OK, so maybe I have an appetite for stodge. I watched this a couple of weeks ago on Netflix while doing something else. And it’s … it’s OK, I guess.
Ironically, the thing that makes Zulu Dawn not very interesting is the history: although the battle of Isandlwana was a very important turning point in African history, the story of the battle itself isn’t actually all that dramatically interesting, at least not for the kind of big-pageant epic this is trying to be.
So, OK, our story really starts in 1964, with the success of Zulu. Zulu told the story of the battle of Rorke’s Drift. Now Rorke’s Drift, which happened shortly after Isandlwana, is stirring action-movie stuff. A small number of British defenders, led by a couple of officers neither of whom were exactly badasses at first glance, held of a vastly numerically superior Zulu force, using improvised defences and their advantages in training, discipline and (hem hem) firepower. Just to cap it all, Zulu is a deeply ambiguous film, simultaneously a rousing war movie and a movie that’s very skeptical about the value of war and of the Empire in general. This was just the thing for audiences of the day — it was an old-fashioned war movie, but not so old-fashioned you had to feel guilty about it. It could be appreciated on multiple levels.
1979 was the 100th anniversary of Isandlwana — and Isandlwana was a very different story from Rorke’s Drift. After the British high commissioner, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, picked a fight with the Zulus as a pretext to kick their asses and roll them into a united South Africa, the British launched an invasion of Zululand. Reckoning that they had guns and the Zulus mainly just had spears, they were reasonably confident of success. As an added fuck-you, they launched their attack at harvest time, when they reasoned that the Zulu army wouldn’t be able to fully mobilise. Unfortunately for them, they mistimed this a bit; the Zulu troops were already mustered. Bad scouting, bad organisation and the mixture of bad luck and incompetence that lead to this kind of defeat allowed the Zulus to get the jump on the British at Insadlawa; the British troops, very tough nuts to crack when ready, were hit by surprise by a Zulu force that outnumbered them 16:1. The battle initially went pretty well for the British, but as the day wore on and supplies ran low, they began to fall back to their camp. They were outflanked, surrounded, overrun. It was the most shocking defeat the British army had suffered since … maybe since ever.
Now the British, being the biggest bullies in the world, were well aware that the way to get a bully’s respect is not to beat him up unless you can do it reliably every time. So rather than going “whoops, that was a bad idea” they tooled up and came back, and if you want to learn how that one ended, go look for Zululand on a map. But just because the British were the 19th century’s bullies par excellence, let’s not get too sentimental about the Zulu kingdom, which was a proper kingdom, ie a bunch of similar bullies, just without the advantage of steamships. There’s an interesting parallel to Little Big Horn, which was only three years earlier in 1876.
So Zulu Dawn has got its work cut out for it. Everybody knows how the story ends, and it ends with all the British characters getting killed or running away. Interestingly, it doubles down on this, spending its first half showing what a bunch of dickweeds they are. It has a lot of good performances (Burt Lancaster, Peter O’Toole), but it’s very hard to bring yourself to care about the characters, even the Obvious Hero, because they’re mainly dirtbags or nonentities. Some of them are a bit more sympathetic, I suppose.
It’s not bad or anything — it’s just very matter-of-fact. I mean, think how many lines you can quote from Zulu. A few, right? Maybe a dozen, if you’re that kind of person. Now, quick, if you’ve even seen it, how many lines can you quote from Zulu Dawn? There’s a lot of humour and charm in Zulu. But interestingly, the stuff that creates it is all total fiction: the personalities of Bromhead and Chard are scriptwriters’ inventions, Hook was a teetotal lay preacher rather than a malingering drunk, and the hard-as-nails colour sergeant was 25 years old, the youngest colour sergeant in the whole army. The whole Welsh thing is bullshit: the 24th moved its depot to Wales in 1873, but most of the troops at Rorke’s Drift were English — it didn’t really become a Welsh regiment until the 1880s.
And yet somehow that lack of bullshit is what makes Zulu Dawn ultimately kind of unsatisfying. It looks great — no substitute for the actual scenery and thousands of people and horses streaming across the landscape. You get a sense of the scale, which you don’t in so many war movies. So that’s cool. It’s worth a look; it’s just no Zulu.