This sprawling battle field epic tells the story of the 1879 Battle of Isandhlwana, pitting the forces of Britain against the Zulu nation. Director Douglas Hickox does a wonderful job within portraying both a great strategy on the side of the Zulu King and a blundering campaign as overseen by the pompous Peter O’Toole.
The plot within is a basic one but carried out in a solid strategy much like the Zulu King’s own battle. When the Zulu nation refuses to bow to British rule they tempt fate and the forces of O’Toole’s Lord Chelmsford. Crossing into the Zulu lands O’Toole leads a military force including Burt Lancaster as a cavalry officer, Simon Ward and Denholm Elliott. The problem is they don’t take the native forces seriously. This Zulu King is not portrayed as an ignorant man of royalty who can be swayed by a handful of beads and mirrors. He’s a fierce leader and a sharp strategist.
Once in Zulu lands, O’Toole makes a huge error in judgement by dividing his forces leaving the actors of note in harm’s way. While they begin to realize the forces moving against them are formidable, O’Toole and his officers are dining under tents in the field while surveying the lands and maps to discuss there next movements. Thus he has signed the death warrants of the others with little respect for the warriors he has come to face down.
“Like a black wave of death.” This is a perfect statement from one of the soldiers under the charge of Elliott as he describes to the young recruits what they can expect as the natives close in. The Zulu warriors seem to float across the fields as they swarm in units down upon the doomed British forces continually charging despite losing a large number of foot soldiers to the incoming spray of bullets.
Manning the front lines as the Sergeant in charge is the gruff and heavily bearded Bob Hoskins who fights like a demon possessed as the Zulu tribe swarm his platoon. There’s a great clip of the rough and ready Hoskins as he winks at a raw recruit facing battle for the first and ultimately last time.
Even in the final battle the British forces on the front lines are ill prepared for the swarming warriors. It’s a comedy of errors as they continually run out of ammunition with the quarter master in charge trying to keep things orderly as he hands out bullets and powder by the book while men are dying all around him.
Denholm Elliott could have made a career out of playing weak minded military men. He does his duty here but you can sense that he hasn’t handled the situation with a firm hand. Simon Ward has the best role of the film as a gallant officer signing up for the fight knowing the power of the Zulu nation. His ride to carry the colors at the fade out is a standout action sequence.
The casting of Burt Lancaster is somewhat of a surprise and so is the accent that he attempts to put forth. True movie star that he is the script has him at odds with O’Toole and his laid back military approach which worries Lancaster. In rousing fashion befitting a star of Burt’s magnitude he will make a heroic final stand in the battle that one could compare to The Battle of Little Big Horn.
The thundering of horses and chants of the marauding Zulu warriors make for an intimidating large scale battle at the film’s climax expertly captured in up close and long range camera shots by Hickox. Mixed into the film is a solid score from Elmer Bernstein carrying the film along.
Also turning up in smaller roles are the well known faces of Sir John Mills, Nigel Davenport and Freddie Jones.
Perhaps not as famous or as well regarded as 1964’s Zulu starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine this unofficial prequel is well worth seeking out for both fans of battle films and the likes of Lancaster and O’Toole.