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