Human tenacity is always in vogue. Particularly in Hollywood, the strong male hero continues to generate perennial allure as a catalyst for change – good, bad or indifferent. Director Basil Dearden’s Khartoum (1966) is really the story of two immovable objects compromised by their own religious fanaticism and set on a collision course with destiny. The uber-Christian, Gen. Charles Gordon (played with unexpected guileless stoicism by Charlton Heston) is pitted against the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad (immense flourish from Sir Laurence Olivier); a self-professed ‘Expected One’ of the Muslim prophet, Mohammed. British colonialism aside, Khartoum has more to do – and regrettably, less to say – about these two towering figures from history (who never actually met in real life, though they share some of the best exchanges of dialogue in the movie). In absence of more astute observations or even conjecture brought about by an attack of screenwriter’s proverbial ‘creative license’, Khartoum succumbs to another indulgence: the time-honored precepts of the big, bloated ‘roadshow’ epic.
Arguably, it is a misfire from which Khartoum never recovers. And yet, in its expansive Ultra-Panavision 70mm projection (masquerading as Cinerama), with cinematographer, Edward Schaife’s luminous wide shots of the sparse topography, Khartoum occasionally satisfies, as a thoroughly beguiling spectacle; sumptuously sheathed in period trappings. It’s no Lawrence of Arabia (1962) just as Basil Dearden cannot hold a candle to director, David Lean. But Khartoum certainly looks the part – at least superficially – and this, it seems, is enough to hold our attention for considerable spans of the movie’s 136 run time, complete with intermission.
Robert Ardrey’s screenplay is literate to a fault. It isn’t the wordiness that gets in the way or even stalls the plot – much. But Ardrey’s prose is an exercise mostly in expository writing; merely a way to get the audience up to speed on the visual history lesson being taught at the expense of developing strong characters we can either root for or despise. It’s a pity too, because producer, Julian Blaustein has well-stocked his supporting cast; Ralph Richardson’s wily politico, Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone; Alexander Knox - Britain’s ruler of Egypt, Sir Evelyn Baring; Richard Johnson as Gordon’s second in command and Gladstone’s spy, Colonel Stewart; Nigel Green, a wooden, General Wolseley, and, Zia Mohyeddin as Zobeir Pasha, the slave trader whose only son Gordon executed some time ago. Tragically, none of the aforementioned is given their moment to shine. Instead, the screenplay introduces these characters as belabored afterthoughts with a modicum of fanfare, only to discard each after a key scene or two; their sole purpose merely to advance the plot.
The audience is therefore left to invest its emotional response in the sparring between Gordon and the Mahdi; or rather, the machinations as each man plots against the other in secret. Only twice are these adversaries brought together: each time for a big reveal. The real Gen. Gordon was, in fact, just as zealous in his Christian beliefs as the Mahdi is about his Muslim faith. The screenplay does address some of Gordon’s pious obsessions. But it is rather heavy-handed with the Mahdi’s chronic deification of the prophet Mohammed (beginning virtually every other sentence with a blessing upon him). We get it. Both men fervently believe they are taking marching orders from their respective gods. Yet neither is able to envision what abject futility lies ahead as the Mahdi’s army lays siege to the city of Khartoum.
The great difficulty for Khartoum – the movie – is that it begins and ends in tragedy; a lethal concept for most any movie to survive except, arguably, the film noir. The battle sequences, shot mostly (if not entirely) by second unit director Yakima Canutt, are of a resplendent quality; grandiose, sweeping master shots intermarried with tight (at least for Panavision 70) cuts to the very heart of the action – or rather, carnage unfolding on the expansive screen. Apart from two brief exchanges between Gordon and the Mahdi, the battle sequences are the very best thing in Khartoum. As if to evoke the travelogue of a classic Cinerama presentation, Khartoum opens with a series of spellbinding aerial shots of Egypt narrated by Leo Genn. The stark, surreal beauty of these imperious sands and timelessness of the Nile draw a parallel between the size and scope of this ancient world with the relatively contemporary tale about to unfurl on the screen. Unfortunately, we regress to the movie’s truer métier; an extolment of misguided imperialism, as the beleaguered forces of Colonel William Hicks (Edward Underdown) are devoured by the Mahdi’s preplanned assault; a complete and thoroughly embarrassing annihilation.
