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 (email@example.com)
I like "Zulu Dawn," but maybe for strange reasons. I'm glad that it favors plot over characterization, and I appreciate its attention to detail and tactics. Too many modern war movies ignore tactics, and don't place battles in their proper contexts. Here, it's easy to follow exactly what's happening, and why.
What makes the film especially memorable is that it's the story of a military disaster - the biggest defeat of a "modern" army at the hands of a "primitive" one (though I believe the Zulus suffered higher casualties than the British did). The script pretty much telegraphs the battle's result from the beginning; Peter O'Toole, as the British commander, is clearly too stubborn and blind to danger, so the attentive viewer should realize fast that he's heading for a fall.
The ending is somewhat misleading, though. The final caption might suggest to some viewers that the Zulus won the whole war. Sadly, they were beaten pretty rapidly and suffered some hideous defeats. I guess that's what makes this initial Zulu victory so noteworthy - almost unbelievable, really.
As is often the case in war movies, "Zulu Dawn" features big-name actors playing real soldiers. This makes it easier to tell the somewhat thin characters apart. Though nobody gives a career-best performance, it's great to see O'Toole, Burt Lancaster, Bob Hoskins and a solid cast of British character actors together in one movie.
I don't suppose they'd ever make this today. The politics are too awkward; I don't think a modern audience would have much sympathy for the British or the Zulu. And, of course, contemporary movies have rejected old-time spectacle, electing to replace sweeping landscapes and huge crowds of extras with fake-looking CGI.
But, in this case, old-fashioned is good. "Zulu Dawn" is definitely worth checking out in budget DVD form.
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