Review: Zulu Dawn

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

It comes as no surprise that Douglas Hickox directed hundreds of commercials before starting on feature films: he has means, but not ends. When it comes to assembling the departments of a large unit into some semblance of professional order, or arranging a succession of individually striking, or at least flashy, images, Hickox knows how to operate. But in the metaphysical areas of film art he is deficient; and he is by no means sure how to tell a tale straight, either. If a script is good, Hickox isn’t bad; but if it’s bad, he’s no good, at least not where it counts. Piling on what he hopes will be taken for virtuoso displays of technique, and cover for a storyline going to hell, is simply no substitute for narrative tightness, logical plot and character development, lucid exposition or a fluid sense of movement; and we haven’t come near the realm of ideas yet. Arresting compositions here and there in Theatre of Blood, or a brisk way with crowds of extras in real, busy places in Brannigan cannot, for a single instant, blind one to the embarrassing fact that Hickox has made a terrible mess of the plots and the people. Set-pieces interest him but whole movies, it would appear, do not.

Zulu Dawn continues the pattern – and that being said, let’s be fair and add that the film is quite watchable. It has flaws by the ton, but they’re all so up-front you get used to them. It offers, primarily, a belting good battle, occupying the last third or so of the movie, and the process whereby public-school nastiness and standard British racist complacency lead to overwhelming defeat for the thin red line (the battle of Isandlhwana being roughly the British equivalent of Little Big Horn) is, whilst immensely simplified, interesting. The whole movie looks very good, and if it doesn’t carry many reverberations to echo in the spectator’s mind the following day, it’s a noticeable improvement on earlier Hickoxes. The engineering of the big set-to plainly concerns Hickox far more than the background or the aftermath, and there’s plenty to suggest that the film was heavily scissored to its British length of 117 minutes. (It was cut further to 98 minutes in the US). If you want to learn how the Zulu War in general came out, tough luck; nor will you learn how an official enquiry cleared Lord Chelmsford (Peter O’Toole), the military commander of Natal and the blundering architect of defeat. The end captions hint that Disraeli’s government fell as a result of the war, but details are not summarised. The film doesn’t even clear up the business of the battle at Rorke’s Drift, a British fort besieged by 4,000 Zulus hours after all hell broke loose at Isandlhwana. We gather, as the film ends, that the fort, which housed a hundred men, is getting it pretty badly – and that’s it. The unknowing in the audience will assume a further disaster, whereas, as aficionados of Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964) will know, Rorke’s Drift was a surprise victory for the British.

Hickox and his writers (including the same Cy Endfield) offer us a simplistic view: all blame is pinned on Chelmsford and Sir Henry Bartle Frere, the Governor of the province, depicted as a pair of uppercrust bullyboys sneering at the natives. Poor John Mills, as Frere, has to utter a line Abby Mann might have cringed at, when he says that British intervention may prove “the final solution” to the Zulu problem. There’s more mystification to suggest re-cutting. Nigel Davenport, prominently billed, has a tiny role and is very badly introduced. Burt Lancaster and Simon Ward are presented as romantic rivals for the affections of a bishop’s daughter (Anna Calder-Marshall) for approximately one minute – then the whole thing is forgotten and so is the girl. Lancaster spends most of the film with his left arm thrust Napoleonically into his coat with no explanation (did he  sprain something on location?). A gruff sergeant has a series of comic encounters with a green private, and we eventually learn that both have the same surname – are they supposed to be father and son? Most baffling is what on earth we’re to suppose happens to the Simon Ward character, one of several officers charged with taking the regimental colours to safety. Zulus attack and make off with the flag, everyone else is killed, Ward is mistaken for dead and pinioned under a slain horse. Then he insanely alerts his foes to his continuing vivacity by plugging the one with the flag, which spirals in slow-motion down to the river and symbolically sinks from view.

Facile idea, but nice shot. Only, what’s happening to the people? We never see Ward again and presumably Hickox feels we won’t care. A distinguished cast has a hard time creating any characterisation, and various ambiguities are so unexplored that they may be wholly unintended: the veteran quartermaster comes out with plenty of savvy about “your Zulu”, but proves thoroughly incompetent once battle is joined; the unjustly treated Zulu king seems a bloodthirsty brute, and so on. Both the oddly-cast Burt Lancaster (sporting an ersatz Irish accent) and Peter O’Toole seem old and tired, but a few behavioural niceties can be gleaned from the supporters, notably Paul Copley as a Birmingham corporal who sensibly abandons his job of hammering in marker-posts with a cry of “Bugger that!” as the enemy nears, and Denholm Elliott as a gallant Colonel who retires to his tent to write a last note on the battle as doom draws nigh. When an assegai-waving warrior bursts in, Elliott levels a pistol at him, pauses, realises he will be dead in seconds from someone else anyway, lets his hand drop, and receives the fatal thrust uncomplaining. The subtlety with which Elliott conveys heroic resignation in the face of an unstoppable historical force is so absent from the film as a whole that one wonders if Hickox had anything at all to do with it. His chief enthusiasm is so blatantly with pretty pictures and exciting combat footage (and to hell with the rest) that there’s little point in being angry with him or his film’s myriad shortcomings. Just extremely irritated.

© 1981 Pierre Greenfield

ZULU DAWN
Direction: Douglas Hickox. Screenplay: Anthony Storey, Cy Endfield. Cinematography: Ousama Rawi. Second-unit direction: David Tomblin, Peter MacDonald. Editing: Malcolm Cooke. Music: Elmer Bernstein. Production: Nate John, James Faulkner; executive producer: Barrie Saint Clair.
The players: Burt Lancaster, Peter O’Toole, Simon Ward, John Mills, Denholm Elliott, Michael Jayston, Nigel Davenport, Anna Calder-Marshall, Peter Vaughan, Ronald Pickup, Simon Sabela, Christopher Cazenove, David Bradley, Ken Gampu, Freddie Jones, Ronald Lacey, James Faulkner, Bob Hoskins, Paul Copley, Phil Daniels.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


2 Comments

  • Frank Graham

    October 6, 2009

    Hi
    I think the crtitisism’s of this epic picture are a bit harsh
    It is very historically accurate unlike say Mel Gibbsons Braveheart
    which was very historically innacurate

  • Vaughan Birbeck

    October 3, 2013

    The film has shortcomings and a little background knowledge helps when you’re watching, but it has some fine moments. As for the business with Burt Lancaster’s arm, the man is a soldier; surely any reasonably intelligent viewer can work out he has been wounded in the past. Do you need to know why Long John Silver only has one leg?

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