Review of Zulu Dawn

Zulu Dawn (1979)
Selfcritical British
19 April 2008
This film is outstanding for many reasons some of which have been already mentioned. But I want to add another reason why I appreciate this film. I know why the film was no hit at the box office. Anglo-Saxon audience is used that the British or US boys are always the good and the others are the ugly. In this film they are the fools (the stubborn, haughty commanders, the ammunition box holder) and the ugly as well (the scene where captured Zulus are tortured). This is reality, this is the reason why the British lost the battle. They did not take the Zulus as serious opponents. They were arrogant, blind and they had not the right tactics to oppose such a strong enemy. And this shows the film perfect. And this is the reason why I think this film is astonishing. Ten or twenty years earlier the British would not have wanted to make such a self-critical film. But this is a show piece for all people who think that one do not has to pay respect to others abilities and rights. There should not be a debate why the battle was lost. Well-equipped and well-trained British soldiers could have made a better performance with the right preparation for the battle (logistics, camping, scouting etc). But it was hardly possible to survive, in face of 25 thousand wild Zulu warriors who attacked with ferocity and dedication, maybe also with drug assistance. The army employed classic military indoctrination techniques, such as drill and war dances, in order to coalesce individuals into cohesive fighting units. The Zulu army was no doubt the only string native enemy of the British imperial forces in Africa. The only army the British forces did not defeat in Africa was that of Lettow-Vorbeck 40 years later, and that one was much smaller and used highly skilled guerrilla tactics. The initial view, reported by Horace Smith-Dorrien, was that the British had difficulty unpacking their ammunition boxes fast enough and that the quarter-masters were reluctant to distribute ammunition to units other than their own. This is also stressed in the film. The lack of ammunition caused a lull in the defense and a subsequent rout. Donald Morris in "The Washing of the Spears" argues that the men, fighting too far from the camp, ran out of ammunition, starting first with Durnford's men who were holding the right flank and who had been in action longer, which precipitated a slowdown in the rate of fire against the Zulus. This argument suggests that the ammunition was too far from the firing line and that the seventy rounds each man took to the firing line was not sufficient. But I ask myself who knows? Only 5 Brits or so survived the battle. Shortage of ammunition and difficulty in unscrewing the boxes could as well have been a minor and local problem. But be that as it may be the enemy was too Strong in sheer numbers. The only chance to survive was to fortify with the mountain behind and the hope that the Zulu would retreat after some time of exposition heavy gun fire. That the Martini-Henry rifles were prone to jamming should have also been a minor problem (maybe some spears also jammed!)

I find it interesting that at around the same time (some years earlier) the US army suffered a similar defeat by similar reasons (Litle Big Horn). It can also be noted that at the time after the defeat at Isandlwana the British feared that the lost battle could have the same effect as the battle in the Teutoburg Forest 1970 years earlier when 18 thousand Romans were exterminated by a Germanic guerrilla army (in fact Lettow-Vorbecks ancestors), because they were outmaneuvered. That time the Romans decided to abandon the intention to conquer Germany ( better:the land east of the Rhine). Would other nations worldwide take the example of the Zulus and rise against imperial Britain? It was vital for the Empire to defeat the Zulus. But the Romans had no guns, the difference between a Martini Rifle in a drilled hand and a spear is too big. In the long run the Zulus had to surrender. It is a pity that we do not know what would have become with a free Zulu nation! Would they have kept to barbarism? The impressing films battle scenes (thousands of Zulus in a frenzy run towards the British lines) are a masterpiece of coordination, although the in-fight is not very much realistic in parts, which is typical for films where no experts are consulted (later they are insulted). The shooting qualities are exaggerated. But this does not spoil the total impression of the film. The actors are good and dedicated, there is even space for some heroism which is always also found on the battlefield. This is balanced. I pay my respect to the makers of the film. The message could be that failure and weakness and foolishness in a "happy" union is often on the side of those who have not the right. All armies suffered from it.
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