April 20, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: Zulu Dawn

Film: Zulu Dawn (Douglas Hickox, 1979)
Role: Lord Chelmsford

Based on the real-life disastrous Battle of Isandlwana between British troops and Zulu warriors, Zulu Dawn recounts what is still the worst ass-whopping of any army by native forces. The highly efficient, trained British, equipped with the most modern rifles, were decimated by a much smaller force of Zulus outfitted with spears and loincloths. O'Toole plays Lord Chelmsford, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces, who rather arrogantly luxuriates at a lush African mansion, entertaining military guests before the battle begins. The scene demonstrates the strained relations between the British and the Africans, many of whom serve as servants and even as auxiliary fighting forces.

The real power of the film is in its realistic and gritty portrayal of tactical manouvers and director Hickox's ground-level detail. Most of the screentime is given to character actors playing the unnamed British and Zulu soldiers. Its their boredom, their pain, and their deaths we're privy to. According to historical record, they're disposed of as swiftly as they would have been in battle. Unlike a Hollywood film, their deaths are not glorious and the camera does not linger on them with a swelled musical score. They die and the battle continues. Zulu Dawn is filled with sobering moments of realism that allow the viewer to marvel at the wanton destruction of war and reflect on its ultimate futility.

The one Hollywood touch is the brilliant and now legendary score from Elmer Bernstein. It's used only sparsely in the film but when it is, you can feel your blood pressure rise. The theme was recently used in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds to great effect.

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