Gordon finds his life's greatest opponent and his own inevitable death in the man who defeats him during this desert campaign. The Mahdi (Laurence Olivier) is a self-appointed messiah or "chosen one," an Islamic religious fanatic with a dream of uniting all Arabs under his rule. In an early scene of Khartoum the Mahdi's jihad has led to the massacre of British troops and an 8,000 strong Egyptian army. Gordon, who has a love for the region and commands great respect among its people, is called upon to somehow make peace with the Mahdi. But after a first meeting at the Mahdi's desert camp, he realizes that his opponent is bent on conquest.
Gordon rushes back to the Egyptian and European occupied Khartoum to protect its people, who welcome the General as their own messiah. In a valiant attempt to save the city, he digs a great moat to separate it from the Mahdi's troops and sends his aide Col. J.D.H. Stewart (Richard Johnson) to England to retrieve the British Army, though Stewart's ship is hijacked by the Mahdi's forces and all on board massacred. [SPOILER ALERT]! After a 317-day siege, the Sudanese army takes control of the city and kills Gordon an ironic two days before help arrives. In a stroke of poetic justice, the rats that feed on the 35,000 dead of Khartoum bring plague to the Mahdi's tents and he also dies.
Prior to production on Khartoum, several directors were considered - Bernhard Wicki (Morituri, 1965), Ken Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968), Carol Reed (The Third Man, 1949) - before Basil Dearden was finally chosen to helm the epic. Interiors were filmed at Pinewood Studios in England with actual locations in Egypt being used for exterior shots. Later, after the film was completed, Heston admitted (in his autobiography, In the Arena) that "the most important sequence we had to shoot in Egypt was Gordon's arrival in Khartoum. The real Khartoum was a more or less modern city by 1965, and much too far up the Nile in any event. Masghouna was closer and smaller; we dressed it for 1885 Khartoum, and I disembarked from our pretty little steamer, as Gordon had, with his aide and a staff of six or so, to be greeted by an ecstatic crowd of hundreds, welcoming me as the savior of the city. Our PR people claimed that there were people in the crowd whose grandfathers had known Gordon."
The many clashes between the Mahdi's forces and the British and Egyptian armies are captured in a number of memorable action sequences choreographed by Yakima Canutt which did much to enhance the film's reputation. Despite a number of horrific looking equine wipeouts in these hyper-realistic battle sequences, Canutt revealed in his autobiography Stunt Man that "there were no injuries to a single horse in our work. However, two of the mounted police, during the lunch hour, were playing the game "Chicken." They rode at a full run toward each other and neither one would turn his horse. A head-on collusion occurred that crippled two good horses. I stopped that game, but quick, and fired the men responsible."
Khartoum producer Julian Blaustein was a stickler for authenticity, and so every detail of the film from the costumes to the armaments are historically correct. Blaustein even sent a copy of Khartoum's script to the Mahdi's grandson who returned it with a note. The grandson noted that he thought it an "extremely fine script." The only problem he could see was that his grandfather and Gordon never actually met, adding, "Ah, but Mr. Blaustein, they should have!"
There were some other inaccuracies, according to George MacDonald Fraser in his book, The Hollywood History of the World: "Gordon's screen relations with Stewart, his staff officer, are shown as initially antagonistic; the truth is that Gordon had asked for Stewart, they took to each other at once, and apart from one quarrel, got on very well." Heston's portrayal of Gordon is also overly heroic when, in Fraser's book the general is depicted as "a weird one, 'half-cracked,' 'mad,' 'a wild man'....almost removed from military college for throwing a man downstairs and stabbing another with a fork, asking complete strangers if they believed in Jesus, leading his Chinese storming parties smoking a cigar and carrying a cane..." But in Heston's view, "the single-handed capacity Gordon displayed again and again to control large groups of people quite unarmed and alone, is almost magical...He had a serenity of nature, along with a somewhat irrational temper. He was something of a martinet as well, and a lot of other complicated things. But he did not have that curious neuroticism that, say, [T.E.] Lawrence had, though they both had a sort of soldier mysticism." (from The Films of Charlton Heston by Jeff Rovin)
The performances of Heston and Olivier have been pointed out as two of the film's finest features. Though some criticized Olivier's Mahdi as a reprise of his role as the Moor from Vienna, Othello (1965), the year before, his performance is undeniably captivating and genuinely unnerving. Olivier and Heston proved a natural screen match-up, both accomplished at personifying a range of varied roles as George Macdonald Fraser noted in The Hollywood History of the World: "hero, tyrant, patriarch, statesman, king or commoner." Heston, many noted, was equally able to convey the dark depths of his character, the real General Gordon, whose military successes were apparently equal to his madness. In his journals, Heston waxed philosophical about his reasons for taking the part of Gordon: "It's a good part, presents the challenge of doing a mystic, as well as the English thing. Also, it's a helluva good script."
Though many of the performances were praised and Robert Ardrey's story received an Oscar® nomination, Khartoum garnered mixed reviews. Stephen Farber in Film Quarterly noted that "Olivier is virtually unrecognizable in his sly, perhaps over exotic portrayal of the Mahdi, while Charlton Heston as Gordon gives the most restrained and appealing performance of his spectacle career."
One of the film's most memorable sequences, a four-minute prologue and stunning helicopter shots of the Nile River Valley, were eventually cut from the film after its release. Khartoum arrived on the tail end of a dying genre, the epic cycle, and because of that, performed poorly in its theatrical run. Or perhaps, as Heston ruefully noted, "it was clear my star power did not extend to a film with no women about a famous Brit largely unknown to American audiences."
Director: Basil Dearden
Producer: Julian Blaustein
Screenplay: Robert Ardrey
Cinematography: Edward Scaife
Production Design: John Howell Music: Frank Cordell
Cast: Charlton Heston (General Charles "Chinese" Gordon), Laurence Olivier (The Mahdi), Richard Johnson (Col. J.D.H. Stewart), Ralph Richardson (Mr. Gladstone), Alexander Knox (Sir Evelyn Baring), Johnny Sekka (Khaleel), Michael Hordern (Lord Granville), Nigel Green (Gen. Wolseley), Zia Mohyeddin (Zobeir Pasha), Marne Maitland (Sheikh Osman).
by Felicia Feaster