War on Film: Zulu Dawn

Taylor Downing reviews the classic war film Zulu Dawn.


Fifteen years after he co-wrote and directed one of the great war films, 1964’s Zulu, Cy Endfield wrote 1979’s Zulu Dawn, directed by Douglas Hickox. The later film is effectively the prequel to Zulu, as it deals with the battle and massacre at Isandlwana that took place earlier in the day, 22 January 1879, before the attack on Rorke’s Drift that features in the 1964 classic.

Cy Endfield was a Hollywood screenwriter and director whose most famous film, 1950’s The Sound of Fury, includes the story of a lynching. In 1951, he was accused of being a Communist and was blacklisted by the studios, later moving to England to find work. With John Prebble, he wrote and directed Zulu, which, despite telling the story of a heroic imperial defence, still presented the Zulus as a brave, honourable, warrior nation.

A few years after he made Zulu, Endfield wrote the script for Zulu Dawn. It was bought by Stanley Baker, who had starred in and produced the 1964 film. The ‘prequel’ was intended as another vehicle for the great Welsh actor, but Baker died before the project got underway. Instead, the rights were later acquired by Lamitas, an investment company that raised funding for the film from a Swiss bank. Warner Brothers came in as international distributors.

Filming began in May 1978 and concluded three months later. It was decided, like Zulu, to film on location in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Many of the historic sites were used, such as at Rorke’s Drift, showing the British crossing into Zululand, and at Isandlwana itself, although the high peak there meant the plain was in shadow most afternoons.

Instead, the filmmakers moved about nine miles east to Isiphesi Hill, a location that looks remarkably similar to Isandlwana, except for a valley below the summit that was larger and easier in which to film.

More than a thousand local Zulu extras were employed and kitted out with loincloths and armed with cowhide shields and the famous assegai spear. The Zulus were paid only about £3 per day, but this was more than they would have earned in the local sugarcane fields. As such, they came forward for the filming in large numbers.

The Zulu extras were asked to run barefoot across rocky, thorn-filled terrain as their forebears had in the 1870s, with the ability to travel vast distances at speed. However, for the young Zulu men of the 1970s, running barefoot on rough ground was almost impossible.

Many scenes had to be re-shot as the extras tripped up or moved daintily over the terrain, or when it was noticed that they were wearing what were called ‘tackies’ (sneakers). Eventually, the extras were fitted out with dark sandals that were difficult to see on camera.

Filming the merciless mass attacks by the Zulu warriors proved particularly challenging. The young Zulus had neither the speed nor the ferocity of their warrior ancestors, at least not for £3 per day.

The biggest attack scene was one of the last to be filmed. The second unit director, David Tomblin, found a location where there were very few stones and the extras would be running downhill towards the camera (at Isandlwana they had charged uphill). By putting the camera down low he was able to film the Zulus emerging through the undergrowth. Certainly, in the final cut the attack looks terrifying.

Filming in South Africa brought other problems. The events depicted had taken place in January, high summer when temperatures on the veldt reached 40˚C, but the countryside was green. However, shooting took place during the winter months (May-August) when the mornings were often cold, and it took a couple of hours for the sun to burn off the mist. Although it was beautifully temperate for the European actors, it was distinctly chilly for the near-naked local Zulu extras.

Despite these problems, the film succeeds brilliantly in depicting both an imperial army in its bright-red uniforms as it crosses unfamiliar African terrain, and the warrior Zulu nation as it defends its homeland. Some of the scenes are truly epic in scale and, before the era of computer graphics, were filmed with real human extras, and hundreds of horses, wagons, and oxen.

And unlike in Zulu, the jackets of the redcoats are filthy and their white sun helmets are covered in dust. The film is worth watching for these magnificent sequences alone.


In the opening half hour of the film we are presented with the rituals of two quite different societies. At a huge rally in Zululand, a bull is slain, and lines of young men and women dance together in a ceremony in which warriors select their partners. King Cetshwayo (Simon Sabela looking suitably regal) is shown as a powerful but peaceful leader. He is happy to accept the agreed boundary with the British along the Buffalo River.

At Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal, the colonial British, both political and military, are seen at play. They too have strange rituals. When a newly arrived local officer Lieutenant Vereker (Simon Ward) enters the regimental officers’ mess, the call goes out ‘Stranger in the mess’ and he has to down a cup of wine in one go or stand everybody a bottle of claret. As the women play genteel games in the sunshine, the men plot for war.

The High Commissioner for South Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere (John Mills), goes against the wishes of London by issuing an ultimatum to King Cetshwayo. Bartle Frere was convinced that the Zulu Kingdom represented a threat to British interests in both Natal and the Transvaal, and in the development of a confederation under his leadership. He saw the Zulus as barbarous savages, and Cetshwayo as a ruthless leader who had executed thousands of his own people.

The impossible terms of the ultimatum are rejected by Cetshwayo and, upon hearing this, Bartle Frere proclaims war on the Zulus. In words grimly redolent with Holocaust history, Bartle Frere tells his colleagues that victory will bring ‘the final solution to the Zulu problem’.

Lord Chelmsford (Peter O’Toole, not giving his finest performance) is the military commander who will lead an expedition to teach the Zulus a lesson. Supremely arrogant, Chelmsford views the invasion as an opportunity to achieve fame as a great imperial warrior, boasting, ‘for the savage, as for the child, chastisement is sometimes a blessing.’

On 11 January 1879, British forces cross the boundary of the Buffalo River at the small trading post at Rorke’s Drift to launch their invasion of Zululand. A Victorian imperial army heading off to war is evoked very effectively. Bugles sound. Soldiers line up. Wagons move. Horses haul gun carriages. Native bearers carry heavy loads. The cavalry crosses the river by horse. The infantry is hauled across in wooden ferries.

The whole sequence is cut to Elmer Bernstein’s dramatic music. It was filmed at the actual drift (ford) but in reverse – the British forces cross from the Zulu side to Natal because the backdrop looked more dramatic that way around.

After ten days, the British forces reach Isandlwana, a small plain below a mountain where they make camp. An experienced Boer fighter tells Chelmsford he should assemble the wagons in a defensive laager. Chelmsford says there is no need. They are joined by a cavalry unit of the Natal Native Contingent led by Colonel Durnford (Burt Lancaster).

Scouts capture a few Zulu prisoners, including Bayele (Gilbert Tiabane), the son of Cetshwayo. British soldiers beat the prisoners to extract information from them regarding the location of the main Zulu force.

Chelmsford is worried that his enemy will avoid battle with his forces. So, the following morning, he takes his main force further east in pursuit of the Zulu army. He leaves Colonel Pulleine, (Denholm Elliott), an army administrator and not a field commander, along with Durnford, in charge of the camp at Isandlwana. Chelmsford makes the fatal mistake of splitting his forces.

Later that morning, scouts spot groups of Zulus advancing towards the camp. They cleverly use the dongas (deep, dried-out water courses) that traverse the veldt to move forward. Pulleine is alarmed and Durnford rides out to investigate. They soon spot a huge Zulu force moving to surround them. Once in position, the Zulus launch their attack in classic bull formation – with two horns attacking each flank and the main force as the chest of the bull in the centre.

The Zulu attack at Isandlwana on 22 January 1879.

The redcoats form their thin line and battle commences. As they were trained, the British fire Martini-Henry rifles in an orderly and disciplined way and inflict terrible damage on the advancing Zulu ranks.

But there are too many of the native warriors, and rapidly the British soldiers run out of ammunition. The quartermaster (Peter Vaughan) refuses to issue replacements to native troops, whom he distrusts, and as the cases of ammunition have their lids screwed on, it takes far too long to open them and resupply the men with the ammunition they desperately need.

The key stages of the battle are effectively and realistically portrayed. The NCOs, such as Colour Sergeant Williams (Bob Hoskins), walk up and down the ranks shouting words of encouragement. The 7-pound artillery pieces fire at the advancing Zulus. Meantime, despite the difficulties the filmmakers had with the Zulu extras, they look terrifyingly menacing as the hills echo to their war chant.

Their numbers slowly prevail and, having run out of ammunition, the British are reduced to bitter hand-to-hand fighting. The British soldiers use their bayonets, the Zulus their assegai.

