As with most sequels, especially when they're made nearly two decades later, 'Zulu Dawn' isn't quite the epic war drama the filmmakers imagined it to be. It's not nearly as good and memorable as its predecessor, the classic 1964 'Zulu' which depicts the Battle of Rorke's Drift. Yet, the film, which sees Cy Endfield return to this historical event only as co-writer with Anthony Story, makes for a strong companion piece to Endfield's enthralling portrait of the dramatized battle between the British Army and the Zulu kingdom in 1879. In its own right, this Douglas Hickox-directed war feature offers a good deal to admire, starting with the captivating cinematography of South Africa by Ousama Rawi, which gives the landscape a distant but romantic feel.
Although not as poignant or penetrating as its predecessor, 'Zulu Dawn' does offer several incisive moments on imperial rule, seeming tyrannical and despotically harsh, and the sheer stupidity of arrogance. As the title cleverly and somewhat romantically implies, the film is a prequel to the original, depicting the events that led to a massive confrontation between the two nations and demonstrated to the world that a great power must eventually fall, usually by the most unexpected enemy. Revisiting it again after many years, and with very recent history in mind, it's fascinating to watch and hear military action justified as a preemptive measure, largely due to fear and racial prejudice. As the plot unfolds, painting the invading British army in a negative light becomes a bit too apparent.
Nevertheless, the story maintains a steady and appealing pace, with several minor complications building towards the inevitable confrontation history well remembers — the knowledge of which adds an underlying sense of tragedy to the boastful dinner gatherings of prim-and-proper, completely oblivious officers. Simon Ward ('Young Winston' and as Bishop Stephen Gardiner in Showtime's 'The Tudors') stars as the young and ambitious Lt. William Vereker, whose high-society seriousness and enthusiasm for war are soon questioned when witnessing prisoner torture. Burt Lancaster is the sympathetic and thoughtful Colonel Durnford, commanding an African troop during the Battle of Isandlwana, the fight preceding the battle depicted in the original 'Zulu.' And Bob Hoskins ('Who Framed Roger Rabbit?') shows up as vehement, stalwart Sergeant Williams fighting to the bitter end as the fearfully brash soldier he is.
At the center of this company of actors is the outstanding Peter O'Toole. His performance as Lord Chelmsford feels largely reserved and arguably unremarkable, but it's this very feeling of distance which reveals his wonderfully subtle approach to the role. Throughout, the man's arrogance as commander of the British forces in South Africa are made very clear with scenes of silver-plate luncheons and his refusal to hear advice from his subordinates. With O'Toole in the role, the character is a frustrating individual who we can also feel sorry for, because the damage caused by his pride and stubbornness isn't realized until much too late. The most memorable moment, however, probably comes from Peter Vaughan ('Game of Thrones') as Quartermaster Bloomfield, exemplifying the sort of foolish behavior and decision-making done at the time of battle when he remains vigilant to his administration duties and inadvertently causing an ammunition shortage.
Unfortunately, many of these positives feel somewhat lost and go slightly unnoticed amid an attempt to give each of the characters equal weight in the first act, slowing everything down almost to the point of boredom. It's not difficult to quickly learn that these soldiers are about to face a devastating defeat, especially since the previous film begins at the site of this embarrassing loss to the British Empire. Tensions don't really begin to seriously mount until about halfway into the runtime, leaving the final encounter, as entertaining and spectacular as it is, to feel a bit rushed and indecipherably chaotic. In the end, 'Zulu Dawn' has its moments and its strengths outnumber its negligible drawbacks, making it a good companion piece to Cy Endfield's 1964 war classic.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Severin Films brings 'Zulu Dawn' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack: one a Region Free, BD25 while the other a DVD-9. Both discs are housed inside a blue eco-elite case on opposing panels. At startup, the Blu-ray goes straight to a standard menu selection with a silent static screen.
The epic prequel makes its way to Blu-ray with a fairly strong but mostly average 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1).
Although the print used for this high-def transfer appears to be in great shape, it's clear early on that minimal effort was made for this remaster, yet some minor digital alterations are apparent, such as very mild and thankfully unobtrusive noise reduction. There is also a good deal of ringing visible in some spots, I suspect some contrast boosting, made all the more obvious when whites tend to run a tad hotter than normal. Definition and clarity aren't affected to any devastating levels, as the video displays plenty of excellent detailing in the foliage, uniforms and in the African landscape. There are, however, many sequences which are softer and blurrier than others, but the picture is pleasing to the eye for the most part.
Primaries benefit the most, particularly the reds, looking vibrant and energetic for a majority of the runtime. Sadly, this is also a bit inconsistent as they can fade slightly in several spots while secondary hues remain passable and fair. Blacks, on the other hand, are surprisingly opulent and accurate, providing the movie with its most attractive feature. Overall, it's not a bad presentation, but it's not the best the historical war drama can be. One day perhaps, it will receive the proper restoration it deserves.
The DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack is in a similar boat as the video, which, again, is not a bad thing, but it's not great either.
For the most part, the lossless mix is free of any major artifacts or troubling issues. In fact, the mid-range is quite pleasing and somewhat extensive. With perfectly clear and audible dialogue reproduction in the center, imaging feels wide and broad with plenty of detailed activity spread across the screen. Gunshots, explosions and other atmospheric effects are discrete with good separation between the highs and mids. Low bass is equally plentiful and punchy, although the majority of the frequencies are understandably located in the upper ranges.
Where the design begins to show some issues is towards the end of the film, mostly during the third act and amid the heart of battle. The highest frequencies exhibit some noticeable distortion and clipping, as if the codec is having trouble with too much on-screen activity. Still, this is only minor issue and easily overlooked. Altogether, the high-rez track is not a complete disappointment, but it's clear it, too, could benefit from a proper restoration and remaster.
A prequel to the 1964 war classic, 'Zulu Dawn' portrays the events which led to that historical battle between the British and the Zulus with mostly entertaining results. With a fantastic cast leading the charge, the film has a good deal worth admiring and makes a nice companion piece to the original, but it's doesn't quite match the stature and greatness of its predecessor. The Blu-ray arrives with a mostly average audio and video presentation, yet it shows potential if given the proper restoration and remaster. Supplements are very light but entertaining nonetheless, making the overall package a respectable purchase for fans.