August 19, 2013

Movie Review: Khartoum (1966)

“Every man has a final weapon: his own life. If he's afraid to lose it he throws the weapon away.” - General Charles 'Chinese' Gordon (Burt Lancaster Charlton Heston)

Directors: Basil Dearden and Eliot Elisofon

Writer: Robert Ardrey

Producer: Julian Blaustein

Studio: MGM

Major Stars: Laurence Olivier, Burt Lancaster Charlton Heston, Ralph Richardson, Richard Johnson

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing the ending of the film. With that in mind, there are SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

Second Note: Someone very nicely pointed out that I had Burt Lancaster listed as playing Gordon when, it was in fact, Charlton Heston. Now, I know this. If you asked me right now who played Gordon, I'd say it was Heston. But somehow I wrote Lancaster and fed it through the entire review. Which is just about a million kinds of embarrassing.

So, mea culpa on the rather-large error. And thanks to the anonymous person who pointed this out and wasn't at all snarky or rude about it.


They really made the war movie a spectacle back in the day. And Khartoum definitely is a spectacle. The dramatization/historical recounting of the British loss of the Sudan in the 1880s has a cast of thousands. Some represent the armies of the Mahdi, the Islamic mystic who claimed to be Mohammed’s voice on Earth. Others portray the soldiers of Egypt, a British satellite by this point in its history but the nominal “owners” of Sudan. And when they collide on-screen, you know there is no CGI trickery involved.

The story is an intriguing – and true – tale. Prime Minister Gladstone (Richardson) is told a British-led Egyptian army at El Obeid in Sudan has been destroyed by the armies of the Mahdi (Olivier, in blackface – more on that later). It makes the British/Egyptian presence in the major city of Khartoum shaky. Gladstone doesn’t want to commit British forces to save Khartoum and destroy the Madhi. So the British order/persuade the Egyptian ruler to evacuate Khartoum. The former Governor-General of the Sudan, General Charles “Chinese” Gordon (Lancaster Heston), is appointed to carry out the evacuation.

That alone wouldn’t make for much of a film. As it happened historically, Gordon instead reinforced Khartoum to try and force Gladstone to send a British army down the Nile from Egypt to relieve Khartoum. Gladstone eventually gave in and an army was sent, but dithered in Egypt while the army of the Mahdi surrounded Khartoum. By that time Khartoum had been under siege for almost a year and disease was laying waste to the city. The British army arrived two days after Khartoum fell to the Mahdi. His army had massacred the garrison and civilians. Gordon himself was beheaded. The British army retreated back up the Nile and the Mahdi armies controlled much of Sudan for the next decade or so, before a new Anglo-Egyptian army under Kitchener re-conquered the Sudan for the British Empire.

The film follows the history pretty well. It invents a couple of fictitious meetings between Gordon and the Mahdi, where each implores the other to quit the battle. But those meetings do well to show that the Mahdi and Gordon were two sides of the same coin; both felt compelled by their God to be in the Sudan. And since meetings between the leaders of opposing forces was not unheard of in that time, it a forgivable conceit on the part of the film.

Lancaster Heston does a good job as Chinese Gordon. He portrays the general as a man who loves the Sudan and cannot bear to abandon it to the Mahdi. He’s a hard man but one who gives his all for these people. The film doesn’t allow Lancaster to fully portray the full complexity of the man. But that would take a separate film in and of itself; Chinese Gordon was an interesting and complex man.

Richard Johnson also does a nice job as his assistant, Lt. Col. J.D.H. Stewart. He opposes Gordon’s plan to reinforce Khartoum at first, until he learns the Madhi refuses to let the people leave the city because Allah demands they must die (something not supported in the history of the battle.)

I really liked Richardson’s portrayal of Gladstone. Just as in real life, the last thing Gladstone wanted was to get the Empire proper involved in the Sudan. He did all he could to ignore Gordon until public opinion was too strong to ignore. But then it was too late.

Then there is Olivier’s portrayal of the Mahdi, one that would, if it was done today, would be decried as borderline racist. First off, he’s painted in blackface. I find it hard to believe that there wasn’t an actor of North African/Arab descent who couldn’t have filled the role. Christ, Omar Sharif was well-known by then. I am sure he could’ve done the role, which took up all of 15 minutes of screen time, easily.

But worse, Olivier plays the Mahdi with a lisp. It’s like a social conservative’s worst nightmare; a gay Muslim holy-warrior.

There are other white actors in Muslim blackface as well. It dates the film horribly. As do some atrocious special effects. Bombs flying in the air are shot from a pan-up shot that looks amateurish. And there are some scenes where Lancaster Heston is clearly standing in front of a fake backdrop.

My main objection is the beginning of the movie. You stare at a placecard that says “Overture” for about four minutes. Then the credits run for roughly two minutes. Then you get voice-over narration talking about Egypt and Sudan (not the battles, mind you, just the area) for another four. It takes 10 minutes – almost 10% of the run time of the movie – before you actually get to the opening scene, which is the Battle of El Obeid. It drove me nuts.

But that is more than balanced out by the battle scenes, which are well done overall. And then there is the overall theme, which resonates a little louder today as religion and war are once again entwined and all over the news. The majority of the film was shot in Egypt which makes for great visuals. And the costumes are wonderful; it really looks like 19th century colonial Africa.

Also, this film was shot in Ultra Panavision 70, the same wide-aspect film they used for Ben Hur. Think of it like IMAX for the 1950s and 60s. It really adds to the majesty of the film and pretty much demands you watch it in a widescreen format on a 32” or larger television.

So where to place it on the current list is the question. I’m slotting Khartoum in right behind Waterloo. Both are films full of sweeping vistas and mass battles. But Waterloo is simply the better film.

Khartoum is definitely one for your personal collection, however. It deals with a rarely-covered period of time, is ably acted and the cinematography is impressive. Plus, the subject matter is relevant to the current times. Just fast-forward the DVD to the 10 minute mark, make allowances for the dated special effects and the regrettable blackface decision, and you’ll be fine.


Post a Comment


Site of Future Awesomeness

Coming soon.

Site of Future Awesomeness

Coming soon