Zulu Dawn

Zulu Dawn is a 1979 American adventure war film about the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 in South Africa. The screenplay was by Cy Endfield, from his book, and Anthony Storey. The film was directed by Douglas Hickox. The score was composed by Elmer Bernstein.

Zulu Dawn
film poster by Tom Chantrell
Directed byDouglas Hickox
Produced byNate Kohn
James Sebastian Faulkner
Written byCy Endfield
Anthony Storey
StarringPeter O'Toole
Burt Lancaster
John Mills
Simon Ward
Denholm Elliott
Michael Jayston
Ronald Pickup
Bob Hoskins
Ronald Lacey
Music byElmer Bernstein
CinematographyOusama Rawi
Edited byMalcolm Cooke
Distributed byAmerican Cinema Releasing
Release date
  • 15 May 1979 (1979-05-15)
Running time
117 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$8.5 million[1] ($27.6 million in 2018 dollars.[2])

Zulu Dawn is a prequel to Zulu, released in 1964, which depicts the historical Battle of Rorke's Drift later the same day, and was co-written and directed by Cy Endfield.


The film is set in British South Africa, in the province of Natal, in January 1879. The first act of the film revolves around the administrators and officials of Cape Colony, notably the supremely arrogant Lord Chelmsford and the scheming Sir Henry Bartle Frere, who both wish to crush the neighbouring Zulu Empire, which is perceived as a threat to Cape Colony's emerging industrial economy. Bartle Frere issues an impossible ultimatum to the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, demanding that he dissolve the Zulu Empire. Cetshwayo refuses, providing Cape Colony with a pretext to invade Zululand. Despite objections from leading members of Cape Colony's high society and from Great Britain itself, Bartle Frere authorises Lord Chelmsford to lead a British invasion force into Zululand.

The rest of the film focuses on the British invasion of Zululand and the lead-up to the Battle of Isandlwana. The invading British army, laden with an immense network of supply wagons, invades Zululand and marches in the direction of Ulundi, the Zulu capital. British forces, eager to fight a large battle in which they can unleash their cutting-edge military technology against the vast Zulu army, become increasingly frustrated as the main Zulu army refuses to attack the British, and fighting is restricted to a few small skirmishes between British and Zulu scouts. Concerned that their supply lines are becoming overstretched and that the main Zulu army is still at large, British troops begin torturing captive Zulu warriors in an effort to learn the location and tactics of the Zulu army. Halfway to Ulundi, Chelmsford halts his army at the base of Mount Isandhlwana, ignoring the advice of Boer attendants to entrench the camp and laager the supply wagons, leaving the camp dangerously exposed. During the night, Colonel Durnford and an escort of fifty mounted Basutos approach the camp. Lord Chelmsford then orders Durnford to return to his unit, bringing them to the camp immediately to reinforce Colonel Pulleine. Lt. Vereker should join Durnford as aide-de-camp.

Reacting to false intelligence, Chelmsford leads half of the British army, including the best infantry, cavalry and artillery units, on a wild goose chase far from the camp, in pursuit of a phantom Zulu army. On the day of battle, Durnford and his troops arrive at 11:00 a.m. at the camp at Isandlwana. Meanwhile, the Zulu captives escape from their torturers and regroup with the Zulu army, informing them of the British army's direction and strength. After having lunch with Colonel Pulleine and Lt. Vereker, Durnford quickly decides to send Vereker to scout the hills. Durnford then decides to take his own command out from the camp too, and scout the iNyoni heights.

The entire Zulu army is later discovered by men of Lt. Vereker's troop of scouts. Chasing a number of Zulu herdsmen trying to hurry away their cattle, they discover the main Zulu enemy force of thousands at the bottom of a valley. Lt. Vereker sends Lt. Raw to warn the camp that it is about to be attacked.

As Zulu impis descend upon the camp, Durnford's cavalry retreat to a donga in an effort to hold back the Zulu advance. Forced back, the British take heavy casualties, including the battery of Hale rockets, which is overrun by the Zulus. Initially, the British infantry succeed in defending the camp, and Zulu forces retreat under a hail of artillery fire. British units defending the camp are now becoming dangerously spread-out, and are oblivious to Zulu forces moving round the sides of the mountain in an encircling move. As British infantrymen begin to run out of ammunition due to the Quartermaster's incompetent distribution and the British cavalry are driven back towards the camp, Zulu warriors charge the British troops en masse, sustaining horrific casualties, but succeed in breaking the British lines.

