"Have we weaknesses, Quartermaster?"

We take a break from our ongoing series for a one-off that sees the return of Cinema Gratia. This time, we look at the 1979 film, Zulu Dawn.

Recounting true events, albeit with a dramatic flair, the film tells the tale of the Battle of Isandlwana; a battle in which the British suffered one of the greatest defeats of a modern army against a technologically inferior enemy [1].  Like a black wave, the 20,000 strong Zulu army swept over the 1,700 soldiers of the 24th Regiment, NNC (Natal Native Contingent), and other volunteers. When it was all said and done, 858 men of the 24th Regiment were dead, along with nearly 500 hundred volunteers and blacks [2].  

The film is charged with social commentary, walking a tightrope between nostalgia and derision, as it takes on issues of colonialism and classism in Victorian life.  A slow burn, Zulu Dawn gradually (forebodingly) builds to the climactic final battle at Isandlwana, delivering a set-piece that helps to convey the chaos, violence, and overwhelming sense of doom experienced by the British at Isandlwana. Even more, it displays an anti-war sentiment that was prevalent in films during the 70s. It was not a threat from the Zulus, but rather, politics and greed, that fueled the British invasion. And when it's all said and done, the film leaves the viewer asking: Who really wins in war?

Yet, perhaps more than anything else, Zulu Dawn, is a cautionary tale, warning against the folly of a false sense of superiority and the blinding power of pride.

No one epitomizes this in the film more than Lord Chelmsford. Peter O'Toole portrays him as the arrogant aristocrat who underestimates his enemy's military capabilities, and rejects the wisdom and insight of his allies due to rivalry and his own inflated sense of military prowess. At one point, Chelmsford compares the Zulus to children in need of the kindness of their chastisement, and in another scene, explains to a newspaper reporter that his only fear is that the Zulus may refuse to engage in open battle. Later, when challenged to reconsider his treacherous plan to split his force in two by Colonel Durnford, Chelmsford scoffs, posing the question: "Are you dictating the strategy of this war, sir?"

Throughout the proceedings, and the gleeful, adventurous way most of the British go about the invasion, the words of Proverbs 16:18 reverberate in the mind:

Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.

These words prove true, as Col. Pulleine (left in charge of the column at Isandlwana) fails to prepare adequate defenses, and, trusting in the technological advantages of his men, establishes too long and thin of a line to face the advancing Zulus. Due to the smoke, ammunition shortages, and the calculated strategy of the Zulus, the line proves unable to hold the hoards of warriors at bay.  Only hours later does he realize his mistakes, and, resigning himself to death, writes a final letter home before being stabbed by one of the Zulu warriors.  


The quartermaster, in a conversation with one of his men (Pullen) puts it best:

Zulu may not wear shoes or trousers and the like but it don't mean to say they got no brains. They'll watch us and wait and find our weaknesses.

Pullen replies with a question that goes unanswered: Have we weaknesses, Quartermaster? Yes, but not what you might think.  The Zulus had only to watch and wait for their weaknesses--not guns or courage, but rather pride and superiority--to show themselves in order to create the right moment to attack.  

Zulu Dawn has criticized for not giving equal time to both the British and Zulus, but I think this was intentional.  The film beckons us to identify with the British, but not in a heroic, honorable way. Rather, we're to consider how we reflect the same pride as Chelmsford, blindly trusting in our own strength and knowledge. We should see the ways we are more than capable of channeling the same sort of demeaning attitude (as the colonials did) towards those different than us, assuming that we are superior--be it socially, morally, or otherwise. And we should recognize the ways we can all too easily be motivated to sin and injustice by greed, power, and glory.  As a result, we're often led to our own destruction, bringing harm on those around us in the process. Have we weaknesses? Yes, we are flawed men and women in need of God's grace and renewing power.   

In the end, Zulu Dawn is not a great film. There is so much more that could have been explained, characters who could have been fleshed out, and plot-lines that are never resolved. Yet, one of the things I enjoy most about a historical film like this is seeing how contemporary filmmakers look back on past events.  Additionally, I enjoy knowing that history need not repeat itself if (by the Spirit of God) we will humble ourselves and seek the way of wisdom, truth, and grace. So take heed of the warning of Zulu Dawn, or you may find yourself faced with impending doom, death, and destruction.  


[1] Tony Pollard, "The Mountain is their Monument: An archeological Approach to the Lanscapes of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879," in Fields of Battle eds. Peter Doyle and Matthew R. Bennett (Dordtrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 118.  
[2] Ian Knight, Brave Men's Blood (London: Greenhill Books, 1996), 68.