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Monday, March 11, 2013

ZULU DAWN -- Blu-Ray/DVD review by porfle

The Battle of Isandlwana is known as history's worst defeat of a "modern" army by native forces, and you'll see why when you watch Severin Films' Blu-Ray/DVD release of the rip-roaring ZULU DAWN (1979), a disheartening portrait of a pointless and utterly wasteful military massacre.

It's 1879, and the supremely arrogant Lord Chelmsford (Peter O'Toole), who commands the British Army in South Africa, is eager to declare war on the Zulu Empire for fun and profit.  He sends an unreasonable ultimatum to the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, which is rightly refused, giving Lord Chelmsford an excuse to go on the offensive.

"My only fear is that the Zulus will avoid an engagement," Chelmsford haughtily remarks, and a successful initial skirmish with a small band of Zulus reinforces his false confidence.  But unknown to him, King Cetshwayo has 30,000 fierce warriors ready to bring the fight to the advancing enemy, and when they clash with the unsuspecting British forces it quickly escalates into a terrifying one-sided slaughter.

Before this, however, ZULU DAWN takes its sweet time building up to the action as we watch the overconfident British forces at work and play in the town of Natal.  We see them as sophisticated gentleman soldiers dashing around self-importantly on horseback or engaging in spirited training exercises and bonding rituals as though living some curdled version of the "Boys' Adventure" tales.  Only Col. Anthony Durnford (Burt Lancaster) seems to have any understanding of the Zulus and how dangerous it is to underestimate them, but Chelmsford dismisses his warnings.

An elegant garden party gives officers and their families a taste of proper English life as realistic characters rub shoulders with familiar caricatures such as the achingly genteel Fanny Colenso (Anna Caulder-Marshall, WUTHERING HEIGHTS).  The party ends with the declaration of war and before long, horsemen and infantry are marching toward Zululand as their keen anticipation of battle grows.  "What a wonderful adventure we're undertaking!" one of them beams while riding briskly along on horseback.    

Meanwhile, we're given a preview of what they're up against when we see King Cetshwayo impassively viewing a fight to the death and reacting to Lord Chelmsford's ultimatum with a calm dismissal.  He's cruel and unyielding, ordering executions without trials and ruling with an iron fist, but we can't help but see his side of the issue and sympathize, as the film clearly aims to throw our loyalties for either side into conflict.  On one hand, the Zulus are protecting their homeland from outsiders and are portrayed as brave, loyal comrades.  On the other, honorable soldiers are being sent unprepared into a hopeless battle at the behest of unworthy superiors. 

When the two forces finally meet, it's like Custer's Last Stand multiplied by ten.  Current filmmakers like Peter Jackson can give us millions of CGI-generated soldiers in conflict, but there's still nothing quite as impressive as seeing thousands of actual people going at it on an expansive cinematic battlefield that's roiling with furious action. 

The clash of fighting styles is woefully evident as the smartly-dressed British line up in neat rows and fire in an orderly fashion while the Zulus stampede toward them by the thousands like a human avalanche.  Almost the entire second half of ZULU DAWN consists of such an overwhelming defeat of the British that there's barely even any suspense save the question of how long the massacre will last. 

Scattered vignettes depict small instances of valor that are somewhat redeeming, such as the attempt of Lt. William Vereker (Simon Ward) to rescue the battalion's colors and carry them to safety, and the heroism of C.S.M. Williams (Bob Hoskins) as he fights to the death in hand-to-hand combat alongside a callow young soldier with whom he has formed a fatherly bond.  We get to know some of the Zulus as well, as they're captured by the British and tortured before giving false information and, eventually, managing to escape as their erstwhile captors are then led into an ambush.

Peter O'Toole and Burt Lancaster are superb as they lead a remarkable cast including Denholm Elliott (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), Simon Ward, Bob Hoskins, John Mills, Freddie Jones, Ronald Lacey, Nigel Davenport, Phil Daniels, Michael Jayston, and Anna Calder-Marshall.  Composer Elmer Bernstein (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE GREAT ESCAPE) contributes a score that's passable but not up to his usual standards.

Director Douglas Hickox (THEATER OF BLOOD, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH) handles first unit photography in a consistently interesting and imaginative way, with the initial scenes evincing a drollness and dry wit that evolves into an epic grandeur that's often bracing.  The main drawback is that much of the film's first half is almost too dry and conservatively paced, although this is more than made up for by the continuous action that follows the halfway mark.
The Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack from Severin Films is in widescreen with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and full HD resolution.  No subtitles.  Extras consist of "The History of the Zulu Wars" and "A Visit to the Battlefield" with author Ian Knight ("Zulu Rising"), "Recreating the War" with historical advisor Midge Carter, a theatrical trailer, and outtakes. 

Fans of British colonialism will probably want to skip ZULU DAWN lest they find it an ultimately dispiriting experience.  Anyone who gets off on seeing a "primitive" indigenous population repelling a superior invading force, on the other hand, should have a ball.  But those interested in military history and warfare, and war-movie fans in general, will be best served by this vivid and sweeping depiction of one of the most unsual battles ever fought.

Buy the Blu-Ray/DVD combo at

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