The story of the 1879 British defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana in South Africa, where Zulu warriors crushed her Majestys forces. A disaster that was put down to inept leadership.
Sixteen years after Zulu, this sturdy but inferior battle movie flips that film’s stalwart heroics on their head to study the make-up of a towering defeat rather than last ditch victory. Despite all the visual similarities, the class conflicts among the soldiers, the florid, endless spill of the countryside, and the fact Zulu’s director Cy Endfield co-wrote the script from his own novel, thematically this film shares more in common with Charge Of The Light Brigade and its debate on the tragic folly of having idiots in charge. It is also set, historically, before the heroic stand of Roark’s Drift that makes Zulu a minor classic, so you could count this as a prequel, but there is no real need.
Aiming to give a more PC Zulu side of the story, director Douglas Hickox rather over-eggs his good manners. In its slow-build toward the big battle, he spends his time cross-cutting between the rituals of imperialist invader with their starchy table manners and social cruelties and some National Geographic swoops amongst real natives. But, for all the effort, the film never quite pitches you onto neutral ground, as we get to know this batch of British actors and Burt Lancaster as a pessimistic local guide.
In the camp of red coats, things are very predictable. There is the stuffy top tier (Peter O’Toole, John Mills, Denholm Ellliott) bungling local diplomacy and mismanaging their own. There are the dashingly heroic officers (Simon Ward, Christopher Cazenove, Nicholas Clay) who, for the sake of honour and putting on a good-show, do their darndest to save the day. And there are those salt-of-the-earth privates who will take the brunt of the Zulu attack (Bob Hoskins, Peter Vaughn). Given the distance from the making of Zulu, it is surprising how less almighty the final action scenes feel in comparison. The cinematography may be lavish, but the choreography of the fighting uninspired. It was a big defeat all round.
Always to be applauded when an attempt is made at tackling the subject of the futility of war on film but this unfortunately falls short in many ways.