Khartoum: Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier battle it out in this visually stunning war epic that has great contemporary relevance

Khartoum(1966), directed by Basil Dearden, and starring Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier, is the last of the Cinerama roadshow epics of the 1960s. The film has Heston playing British hero, Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon, who tries to save the city of Khartoum from the invading armies of Olivier’s Mahdi.

Western imperialism Vs Islamic fundamentalism, that’s the theme of Director, Basil Dearden’s historical war epic, “Khartoum”: the last of the big, Ultra-Panavision roadshow epics ever made, bolstered by the megawatt star power of such grand, theatrical, larger-than-life star-actors like Charlton Heston, Sir Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson. This 1966 film presents events that took place in 1880s North Africa, but the themes (and some of the characters) treated in the film are shockingly prescient with regards to the current global political situation. The film is set in the year 1884, in the country of Sudan, where a powerful religious leader, Mohammed El Ahmed(Laurence Olivier) calling himself ‘The Mahdi’ (the expected one), emerged, uniting the Muslims in holy war against infidels. To set a very public example, he intends to murder the entire population of Khartoum, which includes moderate Sudanese and Egyptian Muslims (not allied with Mahdi) and non-Muslims (comprising mainly of Europeans). British Prime Minister William Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) is loathe to send British troops to Khartoum in order to save the thousands of Egyptians and Europeans stranded there. Though Britain has close ties to Egypt – mainly due to their stake in the Suez Canal – Gladstone has just suffered a military setback there: a force of 10,000 poorly trained Egyptian troops under the command of the colonizing British Army Col. William “Billy” Hicks (Edward Underdown) was defeated by Mahdi’s native tribesmen; Gladstone cannot risk another military disaster in North Africa. So, he decides to unofficially dispatch celebrated war hero General Charles Gordon (Charlton Heston) to the region, believing that if a loose cannon like Gordon’s mission to evacuate Khartoum fails, the British government will be absolved any liability or political fallout. Accompanying Gordon on this suicide mission is Col. J.D.H. Stewart (Richard Johnson), whose main responsibility is to try and keep Gordon in line. Formerly Governor-General of the Sudan who broke the slave trade there some years before, Gordon is hailed as a god-like savior by the natives upon his return; but the situation is dire, with the Mahdi having cut Khartoum off from the rest of the world. Now, Gordon has the delicate task of balancing British political interests as well as retaining the respect (and lives) of the Sudanese.

Gordon attempts to avoid the impending slaughter by visiting the Mahdi’s camp unarmed for negotiations; this earns him Mahdi’s respect but not a peaceful solution (to the crisis) he was hoping for. Moreover, Mahdi makes it clear that that he will not be satisfied with conquering just Khartoum, but will continue to Cairo, Mecca, Baghdad and Constantinople. Mahdi asks Gordon to leave Khartoum immediately, but Gordon is sworn to defend the country and the people he loves. After an attempt to recruit former slaver Zobeir Pasha (whose son Gordon executed) fails, Gordon sets about fortifying the city- to try and hold out as long as possible. He also leads a daring nighttime raid to get as much grain and other crucial items as possible into the city. Though Mahdi’s army intercepts them, they fight their way out and manages to enter the city with most of their provisions intact- though Gordon looses a lot of his soldiers. Meanwhile, Stewart goes to England to request more troops. He convinces the political establishment that it would look bad for the government if a British hero like Gordon, and thousands of civilians were slaughtered by Mahdi’s troops. Gladstone has no other option than to send 7000 men to Egypt. In the interim, Gordon prepares for the siege of the city, while Stewart tries to get to Berber to hasten the arrival of relief troops. But then things starts going wrong for Gordon when, first, Stewart’s transport ship goes missing, and then Khartoum finds itself in the midst of a cholera epidemic. Gordon meets with Mahdi one last time to negotiate with him, but he realizes that the situation is hopeless. On 26 January 1885, the city of Khartoum falls under a massive frontal assault by Mahdi’s men. Gordon himself is slaughtered along with the entire foreign garrison and populace of some 30,000, although the Mahdi had forbidden killing Gordon. In the end, Gordon’s head is cut off, stuck on top of a long pole, and paraded about the city in triumph, contrary to the Mahdi’s diktat. At the end of the film, a narrator informs us that the British relief column arrived two days too late; the British withdraw from the Sudan shortly thereafter, and the Mahdi himself died six months later.

