Zulu Dawn (1979) - War Movie Blog

1970s Zulu Dawn (1979)

Published on March 25th, 2013 | by Chris


Zulu Dawn (1979)

Review of: Zulu Dawn (1979)
Movie directed by:
Douglas Hickcox

Reviewed by:
On March 25, 2013
Last modified:May 21, 2013


Zulu Dawn takes a star-studded look at the Battle of Isandlwana, where the British suffered a crushing defeat to the Empire in South Africa in 1879.

Zulu Dawn (1979)Zulu Dawn takes a star-studded look at the Battle of Isandlwana, where the British suffered a crushing defeat to the Empire in South Africa at the hands of the Zulu in 1879.

The movie spends about half of itself setting things up.  Mainly introducing various characters, and setting the stage with the declaration of war on the Zulu.  The British set out to invade Zululand, and just as they cross the Buffalo River....  You guessed it, the battle was on.

I just summed up the movie in two sentences, didn't I.  That's pretty much about all there is to it.  However, that's not quite the entire story.  What makes this quite the epic war movie, is the storytelling behind the setup to, and then the battle itself.  In a methodical and almost textbook-like fashion, we go out with the various divisions as they prepare for the invasion.  Then for the second half of the movie, we are in the thick of the battle itself.  Yes, the battle itself is fully one-half of the movie.

I'm not going to lie, after a while it does start to drag on.  There is such a thing as pacing which really should have been explored more.  I'm not sure how they would have done it, but after 45 minutes of "ugh" *bang* *bang* *stab* "more ammo!" "retreat!" "Tally ho!" and all the thundering horses hooves its a bit much.

Now, after that, I'm also going to say that in the end it is an excellent movie.  An excellent commentary on the arrogance of the British Empire, a stabbing expose on bureaucracy and aristocracy...  but you have to really pay attention to catch some of the subtler points.   The quartermaster so worried about accounting for every bullet that he doesn't care too much how many people die as he makes soldiers wait in line far too long to receive one or two boxes.   The exquisite table setting for the officers as news arrives of the beginnings of the battle.  "Oh, surely it can wait until after dinner!"

Putting it bluntly, the British are not portrayed in a particularly favorable light here.  That's not to say, either, that the Zulu are depicted as the poor victimized natives.  Hardly.  This is purely a demonstration of the facts, with a large bend on decrying British (and possibly by proxy American) Imperialism and everything that goes with it.

Parties concerned with the historical accuracy of the film can reference the Wikipedia link above while watching.  It would appear that in proper British fashion (and somewhat ironically) everything was quite well documented.

As for the star-studded cast, I can't fault any of them really.  I don't think any of their parts really gave them much of a chance for a performance.  They were merely famous faces brought on to fill the costumes, and by their names bring people into the theaters.  Peter O'Toole, Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward, John Mills, Denholm Elliot, Bob Hoskins, James Faulkner, Peter Vaughan....  You see what I mean.  (Trivia time! Denholm Elliot and Ronald Lacey would meet up again in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but just like here, never on screen.)

Zulu Dawn is probably a dictionary definition of a war movie, and for that I will give it high marks at 4/5.  I do wish that the battle had been paced better, but we can't have everything we want, can we?

Zulu Dawn (Blu-ray / DVD Combo) Zulu Dawn (Blu-ray / DVD Combo)
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Burt Lancaster, Peter O'Toole, Simon Ward, Bob Hoskins and Sir John Mills lead an all-star cast in the shocking true story of The Battle of Isandhlwana: In January 1879, arrogant officials of the British colony of Natal, Africa issued a list of unauthorized ultimatums to the Zulu Nation...

DVD Information

Binding: Blu-ray
Aspect Ratio:
Audience Rating: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Manufacturer: Severin Films
Original Release Date:
  • Burt Lancaster
  • Simon Ward
  • Denholm Elliott
  • Peter Vaughan
  • James Faulkner


  • Factory sealed DVD


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Zulu Dawn (1979) Chris

Summary: Zulu Dawn takes a star-studded look at the Battle of Isandlwana, where the British suffered a crushing defeat to the Empire in South Africa in 1879.


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I've been watching war movies for probably 25 years now. Since December 2006 I've been sharing my habit and passion for these movies here on this site.

3 Responses to Zulu Dawn (1979)

  1. I definetely prefer the older Michael Caine »Zulu« movie for telling a straight and strong story. »Zulu Dawn« tends to loose itself sometimes. Still worth watching!

  2. the war movie buff says:

    A good companion to the superior “Zulu”. You have to admire the British for making a movie about a major ass-kicking. Maybe they felt guilty about “Zulu”. It is well done and accurate (and is actually more accurate than “Zulu”). My big question is what the hell is Burt Lancaster doing in this movie?

  3. This film completely missed the mark; as does your review. 4/5 stars? Really? I wouldn’t give it two.

    It was not only inaccurate (historically), poorly choreographed (as a battle), but was a dreadful bore. Unlike Zulu, it predecessor, which was both exciting and accurate, this one fails to bring any of the characters really alive. The audience hardly knows them, and thus hardly cares when they die (or not). Whereas in “Zulu”, many of the characters were vivid and so well realized that you really cared wither or not they survived: from Stanley Baker’s character, Lt. Chard, a humble man (“I just came here to build a bridge”) who fears he’s over his head; to the scoundrel and malingerer, Private Hook, who is forced like a cornered rat to fight heroically against all odds. You get to know and care about these men.

    “Zulu Dawn” fails completely on this and several other scores.

    My final complaint was that it tried, too hard, to be “politically correct”. Whenever historical films shy from history, and attempt to mollycoddle the feelings of some particular ethnic group; the results are always a failure. Witness the most recent (Heath Ledger) version of the “Four Feathers”. Simply nonsense!

    Barry Jacobsen

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