A&E // 1986 // 520 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // February 7th, 2013
The epic story of Africa's greatest warrior king.
The miniseries was a mainstay of television in the 1980s and one of the most controversial was Shaka Zulu. The South African production told the story of the legendary and brutal 19th century African king who merged various tribes into a formidable nation of warriors. The series pushed the boundaries of television with its matter-of-fact nudity and ample bloodshed. A&E's four-disc DVD set, a double-dip effort after its 2002 boxed set, promises "a meticulous, frame-by-frame restoration" but delivers negligible technical improvement.
Reports of an amassing African army threaten the English settlement in Cape Town, South Africa. Lord Bathurst (Christopher Lee, Hugo) asks for military reinforcements but is denied by King George IV so he sends Lt. Francis Farewell (Edward Fox, Never Say Never Again) on an expedition to confront the leader of the strengthening Zulu tribe. Under the pretext of setting up an ivory trading outpost, Farewell hires a crew of sailors and heads up the coast and into uncharted territory. His real mission is to size up the African leader and establish diplomatic relations.
Shaka (Henry Cele, The Ghost and the Darkness) has taken the Zulu seat of power by force. He reigns with a bloody spear and he's very suspicious of the White visitors. After taking an interest in the written word, Shaka recounts his story to Dr. Henry Fynn (Robert Powell, The Asphyx), the expedition doctor and chronicler of this history.
Written by Joshua Sinclair (based on his book) and directed by William Faure, this ten-part miniseries from South Africa is a handsome production with an epic scope. The photography of the South African scenery is breathtaking from the unspoiled beaches to the spectacular mountaintops. Made in the days before computer-assisted everything was commonplace, it looks like a cast of thousands was used to recreate the impressive Zulu villages populated by loyal and fearful subjects of the "Great Elephant," as Shaka is nicknamed. The narrative encompasses the drama of Nandi's (Dudu Mkhize) ill-fated romance with a reckless Zulu prince in the 1780s, her illegitimate son's growth as a fierce warrior and ultimately Shaka's fall in 1828.
Since Fynn essentially retells the story, sometimes the entirety of one or more 52-minute episode is spent in flashback. Episodes 1 and 2 set up the adventure as Farewell recruits his crew and sets out to make contact with the Zulu nation. Episodes 3 through 6 are the heart and soul of the production as the legend of Shaka's rise is recounted. This middle section is like an African Braveheart crossed with Conan the Barbarian. The blending of supernatural influence, the expectation of prophecy and the realistic depiction of tribal life make for a pretty awesome heroic story. Returning to the Farewell expedition, the final four episodes are concerned with the tenuous diplomacy established with Shaka by the British representative.
Director William Faure relishes this material and he moves through the script with considerable patience. This works effectively in moments like the first meeting between Farewell and Shaka as the two men try to impress one another despite not sharing a common language. The tension at the expedition's arrival in the royal kraal is palpable and lingering in this uneasy mood is quite a feat. This same reliance on lengthy stare-downs and extended conversations with carefully chosen words grows a little tiresome in later episodes. By then, we know what the characters are capable of doing and what motivates them so their lengthy dialogue only serves to delay their actions.
The sheer amount of activity on screen during the scenes in Zulu country makes this show very exciting. In sharp contrast, however, the scenes depicting life in Cape Town look rather cheap. Only two or three sets are ever used for this purpose and the same soldiers in red coats and ladies in colonial dress always populate them. The script also makes it a point to present the English as imbeciles. With authority characters like the laughable King George IV and the dismissive Lord Somerset (Trevor Howard, Gandhi) as representatives, it's tempting to read the airing of some post-colonial guilt in the storytelling.
Henry Cele became an international star for his portrayal of Shaka but he never had any notable roles following this remarkable debut. He is so mesmerizing it's like a lightning strike whenever he appears on screen. His powerful physical presence and his commanding voice prove what a perfect casting choice he was. Shaka's rise to power takes the form of a revenge story and Cele bestows a stoic grandeur to the role that makes his ascension seem like righteous fate. The performance maintains that intensity too when Shaka's madness leads him to a Shakespearean downfall. Cele's performance is the best and most memorable element of this show.
This four-disc set is said to have a remastered transfer but whatever improvements came out of the process, the show still looks mediocre on the technical side. The video is passable for its mostly clean image and consistent colors but it feels very much like watching a television broadcast on an old cathode ray tube set. The sharpness is all over the place. The first episode seemed slightly soft while parts of the second episode looked artificially sharp. From the seventh episode and after, there seemed to be a small blurry patch just below the middle of the screen. Black levels are problematic throughout as details are lost in shadows whether the scene is at day or night. Another odd picture glitch is that every so often movements look jerky. Possibly, this is a result of video compression. It's not overly distracting but after spotting it a few times, it's hard to pretend it isn't happening.
The two-channel audio is adequate but sounds a little flat. Still, dialogue is heard clearly most of the time. Unfortunately no subtitles are provided to aid moments when the voices are too low or too heavily accented. Dave Pollecutt's music retains its 1980s power and the main theme is certainly an unforgettable one.
The sole extra is an interview with William Faure and actress Dudu Mkhize, running about nine minutes. This is an old interview promoting the miniseries back in the day. The pair talks about the production with deserved pride. Faure reveals how the funding came together for the production.
Shaka Zulu holds up as an ambitious and hugely entertaining miniseries from the 1980s. Despite the lackluster technical presentation, the show probably looks as good as it ever did when broadcast to television. The story loses momentum toward the end and the storyline involving the Cape Town residents is a little arduous. Nevertheless, the legend of Shaka that dominates the middle episodes of the miniseries, featuring an awesome performance by Henry Cele, is very rewarding. This is worth a rental but the DVD set disappoints in the picture and sound department.
A&E is guilty of a double-dip release that offers nothing new or
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 520 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Not Rated