Sir Laurence Olivier is undoubtedly the greatest British thespian of all times. His prolific and extraordinary interpretation of Shakespearean works for over half a century is proof enough for that. Though he was the unmistakable master of stage, Olivier’s film career has always been sort of hit and miss; he was way better than someone like Richard Burton in making the transition from stage to screen, but he never achieved the easiness of an Alec Guinness or even a Sir John Gielgud in his movie performances. Yes, there are his widely acclaimed Shakespearean films: Henry V, Hamlet, Richard III that are all great, and Olivier’s’ performances in them were magnificent; I also love him in some great films like Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and Kubrick’s “Spartacus,” but beyond them his screen performances are less than sterling, and, in some instances, downright problematic. And his performance as Mahdi in Khartoum is one of his most problematic. As it is obvious from the film’s story, the film’s themes are of extreme contemporary relevance: we can find analogies to the film’s themes in the current situation of Iraq and Afghanistan; we can also find analogous characters to Mahdi in many contemporary zealots who are either dead or living. But Olivier’s casting in the pivotal role of the Sudanese religious leader dates the film beyond repair. Oliver’s ‘blackface’ embodiment of The Mahdi, covered in chocolate colored makeup, exaggerated facial makeup & mannerisms, and stuttering dialogue delivery turns the role into one of the worst caricatures. There’s no getting around it, but the consolation is that Olivier appears for less than 20 minutes of this 134 minutes film, and he has the magnetism to somehow make it all work: he chews the scenery with gusto- eyes gleaming and arms flailing, and makes for a strong antagonist. But still it taints what’s actually a well-written, well-intentioned and well-made analysis into the conflict between two different religious and political ideologies, albeit within the confines of a generic historical action\adventure war epic. Now this is not all Olivier’s fault. I fully realize that this was how casting was done during those times, but even then, when great directors like David Lean cast Alec Guinness as an Arab prince (or even an Egyptian Omar Sharif as a Russian poet), he made sure that their makeup and their performances does not devolve into caricature. Obviously, it’s a collective failure of the filmmakers and the actor (at least that makeup could have been toned down), which in its time may not have been considered as a serious flaw, but in time has come to be regarded as one. It also doesn’t help that Olivier never ventured out to the film’s outdoor locations, and shot all his portions on a London soundstage in just eight days (for which he was paid quarter of a million dollars; by his own admission, his primary reason for doing this film). This dates his portions even further- it’s painfully obvious that it’s Olivier’s double standing in for him in the outdoor portions, and while cutting to his close-ups the lighting is different and artificial.

This is one of the reasons (and not the only one) why “Khartoum” hasn’t transcended time the way “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Zulu” has: these two magnificent 1960s British epics are a clear influence on this film. Like “Lawrence,” this film tells about the adventures of a mythical English soldier in the Saharan desert; and like “Zulu,” this is mainly a ‘Siege-epic,” where Englishmen lost in an alien land tries to survive the impending attack by hordes of native warriors. Taken on its own, “Khartoum,” written by Robert Ardrey (who was nominated for an Oscar), and photographed by Edward Scaife is an effective historical piece that’s mounted on a majestic scale. Though the film was made on a medium budget ($6 million, half of Lawrence’s budget), it looks fabulous: shot in Ultra Panavision (the last film to do so until “The Hateful Eight” in 2015) and Technicolor on location in Egypt, and amidst grandly designed sets in London, it’s one of the most visually stunning films from that era. Frank Cordell complements these splendid visuals with a beautiful, regal score that matches up to the great works of Maurice Jarre and John Barry. The stunt choreography by the great Yakima Canutt (ho directed the Chariot race in Ben-Hur) is also terrific. There are four major battle sequences in the film: the opening battle in which Hicks and his army is annihilated, Gordon’s nighttime raid (the less impressive of the lot because it’s staged at night, and uses studio soundstages for the close and medium shots), the spectacular river battle, and the explosive finale in which the city falls. Indeed, the tech specs for the picture are superlative. Where the film feels inferior to the two epics I mentioned above, is in the direction and scripting departments. Of course we know that Dearden is no David Lean, and Ardrey is no Robert Bolt, so we should not expect that level of artistry. But a lot of the creative choices made by the director and writer goes against the ethos of such epic-style filmmaking.

For starters, the film is very much reliant on dialogue to move the plot forward: characters talk, talk and talk some more- it’s not that long dialogue scenes are bad – “Lawrence” has its share of dialogue scenes – but here, the director just doesn’t know how to stage them and block them so that they become interesting cinematically: most of the time it’s just (one or) two characters talking (almost frozen) in the middle of the frame, with expensive set dressing, or large negative spaces filling up the rest of the frame; Dearden’s inexperience, and inability to handle such a large widescreen format is vey visible here. This gets jarring when contrasted with the superbly staged action scenes, where the second unit directors definitely knows how to move the camera effectively and fill such a massive frame. The dynamism of the battle scenes stand apart from the stagy, inertness of the dramatic\conversational portions. Also, scriptwriter, Ardrey, cannot make the conversations fun; there are very few instance of humor or sarcasm, unless it comes to someone like Ralph Richardson, who’s pretty acidic in his line readings, but other times it’s all exposition and (self)serious stuff. Ardrey creates a lot of interesting characters for some wonderful actors, but ends up underusing most of them. Ralph Richardson, Michael Hordern, Nigel Green and Alexander Knox all add color and gravitas to the proceedings, but they appear in maybe two or three scenes at the most. There are also long intervals between their appearances, and by the time they make their second appearance, we have forgotten who (or what) they are. Ardrey’s script sometimes concentrates too much on the trivial, uninteresting stuff at the expense of the big picture.

