If amazing production values were sufficient to make a movie worthwhile, then the historical action film Zulu Dawn would be a minor classic—in addition to lavish location photography in nearly every sequence, the picture boasts massive battle scenes with hordes of combatants in elaborate costumes. Especially when director Douglas Hickox cuts to panoramic shots illustrating the scale of battlefields and opposing armies, Zulu Dawn attains an epic quality. Yet from start to finish, the movie is mired in murkiness. So many interchangeable characters are given dialogue that it’s difficult to keep straight who’s doing what to whom and why, and the non-combat scenes are dry and talky. But then again, it’s not as if Zulu Dawn represents some huge missed opportunity, because the film is a prequel to the far superior Zulu (1964), which covered the most interesting aspects of the historical event that’s depicted in both films.
Specifically, the two movies dramatize armed conflict that occurred in British South Africa circa 1879. The encounter shown in Zulu Dawn took place hours before the one shown in Zulu, and the result of the second battle was more definitive, representing a massive defeat of British colonial soldiers by Zulu natives. Had the makers of Zulu Dawn taken a wholly different approach than the makers of the preceding film, perhaps focusing exclusively on political and sociocultural strife, then Zulu Dawn might have seemed necessary. Alas, since the prequel is primarily a combat movie—just like its predecessor—Zulu Dawn is inherently redundant.
Nonetheless, the prequel boasts the same level of authenticity, perhaps because Cy Endfield, who cowrote and directed Zulu, also cowrote Zulu Dawn. The story of Zulu Dawn revolves around Lord Chelmsford (Peter O’Toole), a smug British commander given the impossible task of pressuring the Zulu nation into surrendering its sovereignty. Chelmsford’s principal field commander is Colonel Dumford (Burt Lancaster), an Irishman with disdain for authority and respect for his opponents. Also featured in the narrative are Lt. Veeker (Simon Ward), a naïve aristocrat eager to win glory in combat, and Sergeant-Major Williams (Bob Hoskins), a career soldier determined to keep as many of his men alive as possible. On the “enemy” side, principal characters include King Cetshwayo (Simon Sabela), who resolves to preserve his nation’s integrity despite the formidable opposition of the British.
Lengthy scenes set amid the British encampment fail to engage interest, partially because the scenes are overpopulated and partially because the stiff-upper-lip characterizations are overly familiar. And while vignettes showing cultural habits and strategy meetings among the Zulu are far more interesting, Endfield, Hickock, and their collaborators seem unsure which thread of the narrative is most important. Adding to the movie’s iffy vibe is erratic acting. The usually explosive O’Toole is somnambulatory, and Lancaster’s characteristic flamboyance feels old-fashioned compared to the naturalism of his costars.
Zulu Dawn: FUNKY