Zulu Dawn

Movie Information

Genre: War Drama
Director: Douglas Hickox
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward, Denholm Elliott, Peter Vaughan, Peter O'Toole
Rated: PG

I’m not sure that Zulu Dawn is an especially good movie, though it may be a better one than suggested by the pan-and-scan presentation of its original widescreen compositions. Still, the direction of Douglas Hickox can at best be described as workmanlike. However, it’s a remarkable work for what it set out to do—for what, in fact, it did do, or would have done had it seen much of a release in 1979. The film is a prequel to the 1964 hit Zulu, but the two films couldn’t be more dissimilar, since the earlier film had been a rousing celebration of British colonialism. Zulu Dawn might best be described as the anti-Zulu, as perhaps befits its post-Vietnam status. But it came at a time when public opinion was shifting in a more conservative direction (remember the 1980s before David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in 1986?), and the film quickly died, despite its impressive cast.

Seen today, it’s not only a startling indictment of British imperialism, but it seems a remarkably forward-thinking work. It’s hard now not to see an unsettling parallel between Lord Chelmsford (Peter O’Toole) and Sir Henry Bartle-Frere (John Mills) ignoring the dictates of their government (Queen Victoria) to launch an invasion into Zululand and a certain episode in recent American history involving something called Iran-Contra. It’s almost equally difficult not to see more than a passing resemblance to even more recent events. On that level at least—especially considering the outcome of the invasion in the Zulu Dawn—the film is worth a look today. And perhaps that and the assemblage of so much British acting talent is enough.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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