Director Douglas Hickox keeps the film moving along and the film is an excellent example of adapting historical events to the needs of cinematic form and drama. In a little less than two hours the causes for the war as well as the roots of the disaster are laid out in clear, if simplified terms. The arrogance of the British Empire as personified by Sir Henry Bartle Frere, (John Mills in another stiff upper lip performance) and his chief lieutenant, Frederick Theisger, Lord Chelmsford, (Peter O'Toole, nicely understated and subdued) are in the filmmaker's view clearly responsible for a war that need never have been fought at all. The film also makes clear that Sir Henry initiated the conflict without the knowledge let alone consent of the British Government. But the arrogance and sense of entitlement that blinds Sir Henry to dealing with the Zulu in a just and legal manner affects all the participants involved, from the highest government official to the lowest private. It is the mistaken belief that technology, (exemplified here by rockets, cannons and rifles) somehow gives nations the right to take by force whatever they want. Handing Chelmsford his orders, Sir Henry asks, "Does this cover, Frederick what we both know to be right?" "Most excellently, Sir Henry." He replies. It is as if they both need spoken confirmation that the crime they are about to commit is in fact justified.
This English disdain is not just reserved for the Zulu, but for fellow countrymen as well. After Col. Hamilton-Brown, robustly played by Nigel Davenport refuses his table in order to be with his men still on the march, Chelmsford contemptuously warns his aide-de-camp, Lt. Hartford, sensitively played by Ronald Pickup to, "Learn nothing from that Irishman, except how not to behave." But his real distaste is reserved for Col. Anthony Durnford, a rough-hewn Irishman who has a way with the native troops. With his understanding of the Zulu warrior and his knowledge of the topography, Durnford would obviously be of great use in the coming campaign, but almost immediately there is tension between the two men. And with Burt Lancaster as Durnford it is easy to see why Chelmsford might feel threatened. Even with the use of only one arm, he is a natural leader of men, intelligent and charismatic and unlike Chelmsford he respects the Zulu. It is one of Lancaster's sage portrayals and this time he sports an Irish accent. Dialects were never one of his strong points and this one doesn't completely convince, but it is consistent and it underscores Durnford's isolation among the English who make up most of Chelmsford's staff. More importantly, even at 65, Lancaster has a bravado and dash which makes it understandable how he might warm the heart of beautiful young woman. Fanny Colenso so loved the older Durnford that she went on a one woman crusade to clear his name when the official inquiry into the disaster attempted to shift the blame for it onto him.
A great cast is well used in many telling vignettes. Denholm Elliot as the gentle Col. Pulliene has a moving death scene. Simon Ward as William Vereker represents what is best of the British aristocracy abroad and he quickly becomes disenchanted with the war, ("A very dirty business, indeed.") Michael Jayston as Col. Crealock, Chelmsford's secretary catches all the charm and tact needed for that difficult position. Freddie Jones and Anna Calder-Marshall as Bishop Colenso and his daughter Fanny, having lived among the Zulu are righteously indignant at the prospect of war. Ronald Lacey as Correspondent Norris Newman delights in skewering the official lies about the war. Peter Vaughn as Quartermaster Bloomfield, whose obsession in accounting for every cartridge and shell would have such horrific consequences is marvelous. Simon Sabela makes a very impressive King Cetshwayo in one of the opening sequences to the film and Bob Hoskins as tough Sergeant Major Williams is a lot of fun. With great battle scenes and a rousing score by Elmer Bernstein, "Zulu Dawn" is a worthy companion to "Zulu".