It behooves the first time viewer to reconsider some of the historical subtext and artistic inaccuracies depicted herein. First, Khartoum is essentially the story of Britain’s lost military position in the Sudan where Gen. Gordon was technically appointed as its ‘Egyptian’ governor. Gordon is briefly referenced as ‘Chinese Gordon’ in an exchange between Prime Minister Gladstone and his cabinet advisors because of a previous campaign in China where Gordon managed a tenuous peace with nothing more substantial than his walking stick at his side. In Khartoum, Gordon is infrequently seen wearing the blood-red Turkish fez as Egypt was then a tributary of the Ottoman Empire.
But Ardrey’s screenplay takes considerable liberties with Gladstone’s position on the Khartoum affair; postulating on a secret meeting that may or may not have occurred and revealing the British government’s fallibility, both through its lack of commitment to Gordon, but also to see the conflict in the Sudan sufficiently resolved. It all works as marginally competent narrative film-making; except that the final raid on the city of Khartoum is a complete fabrication. In reality, the city was decimated in the dead of night; the treachery of a few conspirators letting the Mahdi’s forces past the gates to begin their massacre of its startled populace. One can almost sense the film maker’s desperation in concocting their alter-reality for the movie’s end, having begun with visions of another Lawrence of Arabia, only to realize they’ve muddled into the quicksand of a rather depressing tale about human defeat and self-destruction; turning the whole enterprise over to Yakima Canutt and his second unit to stage a truly epic finale. And Canutt does not disappoint. The fall of Khartoum is spectacular; marauding hoards scouring its byways in blood and bodies artistically strewn about the streets; the Mahdi’s forces charging with a singular, blindsided fallacy – that they are doing their god’s work.
Khartoum is at once both an exhilarating and frustrating epic to sit through, primarily because it never quite makes up its mind where the punctuation of its plot ought to be; on a blistering series of perversely destructive conflicts between the British (who fight because they are paid) and the Mahdi’s army (who engage them as an act of altruistic devotion to their beloved prophet), or in the movie’s more introspective moments that never quite satisfy or even reveal either man’s motivations. Early in the film, Colonel Stewart informs Gladstone that Gordon will never accept such a commission to protect Khartoum, or, if he does, it will derive from some fundamentally flawed - if sublime – vanity; that only he can resolve the Sudanese conflict.
Gordon’s acceptance of this fateful/fitful knight’s errand is never satisfactorily explained away. It’s a problematic plot point to get around, and skirting the issue only serves to perplex the audience more. It also makes Gordon a somewhat more disagreeable character as our story wears on. Remarkably, it never wears thin, perhaps due in part to Charlton Heston’s built-in screen persona as a larger-than-life man of action and integrity. It’s just Chuck. We implicitly accept him as the ‘good guy’ and move on. Laurence Olivier has a much more arduous task. Arguably, he is the villain of the piece. But heavily pancaked in chocolate brown makeup and sporting a perpetual scowl with penciled in scars on each cheek, his mascara so thick it looks like he’s been attacked by a bevy of failed beauticians from a Maybelline convention, not only must he rise above the absurdity of his character’s visual design but he must also convince us he might indeed believe himself to be the ‘expected one’ of Arabic extraction. To a large extent, Olivier achieves this seemingly impossible miracle through sheer willpower; his arms outstretched, his eyes caught in a perpetual half-frozen stare that registers with great self-assurance. Olivier’s performance is at its best when he is given Heston’s ascetic military strategist to bounce ideals and platitudes off of; the cunning glint of equanimity reflected in Heston’s steely glare of wretched rejection. In these moments, both actors are well served and their scenes crackle like two pieces of fine-grained quartz rubbed vigorously together. Regrettably, there are only two such moments in Khartoum; Olivier’s Madhi the flashier but less observed throughout the story, leaving Heston’s Gordon to contemplate both the Christian and Muslim faiths in tandem and often to the point of tedium.
