Thursday, April 23, 2009

Greatest War Movies No 9 - Zulu Dawn

Most people prefer the first more famous movie about the British Zulu war made in 1964 simply titled Zulu. You know, the only movie where Michael Caine plays a posh Englishman. I however prefer the prequel Zulu Dawn made in 1979 on what was the 100th anniversary of the battle that the movie depicts. This is the battle of Isandlwana famous because it was the greatest ever defeat of a modern army at the hands of a native force. Zulu Dawn basically tells the story of a battle between 20,000 Zulu Warriors who succeed in overpowering 1700 British soldiers. The result, every last single British soldier was killed.

The Background
Just to clarify, many people get confused between the battle of Islandlwana and the battle of Rourkes Drift. Rourkes Drift is depicted in the 1964 movie where 150 British soldiers manning a supply station hold out against 4000 Zulus a day after the slaughter at Islandlwana. Rourkes Drift at the time and to an extent in the movie was portrayed as a great British victory which it was. In reality though it was a small victory in a much larger defeat as only 24 hours before the siege of Rourkes Drift 1700 British Soldiers were wiped out at Islandlwana. The movie Zulu goes to great lenght to emphasise that out of the 150 defenders of Rourkes Drift 11 won the Victoria Cross. Anybody who knows anything about the British military understands how unbelievable this is as to win the VC you have to commit an act of insane bravery. There are very few VC's awarded so for 11 to be awarded from 150 is almost suspicious. And here in lies the interesting point. Queen Victoria and British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli were so horrified at the defeat at the hands of a bunch of natives throwing spears that they had to attempt some damage limitation. They did this by highlighting the victory at Rourkes Drift with 11 VC's and attempting to sweep the defeat at Islandlwana under the carpet. I'm not saying the defenders of Rourkes drift were not as hard as nails but the main story from the entire British Zulu war and the word that should always be synonymous with it is Islandlwana.

Zulu Dawn
The movie has an all star cast. The great Johnny Mills (who also featured in my No 10 Ice cold in Alex) and Peter O Toole lead the way as the Architects of the war. The audience soon developes contempt for both men particularly O'Toole for carelessly and arrogantly splitting his forces leaving the 1700 men at Islandlwana exposed. Among those actually doing some fighting are Burt Lancaster (who plays a gritty Irishman), Denholm Elliot and Bob Hoskins. The story is quite simple really. We see a catalogue of errors that soon see 1700 British soldiers alone and exposed facing up to 20,000 Zulus. The tension as the build up to the battle draws near is simply superb. And when it begins, sheer terror ensues as the movie plays on the greatest fear of every white man, that being the prospect of getting chopped to death my a mob of angry black men.

Burt Lancaster has a pain in his chest

The battle scene lasts a good 25 minutes as things go from bad to, well, as worse as things can possibly get. You keep thinking that some one or some group will survive but no. Survivors get smaller and smaller in number. In reality I believe there were a handful of survivors but literally less that ten and these were mainly men who were sent to get help during the battle. Zulu Dawn however does not detail any of these stories. The movie in fairness does portray the courage of both the British and the Zulus. The real villains are the generals and politicians who wanted it and who find themselves sitting back enjoying the comforts of colonial life in Natal when the fighting gets going. I think my favourite scene is the one where Bob Hoskins desperately tries to keep the front line together as wave after wave of Zulu warrior advances.

The events at Islandlwana was Britain's greatest defeat in all its colonial wars. Among the Zulu people of South Africa it has been celebrated as their greatest victory, that is until today. Because today a Zulu warrior has been elected President of South Africa. That's right, Jacob Zuma is from the Zulu tribe. Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki were both from the Xhosa tribe which is perceived as being the more sophisticated of South Africa's tribes much to the resentment of the Zulus. Zuma has claimed that his ancestors fought at Islandlwana and has regularly invoked the spirit of the Zulu warriors of old to inspire current generations.

Zulu Dawn is a powerful and frightening movie and ultimately I believe quite a potent anti war movie as the hell the soldiers are forced to go through in the name of conquest is something which you wouldn't wish on anyone. For the tension, for the action and the horror, for Bob Hoskins' brilliant performance as a drill Sargent and for the unforgettable soundtrack, Zulu Dawn is a must.


GW said...

I will have to watch that. Have seen Zulu, but not the prequel. We actually had to study that entire campain at Infantry Officers Adanced Course in Benning. Don't remember much about it now, but I am sure it will come back if I get a chance to see the flicks. So where do you rate "Patton."

Ted Leddy said...


Thanks for the comment. Its great to have a blogging legend such as yourself on my humble blog.

That's fascinating about Benning. I suppose the British Zulu war was rife with blunders so it makes sense that it would feature in the officers manual under the "what not to do in battle" category.

Incidentally, one of the few survivors of Islandlwana was a man named Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien who would go on the fight in many future colonial wars and ultimately as a general in the first world war. I believe he wrote many manuals on the do's and do not's of warfare. I belief his memoirs are amazing. Just a piece of trivia, his son was among those killed in the King David Hotel bomb in Jerusalem 1n 1946.

I loved Patton. I have not yet completed my list but I expect it will feature in my list around mid table.

GW said...

Thank you for the kind, if severely overstated, compliments, sir. I will have to look up Smith-Dorrien - I do not recall him.

The first world war was not taught in any great significance at Benning, nor, for that matter, in all my seperate studies of military history. The basic lesson of that war is generally accepted as being that frontal infantry assaults against dug in machine gun positions and zeroed in artillery are suicidal. That should have been obvious by 1916. Indeed, I still wonder why the UK doesn't burn an effigy of F.M. Haig once a year. He was far more destructive than Guy Fawkes.

As to Patton, I saw that when I was very young and became fascinated with WWII as a result.

At any rate, I shall await the completion of your list with anticipation. Hope all is well. GW.

Ted Leddy said...


I am not surprised that the First World War does not feature much at Benning. From Gallipoli to the Somme it truly was the war of blunders. I often wonder, given the nature of warfare, learn and adapt, why the likes of Haig persisted with such suicidal tactics for so long. Just look at the first day of the Somme. The most costly day in British military history. The 1st of July 1916, 26,000 British dead. I mean that is absolutely staggering.

I'm glad you are enjoying my greatest war movie countdown. I have been watching war movies every night this week for inspiration. Deciding what movie comes next is not going to get any easier. There is so much quality to choose from.

Paul said...

'I am not surprised that the First World War does not feature much at Benning. From Gallipoli to the Somme it truly was the war of blunders. I often wonder, given the nature of warfare, learn and adapt, why the likes of Haig persisted with such suicidal tactics for so long. Just look at the first day of the Somme. The most costly day in British military history. The 1st of July 1916, 26,000 British dead. I mean that is absolutely staggering. '

That is absolutely staggering I agree. However the First World War whilst tragic was not as either you or GW have depicted. It's worth reading Neillands, 'The Great War Generals' or other works by Gary Sheffield for a more informed view. Take the Somme for instance the 1916 battle was arguably a strategic allied success overall. After the Somme the British never failed to capture ground form the German Army and spearheaded the 1918 '100 days' offensive that ultimately defeated the Germans. Nice blog by the way and of course I respect your opinion. I covered one of the 1918 battles here.

Ted Leddy said...

Thanks Paul

In truth I must bow to your superior knowledge of the first world war. I'm a WW2 man. My knowledge of the great war needs improvement. I know there are some revisionist historians that say the WW1 generals are treated unfairly in this debate. Perhaps that's true. I will look out for Gary Sheffields book.