As British troops break and flee towards the camp, the battle breaks down into hand-to-hand fighting between British soldiers and Zulu warriors, amongst the débris of tents, fallen soldiers and supply wagons. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of Zulu warriors, British soldiers and their Afrikaner allies are slaughtered in the camp, some being cut down as they attempt to flee towards Natal. During the last minutes of the battle, the camp's commander, Colonel Pulleine, entrusts the Queen's Colours of the 2nd battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot to two junior officers, Lts. Melvill and Coghill, who attempt to carry them to safety in Natal, passing gruesome scenes as Zulu warriors hunt down British and Afrikaner infantrymen attempting to flee across the river. Pulleine was speared in his tent during the skirmish.

While crossing the Buffalo River, the three lieutenants are cut down by Zulus and the Colours (a Union Flag embroidered with the Regiment's insignia) are captured. Lying wounded, perhaps mortally, Vereker shoots and kills the Zulu wielding the Colours, and the Colours fall gracefully into the river, where they are carried out of reach.

In the evening, Chelmsford and the rest of the British army return to Isandlwana, to be greeted by the sight of their slaughtered comrades, and the news that a mass Zulu army has invaded Natal and laid siege to Rorke's Drift. The film ends with Zulu warriors in a silhouetted victory procession, dragging captured British artillery back to Ulundi.



