recall, this is not a review of Zulu. However, in order to discuss several key points where Zulu Dawn succeeds I will have to discuss parallel points where that other film fails.

Zulu is a thrilling siege story but it never probes much deeper into the historic event it's portraying. At no point does the film ever interrogate the Anglo-Zulu War or the imperialism of the British Empire. This makes the film uncritical at best and pro-imperial at worst. More egregiously the Zulu themselves are not characters, they are simply ‘the enemy' a horde of savages who cannot be reasoned with, interchangeable with zombies or robots. The film attempts to correct this with a few heavy handed scenes of mutual respect but as there are no individual Zulu these sequences ring hollow.

Zulu Dawn addresses both of these points. Firstly the film has numerous sequences where the politics behind the war and the build up to it are discussed, not in so much detail as to be preachy but enough that the audience are asked to consider the war from several perspectives. This nicely segues into the second point, the Zulu are actual characters in Zulu Dawn, the first scene in the film is King Cetshwayo (played by Simon Sabela) addressing his assembled armies as we build towards war. From the beginning the audience follow several Zulu characters in addition to the British ones, thus creating a dramatic irony where the audience has more information than the British army in the film have. This is especially important as the Zulu victory relied on a key ruse that only worked because the British commander Lord Chelmsford (played in the film by Peter O’Toole) underestimated the Zulu army as strategic adversaries.

None of this is to say that Zulu Dawn is only an excellent film because it improves on Zulu. Zulu Dawn is a historic epic in the truest sense, a sweeping historical story with an extensive cast of characters with gorgeously shot locations as its canvas. I've already mentioned Peter O’Toole and Simon Sabela leading the cast but Burt Lancaster, Bob Hoskins, Simon Ward, Nigel Davenport, and Denholm Elliott are among the many others. Douglas Hickox replaced Cy Endfield as director when Endfield passed away during pre-production and he does a superb job handling the project. His direction allows for smaller moments as well as the big battle set pieces and he does a great job of keeping the battlefield action easy to follow for people less familiar with period military strategy. All this set to a triumphant score by none other than Elmer Bernstein, who had scored numerous historical epics in the classic period like The Ten Commandments (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963) and The Buccaneer (1958). In all senses then Zulu Dawn is a historic epic from an era when such films were slowly phasing out. Through the late 70s and early 80s the historic epics of old Hollywood were dying out in favor of the new special effects driven blockbusters. In an attempt to keep the mode alive many producers attempted to adapt the historic epic to the new era resulting in films that straddled both worlds either in form or sensibility like Reds (1981), Nicholas & Alexandra (1971), or Heaven’s Gate (1980). Zulu Dawn, while more classical than any of these in form, was pitched by Cy Endfield to producers as a film for the black power movement and so it too is a historical epic for more contemporary sensibilities. 

If there was any ambiguity where the film’s sympathy lies, the final scene is Lord Chelmsford walking through the ruins of his forces, the scale of the disaster hanging on his face and a truly haunted expression in his eyes. The film then cuts to the triumphant Zulu marching away with the spoils of the battle, overlaid with the quote from Prime Minster Benjamin Disraeli, the credits roll, and traditional Zulu war music plays.


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