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Zulu Dawn
Screenplay by Cy Endfield and Anthony Storey

Download the script in PDF format

A film review and essay by Alan Critchley

"Zulu" is the film which has introduced many to the subject of the Anglo-Zulu war with viewers all over the world enjoying the spectacle and brilliant colours shown in the film. It is based loosely on the real events, and despite not having the now obligitory American actor, has become a classic.

"Zulu Dawn" on the other hand, is closer to the true events as they occured at Isandhlwana, prior to the engagement at Rorke's Drift. But despite having a great American actor (Burt Lancaster), it didn't achieve 'box office' success. I think that this is a pity since the film comes closer to the reality of events than "Zulu", and although occuring on the same day, were different engagements.

The film

There are no end of famous actors who have done great justice to this subject in the film.
John Mills (in my opinion the best actor ever) as Sir Henry Bartle Frere. Peter O'Toole as Lord Chelmsford. Bob Hoskins as CSM Williams. Simon Ward as Lt. Vereker. Denholm Elliot as Col. Pulleine. Christopher Cazenove as Lt. Coghill. Burt Lancaster as Col. Durnford. All played great parts in the film.

The opening sequences have great political overtones. This website has always tried to avoid involvment with the politics of the events, and tried to focus on the individuals involved. This review is intended to give my analysis of the film as related to the actual events (as I understand them).

The opening sequences show the Zulus in their kraal at Ulundi, dancing. Watching a fight between two warriors, with impunity, Cetyweyo gives the order for the vanquished to be slain.

I believe that the events at Pietermaritzburg in the film are as they might have been, although in the film they appear much more sterile than would have perhaps been in reality.

The following sequences appear fairly accurrate. Although in the crossing of the Buffalo river, the crossing took place in the opposite direction for 'aesthetic' and technical reasons.

There was no mention of the attack on Sihayo's kraal where some of the occupants of the Rorke's Drift hospital received their wounds, including Schiess.

In the film, the Zulus shout 'why do you come to the land of the Zulu?' The answer by Melvill was' We come here by the orders of the great Queen Victoria', not 'by the orders of the great white Queen' as it was in reality.

The uniforms did bear some resemblance to the actual, the helmets being stained with tea or coffee, although slightly 'uniform' and the red being a bit too pronounced.

From my understanding of the battle I personally see no problem with the sequence of events at Isandhlwana as shown in the film.

Chelmsford accepted reports that the main Zulu force was towards Ulundi and took half of his force in that direction. Reports from Fannin (the disreputable English settler) were not to be accepted as gospel seeing as he appeared appeared to be an habitual liar.

While he was away the camp was attacked from the left (positions being related to the view from the camp with your back to Isandlwana) and the British lines were far to the left and therefore ammunition supplies over-extended. The lines of red coats were also therefore thinly dispersed to face an overwhelming number of Zulus. When the retreat was ordered, the Zulus were easily able to overtake or prevent a reformation. Durnford was sent to the front at the donga (a dried up river some half a mile from the camp), to counter the Zulu left horn. Much has been commented on the ammunition boxes and their inaccessibility. Ian Knight has theorised that this was not a factor in the inadequate supply of ammunition.

In the film, Durnford (Burt Lancaster) was seen making a stand on a waggon. He was then seen to fall into a ravine. I believe that he made his stand in front of the hill to the right of Isandlwana with his force which was withdrawn from the donga and died with his men. There is now a monument at the spot to those who died at his last stand.

There is no mention in the film to Capt.Younghusband, who with his men, they made a last stand on the side of Isandlwana. When he went round his soldiers, the Zulus ordered a halt to the attack to allow him to shake hands with his men who he knew were about to die. You can't get more British than that (apart from trying to dress Sgt. Maxfield while the hospital was being attacked at Rorke's Drift). A real token of respect by the Zulus. Younghusband went down the mountain and made a last stand on a waggon. He was eventually shot through the head. The Zulus were impressed enough by his courage that they carried him back up the hill on a shield and laid him by his dead comrades. A sign of great honour by Zulus.

While the camp was being overrun, Pulleine (Denholm Elliott), ordered Melvill and Coghill to save the colours. In fact he ordered Melvill to save the Colours. Melvill met up with Coghill at the Buffalo river and Coghill won his VC when he went back to assist Melville who was stranded at the coffin rock in the flowing waters of the river.

The incident at Fugitives' drift in the film is artistic licence. There is a killing scene in the sand with Vereker shooting the red coated Zulu who then lets the colours fall into the Buffalo river. In reality, Melvill was helped by Lt. Higginson at the coffin rock. Coghill, who had escaped separately returned to help, having his horse shot from under him.

In fact, having lost the colours in the fast flowing Buffalo river and crossed the river, Melvill and Coghill climbed a hill which even I found daunting, bearing in mind that Coghill had previously injured his knee whilst trying to catch a chicken for Chelmford's supper. Both had just travelled 8 miles whilst being pursued by a foe who open your intestines at the earliest opportunity. If you visit their graves and memorials, you will appreciate what I mean.

On his return to Isandlwana with his force, Chelmsford viewed utter devastation. They left early to return to Rorke's Drift in the morning to avoid seeing the horrors of what had happened.

The film was perhaps too political in that it portrayed the British as an evil conniving force out and bring down the peaceful Zulu nation. It is true that unreasonable demands were made on the Zulus. Demands which were unrealistic and maybe not achievable, within unreasonable timescales, if not impossible to meet. On the other hand, the Zulus, though a great people, were ruthless and whose own political ambitions had made them the most feared race in central Southern Africa. Under King Shaka, they expanded their empire from 10 square miles to cover most of central Southern Africa in the early 1820's, not before many of their own people had been massacred. On the death of Shaka's mother (with whom it is suggested he had an "unnatural relationship"), 5,000 of his own people were put to death. Perhaps they didn't grieve loudly enough. After Shaka, Dingane took over (having had Shaka murdered), then Mpande, and eventually after a dual between brothers, Cetyweyo became king. In any event having reportedly killed 20,000 of his own people. According to their spiritual beliefs, the Zulus disembowelled their foes to release the spirits of the dead. They did however hang drummer boys up on meat hooks at Isandlwana and cut off their testicles. After this, drummer boys were not allowed to enter battle zones again.

Unfortunately, unlike "Zulu", "Zulu Dawn" dialogue has very few memorable phrases which spring to mind and which you can bring into everyday conversation or use in your business presentations.

Some are;

(Melvill to Coghill)
"What a wonderful adventure we undertake. What a marvellous spree.

(Quartermaster Bloomfield to Boy-Pullen)
"Zulus may not wear shoes or trousers and the like but it don't mean to say they got no brains. They'll watch us...and wait...and find our weaknesses."

"Have we got any weaknesses Quartermaster?"

"Oh no. Come all this bloody way to get shot by a bullet from Birmingham" (After the death of the drummer boy helping to peg out the distance markers).

At the end of the film there is a quote from Benjamin Disraeli where he asked , "Who are these Zulus, who are these remarkable people who defeat our generals, convert our bishops (Colenso) and on this day have brought the end to a great dynasty." He was refering to the death of the Prince Imperial of France and the end of the Napoleonic dynasty, not to the British Empire.

Just watched the film again and to re-itterate, I think it to be one of the most underrated films ever.