Our story begins in 1883 in the Sudan. British Colonel William Hicks (Edward Underdown) commands his poorly regimented troops, 10,000 Egyptians into the dessert on a quest to destroy Muhammad Ahmad (Laurence Olivier). But Hicks has severely underestimated his opponent and the Madhi’s men make short shrift of Hicks and his army in a grotesque butchery. In Britain, Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) is utterly appalled by Hick’s incompetence. Gladstone’s advisors implore him to reconsider the Sudanese conflict with a commission given to Britain’s shining star – Gen. Charles Gordon (Charlton Heston) who has exercised great fortitude in dissolving the slave trade in the region. What the film’s narrative fails to acknowledge is that the real Gordon was equally instrumental at reinstating the slave trade to regain economic stability and for his own considerable profit.
Gladstone is, at first, unimpressed by the suggestion to send Gordon off on this fool’s errand. After all, Gordon is something of a religious fanatic, known for running his own show. However, when Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Granville Leveson-Gower (Michael Hordern) reasons that by sending Gordon to Khartoum the government can distance itself from the likelihood of his defeat by having sent their most prominent war hero as their emissary, Gladstone agrees to entertain the notion, although he reinforces he will publicly denounce it as even an afterthought should his complicity in the matter ever see the light of day.
Gladstone appoints a spy to accompany Gordon to Khartoum; a very reluctant Colonel J.D.H. Stewart (Richard Johnson) who doesn’t see eye to eye with either Gladstone or Gordon’s purpose or point of view. At some level, Stewart is empathetic about the futility of their mission. But he is unimpressed by what he misperceives as Gordon’s deification by the locals. Indeed, as their convoy sails up the Nile, Gordon’s name is chanted with wild praise by the inhabitants who believe him to be their savior. Gordon’s first stop is at the stately abode of Zobeir Pasha (Zia Mohyeddin); a former slave trader whose son Gordon put to death some years ago. The détente is short lived and Zobeir makes a prophetic statement; that Gordon will die a terrible death in the dessert. Not long thereafter, Gordon and Stewart arrive in Khartoum. Gordon begins his fortification of the city by rallying its peoples to his side, despite Stewart’s protests.
The audacity of Gordon’s initial act, to engage the Mahdi in discussions at his insurgent camp, startles even Stewart. With only his faithful servant, Khaleel (Johnny Sekka) at his side, Gordon arrives at the Mahdi’s stronghold. He attempts to bargain with the ‘expected one’; offering him the city in exchange for being allowed to stage an exodus for all those who wish to leave. But Gordon has underestimated the Madhi’s purpose. Nor has he considered the Mahdi’s true intentions to make an example of Khartoum; the first city planned to fall in what will likely become a bloody campaign against Cairo, Mecca, Baghdad and Constantinople to dominate the entire Islamic region under his autocratic rule. Therefore, Khartoum’s inhabitants will all be sacrificed so that the world will know the Mahdi as the beloved’s oracle on earth. As Khartoum is situated between the White and the Blue Nile rivers, Gordon wastes no time setting Stewart to task; his men digging a ditch to establish a protective moat around the city.
Meanwhile Gladstone, having apprised just how dire the situation has become, orders Gordon to retreat. His command is ignored. Steadily, a public outcry in Britain forces Gladstone to reconsider his initial refusal of any military aid and send in a relief cavalry. However, Gladstone places no urgency on this renewed fortification, hoping against hope that Gordon will come to his senses at the last possible moment and save himself, and thus by extension, his own face. Gordon, however, continues in his belief that he can outlast the Mahdi’s resolve by placing his absolute faith in God, but even more importantly in his own destiny as a military strategist of considerable experiences. Too late, Gordon realizes faith alone is no match for this madman.
As the Nile waters recede, the moat designed to protect Khartoum dries up. In one of the movie’s most suspenseful sequences, Gordon sends Stewart up the Nile in a paddlewheel with his ring and letters to attend the British forces. For days, Gordon awaits a reply, knowing British reserves under Gen. Wolseley’s command are nearby, still believing that Khartoum will be spared the Mahdi’s fate. Instead, Gordon is summoned to the Mahdi’s tent where he learns the truth; that Stewart has been killed without ever reaching Wolseley’s army; his hand still wearing Gordon’s ring and pickled in a vat now returned to Gordon as a morbid premonition of things to come.
