Zulu Dawn is a 1979 American war film about the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 in South Africa. The screenplay was by Cy Endfield, from his book, and Anthony Storey. The film was directed by Douglas Hickox. The score was composed by Elmer Bernstein.
Zulu Dawn is a prequel to Zulu, released in 1964, which depicts the historical Battle of Rorke’s Drift later the same day, and was co-written and directed by Cy Endfield.
The film is set in British South Africa, in the province of Natal, in January 1879. The first act of the film revolves around the administrators and officials of Cape Colony, notably the supremely arrogant Lord Chelmsford and the scheming Sir Henry Bartle Frere, who both wish to crush the neighbouring Zulu Empire, which is perceived as a threat to Cape Colony’s emerging industrial economy. Bartle Frere issues an impossible ultimatum to the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, demanding that he dissolve the Zulu Empire. Cetshwayo refuses, providing Cape Colony with a pretext to invade Zululand. Despite objections from leading members of Cape Colony’s high society and from Great Britain itself, Bartle Frere authorises Lord Chelmsford to lead a British invasion force into Zululand.
The rest of the film focuses on the British invasion of Zululand and the lead-up to the Battle of Isandlwana. The invading British army, laden with an immense network of supply wagons, invades Zululand and marches in the direction of Ulundi, the Zulu capital. British forces, eager to fight a large battle in which they can unleash their cutting-edge military technology against the vast Zulu army, become increasingly frustrated as the main Zulu army refuses to attack the British, and fighting is restricted to a few small skirmishes between British and Zulu scouts. Concerned that their supply lines are becoming overstretched and that the main Zulu army is still at large, British troops begin torturing captive Zulu warriors in an effort to learn the location and tactics of the Zulu army. Halfway to Ulundi, Chelmsford halts his army at the base of Mount Isandhlwana, ignoring the advice of Boer attendants to entrench the camp and laager the supply wagons, leaving the camp dangerously exposed. During the night, Colonel Durnford and an escort of fifty mounted Basutos approach the camp. Lord Chelmsford then orders Durnford to return to his unit, bringing them to the camp immediately to reinforce Colonel Pulleine. Lieutenant Vereker should join Durnford as aide-de-camp.
Reacting to false intelligence, Chelmsford leads half of the British army, including the best infantry, cavalry and artillery units, on a wild goose chase far from the camp, in pursuit of a phantom Zulu army. On the day of battle, Durnford and his troops arrive at 11:00 a.m. at the camp at Isandlwana. Meanwhile, the Zulu captives escape from their torturers and regroup with the Zulu army, informing them of the British army’s direction and strength. After having lunch with Colonel Pulleine and Lt. Vereker, Durnford quickly decides to send Vereker to scout the hills. Durnford then decides to take his own command out from the camp too, and scout the iNyoni heights.
The entire Zulu army is later discovered by men of Lieutenant Vereker’s troop of scouts. Chasing a number of Zulu herdsmen trying to hurry away their cattle, they discover the main Zulu enemy force of thousands at the bottom of a valley. Lieutenant Vereker sends Lt. Raw to warn the camp that it is about to be attacked.
As Zulu impis descend upon the camp, Durnford’s cavalry retreat to a donga in an effort to hold back the Zulu advance. Forced back, the British take heavy casualties, including the battery of Hale rockets, which is overrun by the Zulus. Initially, the British infantry succeed in defending the camp, and Zulu forces retreat under a hail of artillery fire. British units defending the camp are now becoming dangerously spread-out, and are oblivious to Zulu forces moving round the sides of the mountain in an encircling move. As British infantrymen begin to run out of ammunition due to the Quartermaster’s incompetent distribution and the British cavalry are driven back towards the camp, Zulu warriors charge the British troops en masse, sustaining horrific casualties, but succeed in breaking the British lines.
As British troops break and flee towards the camp, the battle breaks down into hand-to-hand fighting between British soldiers and Zulu warriors, amongst the débris of tents, fallen soldiers and supply wagons. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of Zulu warriors, British soldiers and their Afrikaner allies are slaughtered in the camp, some being cut down as they attempt to flee towards Natal. During the last minutes of the battle, the camp’s commander, Colonel Pulleine, entrusts the Queen’s Colours of the 2nd battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot to two junior officers, Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill, who attempt to carry them to safety in Natal, passing gruesome scenes as Zulu warriors hunt down British and Afrikaner infantrymen attempting to flee across the river. Pulleine was speared in his tent during the skirmish.
While crossing the Buffalo River, the three lieutenants are cut down by Zulus and the Colours (a Union Flag embroidered with the Regiment’s insignia) are captured. Lying wounded, perhaps mortally, Vereker shoots and kills the Zulu wielding the Colours, and the Colours fall gracefully into the river, where they are carried out of reach.
In the evening, Chelmsford and the rest of the British army return to Isandlwana, to be greeted by the sight of their slaughtered comrades, and the news that a mass Zulu army has invaded Natal and laid siege to Rorke’s Drift. The film ends with Zulu warriors in a silhouetted victory procession, dragging captured British artillery back to Ulundi.
Trivia & Goofs
- Sir William Stanley Baker, who co-produced and played Lieutenant John Chard in Zulu (1964), had always wanted to make a movie about the Battle of Isandhlwana. Unfortunately, he died two years before this movie was made. He had intended to play Colonel Durnford (Burt Lancaster).
- Sir John Hurt was cast, but had to be replaced after South African authorities confused him with American actor John Heard, who had been arrested in an anti-Apartheid march. They refused to give Hurt a visa.
- This movie was regarded as inferior to Zulu (1964), and flopped at the box-office.
- The “final solution” line was deliberately intended as a reference to the Holocaust.
- Reportedly, a dispute with South African extras arose when some discovered that a dog appearing in this movie was being paid as much as they were.
Production & Filming Details
- Director: Douglas Hickox.
- Producers: Nate Kohn and James Sebastian Faulkner.
- Writer: Cy Enfield and Anthony Storey.
- Music: Elmer Bernstein.
- Cinematography: Ousama Rawi.
- Editor: Malcolm Cooke.
- Distributor: American Cinema Releasing.
- Release Date: 15 May 1979 (UK).
- Running time: 115 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.