Rival weapons

The principal weapon of the British soldier during the Anglo-Zulu Wars was the Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle. It was a modern weapon, popular with soldiers, and could fire up to 12 rounds a minute. The rifle remained in use in the British Army until the end of the First World War. Also, at Isandlwana, British forces had two light 7-pdr muzzle-loading artillery pieces and a battery of Hale rockets.

The principle weapon of the Zulu warrior was the assegai, a slim hardwood spear with a fire-hardened iron tip. When thrown at the enemy it was often fatal. The founder of the Zulu Kingdom, King Shaka, also introduced a shorter version known as the iklwa, a stabbing spear with a broad, sword-like head. Both weapons were withdrawn from a wounded foe and could be used again.

With an effective range of 400 yards, the superior firepower of the British rifles gave Lord Chelmsford and, indeed, all British commanders at the time a sense of total superiority over the spear-wielding warriors.

They were sure they could dominate any battle with Zulu forces, who before January 1879 were also seen as savages with little understanding of tactics or strategy. This mix of complacency and arrogance was one of the reasons why the Zulus were able to inflict such a shattering blow on well-armed and well-trained British troops.


By mid-afternoon, the Zulus have wiped out the British and Natal native forces, who had fought to the last man. Durnford is killed when he falls wounded into a donga. Pulleine retires to his tent. Bayele, one of the prisoners he had seen tortured, appears in the tent. Pulleine decides not to shoot and the warrior kills him with his spear.

In a famous action, Lieutenants Melville (James Faulkner) and Coghill (Christopher Cazenove) are instructed to escape with the Queen’s colours. They ride as far as the Buffalo River but are followed by fast-moving warriors and are killed. The colours float off down the river. The spot they reached is today called Fugitives’ Drift and is the site of a luxury tourist lodge.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, Chelmsford is enjoying a silver-service lunch. His troops are spread across several miles of countryside. After news reaches him that battle is taking place at Isandlwana, he refuses to accept that he has been outmanoeuvred by the Zulus. He slowly assembles his scattered troops, but they do not get back to Isandlwana until dusk. The last shots are of Chelmsford staring at the destruction of his encampment. The few survivors have fled.

The aftermath of the battle. The event was a disaster for the British.

The film does not go into the bitter recriminations that followed. Chelmsford blamed Durnford for failing to provide an effective defence, even though it was he who had failed to form a defensive laager. In Britain, the newspapers were full of the disaster.

Later that year, Chelmsford led a much bigger force back into Zululand and partially restored his name by winning a victory over Cetshwayo. But his reputation never fully recovered, and he was never given command again.

The British lost about 1,400 men at Isandlwana, including native soldiers. Zulu losses were not counted at the time, although historians estimate that the number was between 1,500 and 2,000. But the significance of the massacre far outweighs the balance of numbers. It was the first time a well-equipped, well-trained, technologically superior imperial army had been defeated by native forces in Africa. As such, it compares to the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 as a massive and humiliating defeat of a colonial army by local forces.

Later that day, about 4,000 Zulu impi, who had been in reserve at Isandlwana, moved to the Buffalo River and attacked the tiny force of about 140 men who were at the small trading station of Rorke’s Drift. Their heroic defence of what had become a field hospital and supply depot partly made up for the humiliation of Isandlwana. Eleven VCs were won, more than at any other similar action. (You can read Taylor Downing’s review of the Rorke’s Drift Museum on p.72.)

About 600 Zulus were killed, while those left wounded on the battlefield were later bayoneted by British soldiers. This, of course, is the subject of the 1964 movie Zulu starring Michael Caine, Stanley Baker, and Jack Hawkins.

Zulu Dawn never proved as popular at the box office. It is perhaps not surprising that cinema audiences preferred a heroic defence to a blundering defeat. But this is a shame. Zulu Dawn is a fine film that portrays the workings of the Victorian British army in a wonderfully visual and realistic way. The racism underlying the whole campaign is there throughout. It deserves to be remembered as the better movie of the two. •

Zulu Dawn
Directed by Douglas Hickox. Written by Cy Endfield and Anthony Storey. Starring Peter O’Toole, Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward, Denholm Elliott, and John Mills. Released by Mosaic.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons.