Shaka Zulu Review

Shaka Zulu is one of the most famous South African's to ever have lived - born to a young woman named Indlovukazi Nandi, he was the illegitimate son of a Zulu chief - Inkosi Senzangakona. Soon after Shaka's birth his parents separated and Nandi took her son and a daughter back to her eLangeni tribe, where there were soon tormented everyday; this resulted in Shaka developing a strong resentment toward those who opposed him and his family. He would listen to his mother's advice and by his early twenties he became a soldier for the Mtetwa tribe. His skill and innovation impressed their leader Dingiswayo, who appointed that Shaka be trained in order to safeguard the Zulus future. Upon his death, Dingiswayo handed leadership of the tribe over to Shaka.

Shaka built up a huge army in a relatively quick period and demanded that he received loyalty and respect - failure to do so would mean death to anyone unable to carry out a request. As his army grew he developed new, unheard of tactics and created weapons that would see his tribe as invincible under a newly formed kingdom. Several clans had been brought together to create an all powerful tribe under Shaka's rule. Shaka had been responsible for the death of millions of people, including the Zulus, women and children as he strived to further expand his territories.

In 1824 the British paid visit to Natal and met with Shaka with the intention to form diplomatic relations. Shaka thought that they possessed power but he didn't know their true power lay in trickery. He signed over parts of his land and the English helped him to take over extending areas of South Africa. In 1828 after spells of insanity caused by the death of his mother, Shaka was murdered by his half brothers, one of whom, Dingaan, would soon seek leadership. Since that period Shaka's 'one nation' began to crumble; smaller clans began to disappear and an overall community had formed toward the end of this era. Since the death of Shaka the Zulu nation had fought to keep their land from British settlers, but in 1906 they finally succumbed. The once powerful kingdom that Shaka had faught hard to maintain had been stripped of its power, and it saw itself facing poverty and racism.

To this day, Shaka lives on in legend as a hero figure. He united the South African tribes and prevented Europe from dominating his land during his lifetime, despite his tyranny and thirst for blood. Director, William C. Faure takes a look at Shaka's life, from his birth to his eventual death at the age of 43.


Since airing in 1984 Shaka Zulu has come under scrutiny from many historians who claim that it offers a false interpretation of what really happened. Truth be told nobody knows in exact detail the rise and fall of Shaka but through word of mouth and stories passed down from generations of Zulu families, William C. Faure and scriptwriter Joshua Sinclair have merged various facts and taken dramatic licence for this cult series that has gone on to be highly successful around the world. It wouldn't be the first time and nor will it be the last that a director has taken certain liberties with an historical tale; Gladiator is a prime example of a film riddled with historical inaccuracies yet still has the power to convince audiences that what they're seeing may have happened. In order to enjoy Shaka Zulu you have to take away your doubt and wonder if the man could have actually lived his life this way.

Faure decided to make a series that would tell the tale from the Zulus' perspective. The Zulu never recorded history on paper for they didn't have the means to and in later years white historians had taken on the assumption that the Zulu people were barbaric, forgoing what it was that made them the people they were and practically ignoring the traditions of the people in their own ignorant way. And so Shaka Zulu forms a racial and political commentary that sees Faure trying to tell the story of "A great man" and his rise to power through hardships that have resulted from political ideals. He was an outcast who didn't believe that the tradition of his people was satisfactory enough for them to continue living in the same fashion and through his own ideals he strived to unite the people and create one nation under one "God" - himself.


Faure explores Shaka's life and tries to dispel all of the bad things that have been said about him and the misunderstandings of his teachings and philosophies. Much of the series is spent on flashbacks and traces in detail Shaka's rise, from a young, bullied boy to a warrior and ultimately a leader. Within this we have elements of spiritualism and mysticism in the form of the witch doctors that constantly oversee Shaka's actions and warn against a time when great suffering will result from his reign. For all that has been said about Shaka and his evil tyranny it seems to have been largely ignored that his people stuck by him. A lot of them had a great deal of respect for the man, their betrayal resulted in death but they often did not leave him when they could have. Shaka is depicted as an extremely intelligent man who changed the face of warfare but amidst his battle for supremacy he was also a good man. We see many sides to Shaka and throughout the series he is a likeable person, tormented by what has happened to him in the past and how his hatred growing up against certain suppressors has filled him with a desire for revenge.

The series depicts all sides fairly, from Shaka's loyal subjects to the other tribes that are not ready to form a united Africa under his rule and to the British who wanted to colonize the land. Each side gets their opinion voiced and thankfully it's done in a respectable manner, nobody is depicted as evil or better than anyone else and this is an appealing side to the series that doesn’t wallow in patriotism.