  • Peter O'Toole as Lt. General Lord Chelmsford. The arrogant commander of British forces in South Africa, Chelmsford is eager to advance his military career by crushing neighbouring Zululand, believing that "for the savage as for the child, chastisement is sometimes a blessing". During the invasion, Chelmsford refuses to listen to advice from his British and Boer advisers, and from the comfort of his tent and personal coach, authorises his troops to torture Zulu captives. On the day of the battle, Chelmsford commits a cardinal error in splitting his forces. While the troops at Isandlwana fight for their lives, Chelmsford and his equally arrogant officers, a few miles away, enjoy a silver-service luncheon. Chelmsford is last seen arriving at the site of the battle several hours later, mortified by the defeat of his soldiers, absorbing the news that the victorious Zulu army has invaded Natal. Chelmsford's arrogance was mixed with incompetence as he left unclear instructions to those left behind at Isandlwana including which officer was in charge, Durnford or Pulleine. Chelmsford would later lay the blame for the disaster on Colonel Durnford.
  • Burt Lancaster as Colonel Anthony Durnford. Commander of a large force of the Natal Native Contingent (NNC), Britain's African allies, Durnford is a humane officer who expresses concern for the lives and welfare of his African troops. When war breaks out, Durnford, much to his chagrin, is ordered to remain in Natal and defend the border rather than accompany the invasion force. His troops are ultimately called to reinforce the invasion army, and on the day of battle, Durnford and his African cavalrymen are driven into the camp at Isandlwana. As the British forces break apart, the one-armed Durnford becomes trapped in the camp. Hoping to save his men, Durnford orders his African cavalrymen to retreat. Remaining on foot at the battlefield, Durnford is killed alongside his infantrymen. Durnford would later be painted by Chelmsford as the scape-goat for the disaster.
  • Denholm Elliott as Colonel Henry Pulleine. A mild-mannered man, Pulleine is a military bureaucrat who accompanies the army into Zululand, and finds himself left in command of the camp at Isandlwana after Chelmsford leaves on a sortie. News of the approaching Zulu army unnerves Pulleine, and his overstretched troops are unable to defend the camp. After having entrusted the Union Flag to Lts. Melvill and Coghill, Pulleine returns to his tent to pen a last letter to his wife. He is discovered by an escaped Zulu prisoner and, unwilling to shoot the young soldier, the elderly Pulleine is killed in his tent.
  • James Faulkner as Lieutenant Teignmouth Melvill. Portrayed as an arrogant and overconfident man, when a lone Zulu warrior calls from the mountain asking why British forces are invading, Melvill replies, "we come here by the order of the great Queen Victoria, Queen of all Africa!" Towards the end of the battle, Melvill carries the Queen's Colours back towards Natal, bypassing British infantrymen being killed as they flee towards the river. Melvill reaches the river border between Zululand and Natal, but is speared by Zulu warriors while defending the flag.
  • Christopher Cazenove as Lieutenant Coghill. A polite and humorous young officer, Coghill is temporarily attached to Colonel Pulleine's staff, due to an injured leg which requires him to ride on horseback. Coghill has a close friendship with Lt. Melvill, and during the invasion he expresses dissatisfaction at Chelmsford's strategy. Towards the end of the battle, Coghill accompanies Melvill in his attempt to escort the Queen's Colours back to Natal. When Melvill nearly drowns while trying to cross the Buffalo River, Coghill turns to help him, but they are ambushed by Zulu warriors. Coghill tries to defend the flag with his revolver, but is killed.
  • Simon Ward as Lt. William Vereker. A young officer who has recently attached to Durnford's command, Vereker is a light-hearted cavalry officer eager to see war. Vereker's enthusiasm, though, evaporates as he sees Zulu warriors tortured and slain by British troops. Vereker and his men discover the main Zulu army on the morning of the battle, and as British lines collapse, Vereker accompanies Lts. Melvill and Coghill in an effort to return the Queen's Colours to Natal. Zulu warriors attack and kill Melvill and Coghill, and seize the Colours. Vereker, despite his injuries, takes aim with his rifle and shoots the Zulu wielding the Colours, ensuring that they fall into the Buffalo River, where they float downstream. Vereker's fate remains unknown.
  • Bob Hoskins as Colour Sergeant Williams. The loud, aggressive Williams, a high-ranking NCO, is both feared and respected by his troops, but displays genuine concern, taking the young Private Williams under his wing. During the battle, Williams loses many of his infantrymen during hand-to-hand fighting, and is injured while defending a group of unarmed artillerymen. Williams is stabbed in the back while attempting to rescue Private Williams, and having killed several warriors with his bayonet, dies amid a large wave of Zulus.
  • Peter Vaughan as Quartermaster Bloomfield. An elderly and jovial war veteran who claims, somewhat dubiously, to have been the bugler for the Duke of Wellington. Bloomfield is a military administrator responsible for overseeing the invasion force's supply network. Bloomfield takes a young bugler, Boy Pullen (Phil Daniels) under his wing, but his compassion does not extend to the NNC's black soldiers, who he sees as little more than savage animals. During the battle, Bloomfield refuses to bypass regulations requiring that ammunition be dispensed in small, properly recorded quantities, causing an ammunition shortage that forces British troops to retreat. Bloomfield is injured when his ammunition wagon explodes, which kills Boy Pullen, and is himself killed when a Zulu warrior impales him from behind.
  • Michael Jayston as Colonel Crealock. An officer of the Royal Artillery and lickspittle to his commander, Colonel Crealock acts as Lord Chelmsford's secretary, constantly expressing his agreement with Chelmsford's decisions. He accompanies Chelmsford's expedition away from Isandhlwana, and is seen idly sketching the landscape. When questioned by Newman on the logic of splitting the British army, Crealock acidly replies that the Zulus' primitive weaponry does not pose any real threat. When Lieutenant Harford relays news from Isandhlwana with an urgent request for reinforcements, Crealock lectures Harford on military etiquette, and does nothing to facilitate the request. Crealock is last seen with Chelmsford after returning to the devastated camp, bringing news of an ongoing battle at Rorke's Drift and a Zulu invasion of Natal.
  • Ronald Pickup as Lieutenant Harford. A well-meaning officer of the NNC, Harford distinguishes himself from his colleagues through his concern for his African soldiers, and is appalled by his superior's lack of concern for the lives of native workers, and by Chelmsford's casual attitude to the torture of Zulu captives. On the day of the battle, Harford accompanies Chelmsford's column. During the early stages of the battle, a rider dispatched by Colonel Pulleine to catch up with Chelmsford's army brings an urgent request for reinforcements. His message is ignored, and Harford is denied permission to return to Isandhlwana. He is last seen in the evening, weeping at the bodies of young soldiers.
  • Ronald Lacey as Norris "Noggs" Newman. A war correspondent for The Standard, Norris-Newman accompanies the army into Zululand to report on the war. Newman is deeply critical of Chelmsford, frequently pointing out his tactical errors, making no effort to conceal his contempt for the general. Newman appears to have more knowledge of the Zulus than the officers, and expresses sympathy for the tribe, who stand little chance against Western warfare. Newman accompanies Chelmsford's expedition and is last seen with Chelmsford, staring at the devastation of the battlefield.
  • John Mills as Sir Henry Bartle Frere. The British High Commissioner for South Africa who provokes the war by issuing King Cetshwayo with an impossible ultimatum. Viewing the Zulus as savage barbarians, Bartle Frere believes that the war will provide "a final solution to the Zulu problem." Frere is last seen on the night of the British invasion, and is not seen again after this.


