Zulu Dawn does everything it should in giving an honest look at that disaster.
In theaters 15 years before 'Dawn,' 1964's Zulu told the true story of the battle of Rorke's Drift, a last stand situation where about 100 British soldiers in 1879 held off the attacks of thousands of Zulu warriors for over a day. Before that battle, an army of thousands of Zulu warriors had almost completely destroyed a whole British battalion a few miles away. So while there is no link other than the same setting and story, Zulu Dawn is an unofficial prequel to a movie made 15 years earlier. 1964's Zulu mentioned the previous battle in a prologue, but director Douglas Hickox delves right in to tell the story of one of history's biggest military disasters.
In the South African province of Natal in 1879, British general Lord Chelmsford (Peter O'Toole) awaits orders on what to do with the possibility of a war breaking out between the British and the Zulu nation. A representative of the British government (John Mills) has sent an ultimatum to the Zulus, disassemble your army of warriors and dissolve the nation as a whole and there will be no issue. The offer is of course refused so Chelmsford leads a small army of around 2,000 men (including 2nd in command Burt Lancaster, a real scene-stealer here) into the Zulu territory against an army estimated at 30,000 men. But the proud, even arrogant British march into Zululand assuring themselves of an easy victory, not knowing what awaits them.
If you haven't figured by now, that easy victory never comes to fruition after Chelmsford foolishly splits up his forces and basically invites piecemeal destruction as overwhelming numbers just destroy his men. It seems through history the British have had their fair share of military disasters and never really learn from those defeats. Marching into Zulu territory, one officer (Christopher Cazenove) remarks how noble their effort is, how heroic their actions like the campaign will be a walk in the park. Like any story where the end result is never in doubt, Hickox creates palpable tension, a sense of doom of what is to come.
Of course with a historical movie like that, you want to see the disaster, you want to see the Titanic sink so getting there can be a little tedious at times. Where 'Dawn' is at its absolute best is in the depiction of the battle of Isandlwana where thousands of Zulu warriors take heavy casualties as they wipe out almost all the British defenders at their camp in a ragtag defense. As near as I can figure, the battle scene was filmed on the actual location of the massacre, giving the whole sequence an eerie feeling. On a huge scale, the battle is amazing to watch, but never overwhelming. You're always aware of what's going on, where the lines are, if the British are holding or falling back. Elmer Bernstein's score aids the cause, helping the battle both on an epic scale but also the smaller scale of the man-to-man fighting element of what a last stand must be like. The movie's good, but the Isandlwana sequence at almost 40 minutes long is great.
With a large cast with a long list of characters, some get lost in the shuffle more than others. O'Toole is the stereotypical arrogant, gentlemanly British officer while Lancaster is more an officer of the men, looking out for their best interest whenever possible. Lancaster's Colonel Durnford is definitely the star of the movie, even in an underused part. Simon Ward impresses as Lt. Verecker, a cavalry officer who lived in South Africa before volunteering with the Brits. Also joining the British army is Denholm Elliott as a commanding officer, Cazenove and James Faulkner as lower ranking officers who make a gallant charge in the closing moments in the massacre, Bob Hoskins as a veteran sergeant desperately trying to keep his men in order and alive, Nigel Davenport as O'Toole's aide, and many more, some making better and longer impressions than others, but those are the best of the bunch.
Filming on location in South Africa, you truly get a sense of the wide open expanses of the African frontier. This definitely aids the battle scenes with an enormous scale of armies and strategy as the battle develops from a firefight into a bloody, fleeing massacre. There are some great visual moments but also emotional, surprising moments, like Verecker's patrol riding over the crest of a hill and stumbling upon an immense army of Zulu warriors facing them. In the massacre, all the soldiers we've met go out in their own blaze of glory. This is available to watch through Youtube, start with Part 1 of 12. Overall, not as good as Zulu but a worthy prequel, and it would certainly make an entertaining double-bill.
Zulu Dawn <---Video Detective trailer (1979): ***/****