Khartoum


2h 14m 1966
Khartoum

Brief Synopsis

Epic story of the British general who fell to the Arabs in 1885.

Film Details

Also Known As
Battle for Khartoum
Genre
Drama
Action
Historical
Release Date
Jan 1966
Premiere Information
Minneapolis opening: 15 Jun 1966
Production Company
Julian Blaustein Productions
Distribution Company
United Artists
Country
United Kingdom
Location
Egypt

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 14m
Sound
70 mm 6-Track (Westrex Recording System)
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.75 : 1

Synopsis

In 1883, 10,000 untrained British troops in Sudan are lured into the desert and slaughtered by Arab tribesmen under the leadership of the Mahdi, a religious fanatic who believes he is the "expected one of Mohammed." As a result of the massacre, Britain's Prime Minister William Gladstone reluctantly sends one of England's great military men, Gen. Charles Gordon, to Khartoum with orders to evacuate troops and civilians. Gordon, a brandy and Bible loving soldier nicknamed "Chinese" because of the 6 years he spent in the East eliminating the centuries-old slave traffic, is told that his mission must remain unofficial and that he has no authority to act in the name of the Queen. Although Gordon is hailed in Khartoum as a savior, he and his only aide, Col. J. D. H. Stewart, are unable to negotiate with the Mahdi. Instead they are told that the streets will run with blood and every man, woman, and child will die. In England, Gladstone, informed of the increasing hopelessness of the situation, orders Gordon home; but, as fanatical in his own right as the Mahdi, Gordon refuses. Following the murder of Stewart, a final confrontation takes place between the two men, and both assert that they welcome death if dying brings about the destruction of their enemy. Soon, Gordon's small army faces the onslaught of 100,000 Arabs. Khartoum falls, and Gordon is slain by a dervish's spear. His head is mounted on a pole and brought before the Mahdi. Outraged, the Mahdi screams that he forbade such an action. Some months later, the British, under the command of Major Kitchener, retake the besieged city and Gordon is honored as a national hero.

Film Details

Also Known As
Battle for Khartoum
Genre
Drama
Action
Historical
Release Date
Jan 1966
Premiere Information
Minneapolis opening: 15 Jun 1966
Production Company
Julian Blaustein Productions
Distribution Company
United Artists
Country
United Kingdom
Location
Egypt

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 14m
Sound
70 mm 6-Track (Westrex Recording System)
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.75 : 1

Award Nominations

Best Writing, Screenplay

1967

Articles

Khartoum on Blu-ray


By the mid-'60s the big-screen Road Show epic was in full swing, with Biblical spectacles and musicals joined by war pictures like The Battle of the Bulge and In Harm's Way. 1965's Khartoum had most of the elements considered necessary for success: exotic locales, huge battles and historical figures writ large. It also has a literate script that looks the politics of the situation in the eye. It may fall short of greatness, but is still a hugely enjoyable spectacle boasting a pair of powerful performances.

1884. The Mahdi, a self-ordained leader of a new Jihad that he hopes will sweep the Mohammedan world (Laurence Olivier), threatens the Sudan and Egypt, vital centers of influence for the British Empire. Egypt has already lost an army trying to subdue him, and Prime Minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) has no intention of miring his government in another African fiasco. He sends General Charles 'Chinese' Gordon, hero of the opium wars (Charlton Heston). Gordon brought peace and an end to the slave trade in the Sudan a decade before, and perhaps can turn the tide now. Accompanied by Colonel J.D.H. Stewart (Richard Johnson), Gordon travels to Khartoum only to find that the Mahdi cannot be dissuaded. Morally bound not to quit the city, he forces Gladstone's hand, and an army is indeed sent up the Nile under the command of General Wolseley (Nigel Green). But its purpose is to assuage critics back in London, not save Gordon. The legendary General prepares to defend Khartoum against overwhelming odds.

Shot on location in Ultra Panavision (that's 65mm, slightly squeezed), Khartoum has a true epic feel and some wonderfully detailed battles. One conflict makes clever use of matted red skies to evoke a convincing pre-dawn look (see next image below). The geography of the Nile River and Khartoum's location at a fork between two major tributaries is very clearly spelled out. Robert Ardrey's Oscar-nominated script clarifies the politics of a highly contentious situation. Just five years before, an entire British government fell because of a defeat under the spears of an African Zulu army. Gladstone's intention is make the right 'gestures' to achieve his desired political ends -- without risk of another humiliating disaster.

Khartoum does its best to heighten the clash between two determined religious men, General Gordon and the implacable Mahdi. In reality the two never met face to face, but the script has them engaging in two meetings anyway. This may be bad history, but is a necessary contrivance to animate the story. Both men believe in divine intervention and the utter rightness of their cause. The Mahdi has delusions of grandeur, and Gordon's vanity is legendary. Both are ascetics to some degree, and both believe their ultimate reward will be found only in the next life.

Screenwriter Robert Ardrey was a social scientist known for scholarly nonfiction. He's also the screenwriter for the nearly perfect western The Wonderful Country, in which gunslinger Robert Mitchum finds himself in a political bind between Texas lawmen and Mexican warlords. The big message in this colonial-era story is that without clear policies, foreign affairs are doomed to end in messy and tragic wars without honor or purpose. It was too early for the judiciously left-leaning producer Julian Blaustein (Broken Arrow; The Day the Earth Stood Still) to be alluding to Vietnam, and the movie is better for not having to carry that baggage. The irony is that, even as Khartoum shows the cynical way Gladstone regards colonial issues, the movie still resolutely insists that Gordon is some kind of savior to the Sudanese. In one scene, his main black lieutenant confuses him with Jesus Christ. Crediting Gordon with humanitarian aims is difficult to justify. His previous experience was helping to subdue China for the opium trade, one of the most cynically wretched campaigns in colonial history.

