Sir William Stanley Baker, who co-produced and played Lieutenant John Chard in Zulu (1964), had always wanted to make a movie about the Battle of Isandhlwana. Unfortunately, he died two years before this movie was made. He had intended to play Colonel Durnford (Burt Lancaster).
Burt Lancaster reputedly was "tone deaf" when it came to accents, but here he affects an Irish burr. Lancaster also was challenged by having to learn how to do things like riding a horse with only one arm.
Sir John Hurt was cast, but had to be replaced after South African authorities confused him with American actor John Heard, who had been arrested in an anti-Apartheid march. They refused to give Hurt a visa.
According to Executive Producer Barrie Saint Clair, thirteen thousand people were present on-set for the filming of the battle. This has been compared to the old Hollywood days of Cecil B. DeMille, and led "Variety" to say that "For sheer scope and numbers of people being manipulated for the cameras, 'Zulu Dawn' is positively DeMillesque in scale."
Whereas the battle depicted in Zulu (1964) was an astounding success for the British, the Battle of Isandhlwana, shown in this movie, was a major disaster. About one thousand five hundred British soldiers were killed by an army of twenty-five thousand Zulus, meaning that the British were outnumbered by a factor of sixteen to one.
The lack of ammunition due to boxes being "screwed down" was given as the main reason for the British defeat. This has been disproven by historical records and archaeological evidence. The ammo boxes were screwed down, but they were designed to be opened in a hurry by knocking off the center section of the lid. This is clearly demonstrated in a scene near the end of the battle where a rifle butt is used to knock out the panel. The real main reason for the loss of the camp was that the firing lines were too far out and spread, reducing the effectiveness of the British volley fire. Also, the Martini Henry rifles started to jam and misfire after prolonged firing, allowing the Zulus, who had suffered terrible losses, to close with the firing lines, and overwhelm them in mass charges.
Isandhlwana, where the battle took place, is a location in KwaZulu-Natal province that has been described as a hill and a mountain. It is sixteen kilometers (ten miles) from the area known as Rorke's Drift, which was the location of the battle depicted in Zulu (1964). Although the terrain shown in this movie is approximately what the actual terrain was like, the hilly, mountainous terrain shown in Zulu (1964) was nothing like the flatlands of the real Rorke's Drift.
Although Burt Lancaster was widely felt to be miscast as Colonel Durnford. He was not brought into the movie to attract audiences in North America, as he had not been considered a viable box-office star since the early 1960s.
This movie was based on an original story and scenario by Cy Endfield, who is also credited as writing its screenplay. Enfield was a producer, and the director and screenwriter of Zulu (1964). He was considered an expert on African history and the history of the Zulu nation, and was was slated to direct this movie, but died before production began. Douglas Hickox replaced him.
Closing credits epilogue: The Battle of Isandhlwana was recorded in history as the worst defeat ever inflicted on a modern army by native troops. In Parliament, upon the downfall of his government, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli asked the question: "Who are these Zulus. Who are these remarkable people who defeat our Generals, convert our Bishops, and who on this day have put an end to a great dynasty?"
The real-life Lord Chelmsford was able to save his job by fudging a lot of the facts, including inflating the size of the Zulu army from twenty thousand to sixty thousand and scapegoating Colonel Dunsford. Because of the less significant British victory at Rorke's Drift the same day, Chelmsford later even received a promotion due to the influence of his chief supporter, Queen Victoria.
To provide housing and accommodation for the thousands of personnel working on this movie, the production spent over one million dollars on constructing a pre-fabricated hut village. The mini city even included its own post office and bank. The housing settlement was located next to an unused farm in barren wilderness scrub about sixteen kilometers (ten miles) from Kwa Zulu, South Africa, where this movie was filming.
Although the oft-quoted figure of one thousand five hundred British troops killed in action is used to describe Isandlhwana, there were, in fact, only about seven hundred British soldiers killed in the battle. The rest of the number killed were African auxiliaries and European militia.
This was shown on ITV on Boxing Day 1980, less than eighteen months after its initial release, which was very unusual at the time. The theatrical window for movies on television was at least three years then.
The events in this movie take place about two and a half years after the infamous "Battle of the Little Big Horn", a.k.a. "Custer's Last Stand", which was the most serious defeat incurred by the U.S. Cavalry against an Indian force. General George Armstrong Custer died along with two hundred fifty-seven of his soldiers, over half of his command. The Indians kept no records, but estimates are that as many as three hundred, out of a force of up to two thousand five hundred warriors, were killed.
After the downfall of his government, the British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, asked the question in parliament: "Who are these Zulus, who are these remarkable people who defeat our generals, convert our bishops and who on this day have put an end to a great dynasty?" .