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A&E Home Video presents
"Tell him these gifts come with the compliments of his brother, King George."
DVD ReviewBecause of its popularity on American cable television, Shaka Zulu has become one of the most important films in shaping American percept of the tribal history of Southern Africa. Decades of history are compressed into ten 50-minute episodes. The first thing I felt about Shaka Zulu upon finishing the viewing of this epic was that they probably did not need ten parts to tell the story of the African Warrior King. Long epic films need to be long because of the immensity of a story in deed or character. Here, we are often lacking in both and instead often find superficially drawn characters engaging in long scenes in which little or nothing happens.
This is not to say that Shaka Zulu is not compelling television and is not full of outstanding performances and dramatic storytelling. It is rather the need for an editor to reign in some of the extraneous material. With all "historical" movies, one must approach the story with healthy skepticism as to its accuracy, both factually and idealogically. There is some controvery over the political agendas that are promoted in the way that Shaka's story is told in this film. It is always difficult to penetrate the haze of lies, generalizations, justifications, obfuscations that pass for factual "history." Fact and fiction join together in even the most strict documentarian efforts and here, in a fictional setting, one is wise to reserve judgement on occasion.
High marks should be accorded to Shaka Zulu for attempting to tell the story from the perspective of the Zulus in a reasonably realistic and captivating style. The short interview with director William Faure in the extras shows that he was enthusiastic in his attempt to portray the Zulus properly. Although, ultimately Eurocentric because of economic reasons, still there is much to be learned in seeing these incredible people in something that resembles how it was in Southeastern Africa.
The man who to become King Shaka of the Zulu was born in the late 18th century to Nandi (Dudu Mkhize), the daughter of a chieftain and the chieftain of the Zulu clan, Senzagakon (Conrad Magwaza). But the out-of-wedlock pregnancy was not accepted and Shaka grew up fatherless among people who despised him. His only companion was his mother, who was also despised. As he grew he became a warrior of supreme confidence and through his aggressiveness and intelligence built a new fighting style and developed the legendary Zulu stabbing spear. Through his own courage and his royal blood, Shaka ascended to rule over all the nearby tribes and began to lead his people to conquer large areas of Southeast Africa. The arrival of Europeans changed everything for Shaka and the Zulu nation.
Robert Powell is Dr. Henry Flynn, who saves the life of a young girl and through this seeming magic, buys time for the whites to survive until they can cynically learn enough about the Zulus to manipulate their politics. It is rare for a film about colonialism to explore this method of subjugating native tribes. Although to their credit, the whites in this film are not particular pleased with some of the things they must do to stay alive in the alien environment of the Zulu nation: at one point they convice Shaka that hair dye equals a fountain of youth and makes him immortal.
Edward Fox portrays soldier/adventurer Lt. Francis Farewell, who is sent to find ways for the British to ultimately dominate the Zulus, and he is the most conflicted character among the white men. British to the core, he is, however, able to look above the interests of nationalism to a larger purpose. Yet, he is willing to use any trick in the book to achieve his ends as he understands them. As an adventurer, Farewell is cut in the "Chinese" Gordon or Lawrence of Arabia mode. In a similar way that Prince Faisal referred to Lawrence, Shaka might say, "Protect me from these jungle-loving Englishmen."
Conflict between Flynn and Farewell dramatizes the conflict among whites about dealing with the native peoples. The film covers the entire fact and mythology of the life of Shaka from the prophecies and mysteries of his birth, through his rise to power, rule of his nation and his eventual downfall. Mixed in are aspects of British colonial expansion into Southern Africa and their relationship with the Zulu.
Although a commanding presence, Henry Cele as Shaka is obviously an inexperienced actor. The sheer breadth of his role weakens the overall production and certainly his performance would have been helped by a shorter runtime. Dudu Mikhize and Conrad Magwaza are both excellent in their portrayal of Shaka's parents; Magwaza shines in the flashback sequences to a simpler time among the tribes, and his courtship sequences with Nandi are lovely, even though the politics of their tribes cause serious problems later when she is pregnant.
In such a long film, there are inevitably uneven aspects. Shaka Zulu has some powerful and compelling scenes but also features a great deal of tedium. This sort of presentation makes me wonder if we will ever see a time when there is an alteration in form for a series like this. Perhaps a four-hour film with six hours of extras might be appropriate here. However, as it stands, a remarkable accomplishment.
Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: The image quality for Shaka Zulu is typical for a transfer of a television production of its era. The transfer is a bit soft with contrast occasionally suffering in darker scenes. Print flaws appear on occasion. Outdoor scenes usually look best and colors are satisfactory. I don't know that I have ever seen a film with so many shades of brown from skin tones, to clothing, and landscapes.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Shaka Zulu's soundtrack is an acceptable Dolby 2.0. but has some unintelligible moments. Overall, the music is a pastiche of native sounds and modern style. The stereo quality lends a decent ambience to the film. A dubbed French Dolby 2.0 track is also included.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 60 cues and remote access
Packaging: Box Set
Extras Review: The set is fairly light on special features. A nine-minute featurette offers interviews with director William C. Faure and actress Dudu Mkhise about the making of the series and its effects on South Africa. A short textual history essay is somewhat superflous it would seem, as it captures only the barest of details of the history of Shaka. Better would be some information that places the story into a better world historical context. We also get a stills gallery of over 20 production photos and, in probably the most interesting extra, a half dozen pre-production sketches for the series. Subtitles would have been beneficial.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsTruly an epic in length, Shaka Zulu suffers from some flaws, yet still tells a compelling and interesting tale of the African Warrior King and his confrontation with the white infiltration of his world in this four-DVD set.
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