Religion is examined at times; often creating some of the finer moments during the series that sees Shaka try to understand what it is that made Christ such a great man. Shaka has his own ideas and for every excuse that Dr. Fynn makes, Shaka has a greater argument and these moments do cause a response that has the viewer often siding with Shaka's opinions but yet neither Christianity or the Zulus' religion is encouraged, simply it is used as a divider for what separates our races and beliefs and makes for enlightened viewing.


It's no mystery however as to how brutal the Zulu-Land people were but misconception has led to their ritualistic past times as being nothing more than barbaric and inexcusable. It's here that we begin to learn that there is more of a purpose to their ways. Lest not forget that Christianity has dealt with acts of extreme violence, from the crucifixion of Jesus to present day with ritual killings, the Zulu nation are no different in this respect. Faure doesn't shy away from showing us the graphic nature of the Zulu peoples' torture and murder at the hands of Shaka. In some of the more unsettling moments we become witness to the harrowing impaling of either disloyal subjects or simply those who Shaka has chosen to be sacrifices for the death of a more important being.

The problem that occurs is that Faure shows too much interest in this and it borders on a morbid obsession that does little in the way of justifying the means and more on showing just how far one man would go in order to demand respect, it's often these moments that further go to confuse the viewer as they decide just how great a man he was or wasn't. It's not that these rituals did not have a purpose but it is more to do with the fact that they are not explained for better understanding. Perhaps all we learn is that Shaka didn't care. Death to his own people would be enough, even if it didn't quench his thirst for revenge. Add to this the way that people are sacrificed in order to provide cushions for a loved one who has passed away, either having their neck broken or being buried alive. So simply a deeper look into the Zulus' philospohies behind these rituals would have been beneficial. It's for no one to judge but it does warrant some explanation for us to fully appreciate what it is that Faure is trying to tell us.

A lot of the Zulu life is shown in a fascinating display of ritualistic dances and other means of communication through much of the middle of the series' run. The main British cast is put to one side for more than half of the series as we go back to the past that sees Shaka's origins. Much time is spent on showing us the South African landscape and drawing out sequences such as the aforementioned dances. The series is nicely filmed but I can't help but feel that director, William C. Faure got a little carried away with himself. His fascination for detail in the ritual ceremonies drags out the series more than it needed to be. It is something that is interesting in shorter spells but it breaks up dialogue and more involving scenes too frequently and it becomes more like watching a National Geographic documentary. The flow of the series is damaged by this and more time could have been spent in explaining other things that were important to the development of the story.


Shaka Zulu was filmed entirely on location in Zulu-Land and much use is made from its scenery as Faure milks it for all it's worth from his helicopter. While the land is beautiful to see it is often repetitively shot and sometimes creates a sense of tedium. The aerial photography offers a more epic scale that casts the eye way into the never ending background and the battles have a good amount of energy put into them. At times Faure struggles to film these scenes with the scope they require, choosing some awkward angles and draining them from having any kind of excitement. Though these battles were likely to be messy in reality anyway, I don't suppose that he's done an overly bad job.

We do get into the heart of the Zulus' land though and with their full co-operation we're taken into their homes and given an insightful look as to the way they lived. Adding to the authentic locations are the living spaces of these people that are cramped and uncomfortable looking but homes they have adapted to.

The authenticity of the series is slightly marred by the fact that most of the dialogue is spoken in English. I know that many South Africans speak English and often mix it in with their own language but for the setting of this series it is a case of suspending disbelief once again as the Zulu people speak English to one another during a time before English settlers had even arrived on their land. The only times we hear the Zulu people speak in their native tongue is during moments that are obvious to the viewer, examples being when someone is required to leave or enter or say hello. For a show that would be released internationally and become huge in America it can only be assumed that this was deliberate in order to appeal to a western audience, however it is a little disappointing because Faure shows so much interest in many other aspects of the series and could well have provided subtitles. I would imagine that a less tolerating viewer would struggle to watch a ten part series that consisted mostly of the Zulu people conversing in their own language but then wouldn't that be ignorance itself?


Saying that, the actors playing the parts of various tribes do terrific jobs, most of them are inexperienced actors or real Zulu people in supporting roles in a huge cast that Faure demanded he wanted to see. Henry Cele takes on the demanding role of Shaka for his first role in television. Cele generates a great amount of intensity that is impressive for a first time actor, clearly suggesting that he has a great amount of passion for the role he is taking on. The former goalkeeper is in tremendous shape and looks like the kind of warrior that Shaka would have been. He provides a compelling Shaka and conveys each and every one of his emotions to the best of his ability, creating a believable person with a brilliant mind.

Dudu Mkhize as Shaka's mother, Nandi is also wonderfully cast. Again the importance of playing such an important role means that she works very hard to create a woman who is so well respected by many people. She fully embodies the "Queen of Queens", so named by her son and embraces Nandi's sensibilities to great effect. Conrad Magwaza is also noteworthy, as Shaka's father Senzangakona. He spends a considerable amount of time onscreen and like Henry Cele he has a huge amount of energy and presence. His portrayal of a leader on a continuing downfall is very impressive and his emotional range is great. Toward the end of his rule his frustrations and regrets are perfectly played out.