Gordon retreats to Khartoum to await the deluge; the Mahdi’s tribesmen storming the city’s gates at dawn on all fronts – by land and sea – and easily overpowering its modest protective barriers. Refusing to surrender, Gordon addresses the Mahdi’s army without even a sword in hand, observing for a pensive moment as their charge up the steps of his government house is stunted by the sheer resolve in his demeanor. A spear through his heart puts an end to Gordon; the Mahdi’s cheering loyalists returning to their leader’s tent with Gordon’s severed head protruding from a long pole. Far from elated, the Mahdi is horrified by this bloody spectacle, ordering his men to take Gordon’s head away. As earlier predicted by Gordon, the Mahdi’s siege on Khartoum proves his undoing. In an epilogue narration (also by Leo Genn) we learn Wolseley’s relief column arrived at the city two days after the scourge, that the Mahdi – deprived of his counterpoint (Gordon) - died a scant six months thereafter, and that Britain’s retreat from the region was eventually overturned when they invaded the Sudan a decade later, recapturing Khartoum in 1898.
In retrospect, Khartoum is the last of a vanishing breed; the historical epic having run its course – or so it seemed then. The movie was not financially successful when it was released in 1966; perhaps due to its’ pessimistic finale, but even more directly the result of changing audience tastes and Hollywood’s resistance to keeping up with the times. Also, as a roadshow, Khartoum played in first run movie palaces at higher ticket prices. Yet seen today, with the constant threat of Islamic terrorism at play on the world stage, Khartoum’s premise of an Anglo-Muslim holy war has taken on an unintentional, if more vatic, meaning.
Ironically, the film received a single Oscar nomination for Robert Ardrey’s turgid screenplay. In fairness to Ardrey’s skills – more so as a playwright than a screen scenarist – he does establish the philosophical similarities between Gordon and the Mahdi with a fair degree of accuracy and clarity. If only there were more exchanges between these two ego-driven paragons then Khartoum might have been a screen spectacle of true distinction. Instead, what’s offered is not much better than a moving tableau, albeit one ravishingly filling out the Ultra-Panavision screen with blistering hot vistas of this vacant wasteland. The commanding presence of two of Hollywood’s biggest stars – Heston and Olivier – and all the braggadocios dialogue pitting these nearly forgotten but utterly fascinating historical figures never quite maximizes the arch of dramatic potential. Heston’s earnest performance as General Gordon is arguably overshadowed by Olivier’s more ostentatious turn as Muhammad Ahmad. Interestingly, owing to a contractual obligation, Olivier never saw the desert. All of his scenes were lensed at Pinewood Studios in England. Try as he might, Edward Scaife’s cinematography cannot mask this deceit and Olivier’s scenes play with a modicum of artifice and theatricality that belies the rest of the film’s earthy textures and stark rural beauty. In the final analysis, Khartoum is a gargantuan undertaking with minuscule results. It tries very hard to please, but generally wallows in a strangely imposed mediocrity of its own doing.
Twilight Time’s release of Khartoum is very welcomed indeed. MGM’s pathetic mis-framed DVD release has been corrected in hi-def; the film’s Ultra Panavision aspect ratio of 2.76:1 perfectly preserved. The image is strikingly crisp and colorful. Apart from Olivier’s walnut-colored makeup, flesh tones are exquisitely rendered. Contrast is bang on. Fine detail is superbly handled with only hints of age-related damage scattered throughout. Otherwise, this is a reference quality 1080p transfer that will surely not disappoint. Less exciting is the 2.0 DTS stereo surround mix. Still, Frank Cordell’s sumptuous score comes to life as never before. Dialogue is well placed too. Regrettably, extras are reserved to a comprehensive audio commentary featuring producer/historian and Twilight co-owner Nick Redman, film historian Julie Kirgo, and screenwriter Lem Dobbs. We also get a 2.0 isolated score and Khartoum’s original theatrical trailer, plus a brief promo piece for MGM’s 90th Anniversary. Once again, Julie Kirgo has made some astute observations about the movie in review in a lavishly appointed six page booklet. Bottom line: Khartoum looks fantastic in hi-def. It’s not a great film, but this transfer makes it at least seem like a very palpable one.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – being the best)