“Khartoum” is a sort of prequel to “The Four Feathers(1939)”, which showed the aftermath of the death of Gordon: the British and their Egyptian allies would re-invade the Sudan ten years later, and they recaptured and colonized Khartoum in 1898. Hence I wish there was more of Gordon’s backstory in the film; the film should have started from his previous tenure in Khartoum: how he became a hero of the people; how he ended slavery, and how he was forced to reinstate it later (something that the film skips completely). If we had all that then his return, his last stand and ultimate self-sacrifice would have had more dramatic impact. Gordon’s character too would have more depth and dimensions. But unlike T. E. Lawrence, who is presented as a mixture of his strengths and weaknesses, and hence becomes one of the most fascinating screen characters, Gordon remains just a bland, one-dimensional creation. In real life, Gordon was a flawed, eccentric, multifaceted hero. Gordon was an imperialist who believed in Christian supremacy. He successfully fought in the opium wars in China (hence Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon) which was one of the most nakedly imperialistic military maneuvers. In Khartoum, the duel between him and Mahdi is a sort of god-measuring contest: whose god is bigger; which one will work the bigger miracle; though it is not made explicit in the film, because Gordon is washed clean of all his eccentricities and flaws (except maybe his arrogance) that’s its underlying theme: it’s a bigger religious clash than a political one. In the end, both are dead, thus cancelling each other (and their gods) out. All this adds up to a film that feels, both, too long and not long enough. The film is just over two hrs. and that’s not an ideal runtime for a epic of this scale, which can have a runtime of three hours and more. But the film concentrates on just a few events, and hence even that short runtime feels long. Like “Lawrence of Arabia,” we needed a full-blown epic on “Gordon of Khartoum” that would have explored the full arc of Gordon’s character and the events surrounding his (and the Mahdi’s) activities in North Africa.

Ultimately, it falls on Charlton Heston’s broad shoulders to give this epic the much needed gravitas- which he does to a great extend. Heston was at the height of his epic-hero phase at the time. Starting with the Oscar Winning performance as “Ben-Hur“, Heston had starred in such huge epics, like “El Cid,” “55 Days at Peking,” “Major Dundee” and “Agony and Ecstasy.” He was also used to playing larger-than-life mythic\historical characters who were much older than he was: as Moses in “The Ten Commandments” or President Andrew Jackson in “The Buccaneer.” “Khartoum” could be regarded as another one of those definitive ‘Charlton Heston’ historical epics. The character is broadly defined and well within Heston’s range, and even though he’s American, he has always been a classically inclined, theatrically trained ‘Shakespearean’ actor who does not look out of place as a commanding, aged British General. But despite the character not following its historical counterpart judiciously, and maybe considered lacking in nuances, Heston brings a surprising level of nuance to his portrayal; that crackpot, megalomaniacal aspect of the historical character may not be there much in the writing, but Heston does subtly suggest this in his interactions with Richard Johnson and John Sekka, who plays his Sudanese aide, Khaleel. Heston also manages to bring a certain amount of vulnerability to this doomed warrior hero. But like the film, Heston’s performance is a little cold. He’s not allowed to melodramatically soar as he did in El Cid or Ben-Hur; just as the film has a tendency to be didactic and intellectual, so does Heston, who seems to be holding back even in the most high octane sequences. The film would have benefitted immensely if it would just let Heston unleash himself; because otherwise, he has a tendency to be stiff and wooden- which we can notice at several points in his performance. But there are several scenes in the film that work only because Heston is on screen: Gordon’s grand entry into Khartoum, with the local populace cheering him on- we don’t know much about Gordon’s history with the people, but we still believe in their affection and devotion for him simply because of Heston’s larger-than-life image; and here he displays a sense of showmanship when he picks up a little girl from the crowd and hoist her on his arms as he waves to the crowd; or the scene where he goes alone and unarmed to meet Mahdi in his camp, surrounded by his fanatics; or the very final scene, the image of Gordon’s last stand – taken directly from a famous painting, which has Heston’s Gordon staring down an armed bloodthirsty mob from the top the stairs with just a stick in his hand- that’s real star power and screen presence for you. You can’t imagine a contemporary star\actor who can survive that scene without being laughed off the screen.

“Khartoum” was a flop on its release, making back only half of its budget; and the reasons are not hard to understand. By 1966 the charm of epic roadshow presentations has begun to wane. The waves of the ‘new wave’ that originated in Europe had already started reaching American shores, and by next year, films like “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde” would mark the dawn of a new age in Hollywood cinema. Also, the subject of “Khartoum” is not that familiar to a world audience, and especially to an American audience, who are not that interested in the historical events of other nations. Also, General Gordon is not as famous as T.E. Lawrence or even ‘The Cid’. The film does feature a voice over narration by Leo Genn, and a travelogue style opening sequence in which the geography and the political context of the story about to unfold is vividly described- ending in one of the most spectacular opening sequences in which a majestically sweeping aerial shot takes the audience right into the middle of the advancing Hick’s army. But that was not enough, I guess, to familiarize the subject matter for a mass Western audience. Add to that the fact that the film lacks the sweep, dynamism, and artistry of a great David Lean epic, and its fate was sealed. But despite its flaws, “Khartoum” is a visually gorgeous historical war epic that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.


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