The series was marketed in a way that suggested the stars were an all-British ensemble and while the latter is true they are most certainly not the real stars. Robert Powell, Edward Fox, Fiona Fillerton, Christopher Lee, Gordon Jackson and Kenneth Griffin to name some are merely in the series for the beginning and closing chapters.

Edward Fox as Lt. Francis Farewell puts in a good performance as the adventurer sent out to take Shaka's land from under him. We're given a good introduction to Farewell but his parting scenes are less believable, particularly because the man spent three years of his life with the Zulu people and gained a massive appreciation for them - this isn't fully explored enough in the series because too much time is spent on telling Shaka's story.

Robert Powell is excellent as Dr. Henry Flynn whose opinions conflict with Farewell's and causes unsettlement at times in the camp. Powell puts in an emotionally charged performance as a man who is considered by the Zulu to be a kind of god, someone who can resurrect the dead but in reality is a normal man who cannot convince the people that he is not a giver of life. After his eventual frustration he goes along with their beliefs if it means keeping them happy. Christopher Lee has a top billing in the series but it is a case of over hyping as he only appears for a mere five minutes in the first episode. For the sake of keeping this short I shall not go into praising the rest of the supporting cast individually, there are too many people to mention but it must be said they do very credible and memorable jobs.

Finally, David Pollecutt's score is a memorable one that features some great pieces. As someone who only has a few South African CD's I wouldn't call myself an expert. My knowledge only extends to Johnny Clegg and a few various artists but it has always struck me as being so passionate. Listen to any African song and it fills you with joy. There is a real meaning behind every song and Pollecutt captured this for most of his score. Most of it is instrumental and beautiful, the least successful parts are the English sung songs of which there are only a couple. There is a slight amount of cheesiness to the lyrics but there is sentiment to them and it's not a major detractor.


The DVD

Anchor Bay present Shaka Zulu in a nice four disc box set.

Picture

The transfer is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio. For a series of this magnitude it would have surely benefited from being filmed in wide-screen but as it stands the 4:3 frame captures a lot of what was intended to be seen. The transfer is soft with close up shots being clear and detail is good. The colours are warm, mainly when seen in Zulu-Land and the range of skin colours are handled well but darker scenes appear too dark at times. The series may be twenty years old but older shows have been presented better on DVD. I can only assume that the original source material hasn't aged well but here it seems that the series has been transferred from a tape source as a there are a few occasions of horizontal lines appearing on screen.

Sound

Curiously Shaka Zulu has a choice of 2.0., Dolby Digital 5.1 and even DTS. I'm afraid I cannot comment on the quality of the 5.1 or DTS track. I watched the series in 2.0. And while the track is decent it is a little subdued and requires you to turn up the volume considerably.

Extras

Interview
This runs for 36 minutes and features interviews with William C. Faure, Dudu Mkhize and Henry Cele. This seems to be taken shortly after the series had been filmed and each contributor has a few things of interest to say. Faure is too concerned with reminding us to stop thinking of Shaka as a black man and to see him as someone who rose to power from having nothing. Surely even in the 80's he didn't think so little of the western audience to have to remind them that a black man rising to power couldn't be so absurd? The point was never that he was a black man and going into the series the viewer shouldn't even contemplate it as being a ridiculous notion. Racism will always exist but I don't feel it is necessary for him to ram it in our face and remind us to not be racist.

Dudu talks passionately about her role, which she felt was an honour and how the people on location accepted her as the real Nandi. Henry Cele modestly talks about his role and achievements. He too is proud to have played an important historical figure but doesn't tell us too much aside from his work outs and challenges. I would have liked to have seen a retrospective feature with these actors and many more, particularly Robert Powell and Edward Fox and many of the supporting African cast.

Preview Reel
A truly pointless feature that runs for a ridiculous 22 minutes. This is a Harmony Gold production that goes on for way too long and basically takes us through the entire series set to Faure's narration. This is an original featurette from 1984 that just isn't worth watching in the slightest.

Still Gallery
A decent collection of photographs, if a little short it looks as if they were scraped together and I'm sure many more must exist.

Publicity Material
This is a DVD-Rom feature. Inserting the disc in your PC will take you to a photo archive, biographies, synopsis, treatment, study guide, character notes, promotional art and production notes. Personally I’m not a big fan of DVD-Rom content. There's nothing there that couldn't have just been put on the disc normally for all to see.


Overall

Shaka Zulu is a fine mini-series that did what no other series had done at the time. It takes an interesting look at a culture that remained overlooked for so many years. Granted it does have its flaws but the excellent performances and storyline ensures a good nine hours viewing.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
6 out of 10
Audio
6 out of 10
Extras
6 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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