  • Simon Sabela as King Cetshwayo. King of Zululand, Cetshwayo is depicted as a peaceful and effective ruler, eager to avoid war but unwilling to compromise Zululand's security by agreeing to Bartle Frere's ultimatum. Cetshwayo is concerned that mobilising his armies will leave a chronic labour shortage, and is eager to defeat the British army in time for his soldiers to return and gather the harvest. Cetshwayo is last seen in his kraal at Ulundi, reluctantly announcing a state of war between Zululand and Cape Colony.
  • Ken Gampu as Mantshonga. A Zulu regarded as a traitor by Cetshwayo because of his support for a rival claimant to the Zulu throne, Mantshonga delivers him the British ultimatum to Cetshwayo and returns his response.
  • Abe Temba as Uhama. A leading general and strongman in the Zulu army, Uhama masterminds various schemes to confuse British forces, using scouts to gain intelligence on the British army, and small raiding parties to confuse their scouts on the whereabouts of Zulu impis. Uhama realises he must overwhelm the British while they are exposed and vulnerable; and that an open battle would result in a crushing Zulu defeat. He keeps his impis hidden, allowing the invaders to progress deep into Zululand, waiting for them to commit an error that will give the impis the opportunity to overwhelm the British before they have time to commit their technology to the battle. While chasing a Boer scout, Uhama instructs three of his warriors to allow themselves to be captured by the British, who eventually escape and advise Uhama on British weaknesses. In contrast to the British commanders, Uhama displays immense bravery, and is last seen leading his warriors into the débâcle of the British camp, where he is shot and presumably killed.
  • Gilbert Tiabane as Bayele. The son of King Cetshwayo, he leads several scouting missions to gain intelligence on British forces. Under orders from Uhama, Bayele allows himself to be captured by cavalrymen of the NNC, and with two other warriors, is taken to the camp at Isandhlwana. While lashed to wagon wheels, Bayele and his two comrades are beaten but only reveal false information. Bayele later uses a distraction in the camp to kill the sentry guarding them and release his two comrades, and the three escape and return to Uhama. Bayele takes part in the assault on the camp, and by chance finds himself face-to-face with Colonel Pulleine in the command tent. Pulleine, recognising Bayele as the tortured prisoner, is unwilling to shoot the young soldier, and Bayele seizes the opportunity to kill him.


The script was originally written by Cy Endfield.[3]

The Lamitas Property Investment Corporation raised money for the film. They financed a series of films, including several in South Africa, such as The Wild Geese (1978). The company committed about £5 million to Zulu Dawn, most of it raised from a Swiss bank, the Banque de Paris et des Pay Bas.[4] HBO helped guarantee finance.[5]

John Hurt was cast in a lead role but was refused entry to South Africa. This confused Hurt who was not particularly political. It was thought South African Intelligence may have confused him with the actor John Hurd, who was a draft dodger.[6]


Filming was difficult. Black extras received less than £3 a day. Norma Foster was a liaison between the South African government (notably the Minister of Information, Dr Connie Mulder) and the filmmakers; she later claimed the producers owed her £20,000. The co producers, James Faulkner and Barry St Clare, claimed they were owed £100,000 in deferred fees. Over 100 creditors in South Africa claimed they were owed £250,000. The producers sought an injunction to block screening of the film until they were paid. Lamitas denied liability for the money, claiming expenses exceeded the agreed budget. They offered to settle for 25p in the pound.[4]

There was further controversy when it was discovered the Zulu extras were being paid $2.70 a day but the dog was being paid $4.50 a day.[7]

Jake Eberts was involved in raising finance for the film. He had to guarantee Burt Lancaster's salary when Lancaster's agent insisted on one. This meant Eberts was liable for the loan. In 1983 the interest made this £450,000. Eberts spent years paying it back.[8]


Despite having a large budget and being designed to complement the hugely successful film Zulu, the film was not well received and did not fare particularly well at the box office.[9]


  1. Tiiu Lukk, "Filming "Zulu Dawn" on Location in South Africa", American Cinematographer, Vol. 60, No. 2, February 1979
  2. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved 2 January 2019.
  3. Cy's is right to type fast: Small businesses bureau Dineen, Michael. The Observer 18 June 1978: 16.
  4. Beresford, D. (1979, Aug 10). Zulu victory starts a second battle.. The Guardian
  5. BUSY BUYING FOR TELEVISION The Irish Times 25 May 1979: 10.
  6. London Diary Hall, Ruth. New Statesman; London Vol. 96, Iss. 2471, (Jul 28, 1978): 119.
  7. "A High Shine for Olivier's Star" Los Angeles Times (20 July 1978): i15.
  8. Eberts, Jake; Illott, Terry (1990). My indecision is final. Faber and Faber. p. 156-157.
  9. "Zulu Dawn". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
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