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Apr 14

Zulu Dawn and Every War Ever

Zulu DawnWhen I was a kid, I loved the film Zulu. I still do. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to be painfully aware of its ethnocentrism. So when I saw that Zulu Dawn, the film about the events that led up to the Anglo-Zulu War, was available for Instant Watch on Netflix, I was very pleased. Cy Endfield, the man who directed Zulu, was lead author of the screenplay for Zulu Dawn. And as much as there are historical inaccuracies in Zulu, it was exceptionally accurate for its time. Zulu Dawn, produced in 1979, is still considered historically accurate.

I’m not that interested in the film itself. It isn’t that well made. The dialog scenes are not recorded well, and it is hard to understand what is being said without subtitles. The battle scenes that make up most of the second half of the film are well done, but not all that important if the viewer doesn’t understand what went before. I think it is a problem of direction. And I say this with due respect to the director, Douglas Hickox, who made one of my very favorite films, Theatre of Blood. (Admittedly, from my perspective, it would be hard to go wrong combining Shakespeare and gore.)

For those of you not familiar, I guess I should clarify. The film takes place in 1879 in British South Africa. The colony there is surrounded by Zululand. But the Zulus and the colonists are happy doing their own things. They get along fine. Unfortunately, Sir Henry Bartle Frere and Lord Chelmsford (Peter O’Toole) want to start a war. So Brere sends a letter to Cetshwayo, King of Zululand. It says, more or less, we don’t like how you run your country so do things our way. Or else.

Cetshwayo responds: screw you. But he says he won’t do anything as long as they don’t come into his territory. Anyway, Cetshwayo has more important things to do: it’s harvest time. But of course, Chelmsford (who is also a general) uses this as a pretext to invade. Chelmsford thinks that the Zulu army is just going to move around and refuse to engage him. But he’s wrong. And the locals tell him so. Colonel Durnford (Burt Lancaster) tell him that Cetshwayo wants to push the conflict so he can get to the harvest. But the general doesn’t believe him. What’s more, rather than trusting Durnford’s intelligence about where the main Zulu forces are, Chelmsford splits up his army and goes after what turns out to be a Zulu feint. Need I note that the insightful colonel is where the big attack comes and the foolish general is where all is calm?

What I was most taken with was Cetshwayo. This isn’t in the movie, just history. He knew that he was screwed. Even though he needed to defeat the British and get on with what really matters in life (eating), he knew that a British defeat would only make the British attack them all out. He was doing his best to avoid this, however. He gave strict instructions that his people should not cross the river into the colonial land. So he was extremely angry at the following attack on Rorke’s Drift that is dramatized in Zulu. But as he predicted, the British later attacked with a well-armed force of 15,000 men and deposed him.

The postscript is that the British actions threw the region into civil war. Only four years later, the British tried to put Cetshwayo back in power, but it was too late. As they say in the military, it was FUBAR. And one way or another, it stayed that way for over a hundred years.

I don’t mean to be too hard on the British. For one thing, it wasn’t the people generally (or even the government) who wanted the war. But that’s how it usually is, right? Very few people in America wanted the Iraq War—at least until it was sold to them. But what we see in both wars is what we see in all wars: going in it seems like a great idea; coming out it seems like a catastrophe. And only this week, we had a liberal historian calling for a new glorious war in North Korea. Will we ever learn?[1]


[1] No.

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