Zulu Dawn (1979)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:



Eastern Condors

Zulu Dawn

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Our rating: three LAVA® motion lamps.

Zulu Dawn
Burt Lancaster gives a performance
from the heart.
If you've ever seen any of the Monty Python sketches which deal with the British military, you know that the officers are portrayed as being arrogant, stuffy, and regimented to a fault. If the historical events presented in Zulu Dawn are to be believed, then it is clear that the Pythoners are not exaggerating all that much. In fact, during this movie we could easily imagine the late Graham Chapman stepping out from behind a rock to denounce the proceedings as "excessively silly," followed shortly by the appearance of a Zulu spear in his chest.

Zulu Dawn is the prequel to a called Zulu, which was made 15 years earlier. Sound familiar? George Lucas waited twenty years before making the prequel to his Star Wars trilogy, and that's not the only thing Lucas borrowed from his predecessors, as you shall soon see. Watching Zulu Dawn is as much fun for the comparisons to Lucas' films as it is in its own right -- and it's pretty darn good all on its own.

Zulu Dawn
"I say, Sir, those Zulu warriors
don't tip very well."
The film begins in 1879, as the British colonies in southern Africa begin to feel threatened by the large and warlike Zulu nation on their borders. Britain hands down an ultimatum to the Zulu king that, at least as protrayed in the film, is nothing more than a naked provocation to war. Confident that their superior technology and organization will ensure victory, the British forces march past the river that marks the border of Zululand.

Zulu Dawn doesn't have a real main character, but rather has a narrative that follows a diverse group of soldiers in the British army. Most of them are introduced to us at an oh-so-proper garden party on the eve of the war. Peter O'Toole plays Lord Chelmsford, who is in charge of the military operation. Bob Hoskins plays the British equivalent of a drill sergeant. But the closest thing to a main character we have is Lieutenant William Vereker (Simon Ward) the son of a British lord who has been living in Africa for some time. Vereker offers his local militia as scouts for the British cause. Being one of the manor born, he is inducted into the officer's corp and issued one of the goofiest formal uniforms we've ever seen. It looks kind of like what a bellboy would wear at a particularly tacky hotel. We guess that silly officers' uniforms were seen as a way to boost morale in the rank and file.

Zulu Dawn
The Zulu: passionate to a fault about
Capture the Flag.
Other acting talent in Zulu Dawn includes Burt Lancaster as grizzled Colonel Durnford, an officer openly skeptical of the British battle plans, and Denholm Elliott plays, Lt. Colonel Pulleine, commander of the artillery division. There is also an officious quartermaster who is surprisingly important later in the film. Half of these characters (the officers, mostly) spend their time faintly bemused at the thought of gunning down some Zulu warriors, and the other half tread cautiously, waiting for a hail of spears.

Zulu Dawn is a bloody and frightening film, mostly because of its realism and basis in fact. By all rights, the British should have trounced the Zulu army, but their arrogance and strict adherence to protocol led to Britain's worst defeat on foreign soil. Most striking were the scenes of panicked riflemen, scrambling at the ammunition cart because the usual system of doling out bullets isn't providing well enough. Because of our familiarity with the British (as opposed to the Zulu), both culturally and through the film's exposition, it's easy to identify with these misguided and doomed souls.

Zulu Dawn
The odds that the British will win?
About the same that
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
will win an Emmy. Not that we're bitter.
Zulu Dawn's epic battle scenes are some of the most impressive we've ever seen commited to film, and there seem to be many current filmmakers that agree with us. Zulu Dawn's influence can be seen in such recent films like Aliens, Starship Troopers and especially Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. In the latter, the Trade Federation's vehicles appearing over the hill is very similar in feel to the Zulu's first appearence, and the Gungan retreat is reminiscent of the British flight back towards their border, albeit with more slapstick.

Zulu Dawn is a good movie brought up short by its lack of character development. We would have given it four lava lamps if only we had cared a little more about the people in it. We suppose that the ensemble cast approach was an ambitious attempt to tell the story of the entire British army, and while it's tough to fault a film for being ambitious, well, we're doing it anyway. A bit more focus, and this would have been a great pic.

Review date: 09/29/1999

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