If the film never transcends the 'favorite battles' genre, it's because we never learn much about the Sudanese people or why Gordon was so beloved. For that matter, we also aren't told exactly what made the Mahdi such a demon. Could he be justified in liberating his country from the influence of so many infidel Europeans and their passive Egyptian cronies? Or is he yet another accursed maniac bent on slaughtering multitudes in revenge against the West? Khartoum is critical of British policy, but it is still told from an exclusively British point of view.

Charlton Heston is so good at playing larger-than life military heroes that he overcomes the fact that he hasn't an English bone in his body. He also doesn't remotely resemble the reportedly short and stout Gordon. Few actors could face a mob of assassins with just a walking stick in his hand and not look foolish, but that's the exact kind of scene that comes naturally to Heston.

Laurence Olivier's part was carefully designed so that his entire performance could be filmed on a soundstage back in England. This works out all right, except that it adds to the static feel of much of the picture. Dyed dark brown, and affecting a manner of speech that's either inspired or the all-time bad 'Wog' imitation, Sir Larry has come up for some heavy criticism over the years. The Mahdi pronounces 'Khartoum' as if he were clearing his throat to spit, and when his mouth is at rest he often lets his tongue protrude, like a third lip. But the deviousness in The Mahdi's eyes, and the reptilian glee with which he informs Gordon that all hopes for reinforcement are doomed, are exceedingly well expressed. It's Acting with a capital A, and it provides the film with a credible, fascinating villain.

Ralph Richardson and Michael Hordern do their usual solid jobs as the standard equivocating politicians. Richard Johnson was Bulldog Drummond in a couple of spy pictures and was once considered to play James Bond. He's a suitably dashing but almost completely inexpressive leading man, perfectly suited to these kinds of stiff-soldier roles. This is one of his best pictures, as J.D.H. Stewart is a sympathetic good soldier doing his best for his country and his ego-driven commander. Surrounded here by knights and classier players, in the '70s Johnson turned to crude Euro-horror - zombie movies and Exorcist rip-offs. The English actor-chameleons Marne Maitland and Douglas Wilmer cover the leading Arab roles.

The prologue scenes of Egypt are attractively filmed, although the "Africa is mysterious" voiceover that goes with them doesn't prepare us for the cynical politics that follows. Perhaps taking a cue from the cost overruns of Sam Spiegel's Lawrence of Arabia, the mostly unadventurous director Basil Dearden puts economy first. As both Gordon and The Mahdi stayed in their headquarters during the major battles, the actors do a lot of their emoting on English sets and process stages. Heston definitely spent time on location for scenes showing Gordon traveling by boat and preparing the defenses of the city, but he's also matted into quite a few dialogue scenes, sometimes not very convincingly. Most of the scenes of massive armies clashing in the desert and at the gates of the city, no recognizable actors are on view - an editor could easily paste the same footage into another movie and few would be the wiser.

(spoiler) At the finale General Gordon goes to his fate like a noble martyr. We're simply told that his alter ego The Mahdi followed him in Death soon thereafter, as Gordon had predicted. Multitudes of Sudanese, Egyptians and Europeans are presumed to perish, along with all the good and dutiful soldiers we have met. Whether this worked out well for the conniving Gladstone and his political cronies is not divulged. We are instead given the movie's low point, a thudding final benediction: "A world with no room for the Gordons, will be reclaimed by the sands." Huh? It almost sounds like, 'A Day without a Wicket is a Day without Sunshine', from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. This entertaining epic criticizes colonial politics, and then eulogizes them.

Khartoum was Charlton Heston's last major Road Show movie. Unlike El Cid, it has absolutely no romantic angle and is therefore limited in box office appeal to male fans of war and battle. For a Road Show it's rather short: only two hours and sixteen minutes with overture, intermission and curtain music. A typical Road Show was between 160 and 190 minutes, with an intermission at about the hundred-minute mark. It's a nice format that would be fun to see come back, as it was always exciting to have a mid-point chat about the show (and run to the restroom) before getting back to battles. With the modern cinema's lack of pageantry (no fancy curtain rituals) and desire to cram in as many shows as possible per day, the Road Show format is not likely to return. Audiences are now often asked to sit through 2.5 - 3 hour movies without a break.

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Khartoum is a glorious thing. Beautifully remastered from 65mm elements, the HD transfer reflects the fine work of MGM's restoration people at Deluxe Digital. The movie has few opticals and it appears to have been perfectly stored and preserved. Frank Cordell's "King & Country" flavored compositions are auditable on a discrete Isolated Score Track, a Twilight Time specialty. An original trailer is also included.

The commentary by Nick Redman, Lem Dobbs and Julie Kirgo offers a useful comparison of the film to historical accounts of the Siege of Khartoum. A wealth of detail was left out, much of it presumably to make Chinese Gordon appear more heroic. For instance, the great emancipator of The Sudan reportedly reinstated the slave trade during the siege. In other respects the commentary seems ill judged. Khartoum is constantly being belittled in comparison to Cy Endfield's Zulu. A commentary shouldn't end up as critical target practice... Khartoum has nothing to be ashamed of.

Ms. Kirgo's liner notes are more balanced. She finds apt comparisons between Basil Dearden's epic and Franklin J. Schaffner's Patton. To this writer, the obvious forerunners of this 'Brits in Africa' saga are the several versions of The Four Feathers, a more rousing but considerably less enlightened adventure epic.

By Glenn Erickson

Khartoum On Blu-Ray

Khartoum on Blu-ray

By the mid-'60s the big-screen Road Show epic was in full swing, with Biblical spectacles and musicals joined by war pictures like The Battle of the Bulge and In Harm's Way. 1965's Khartoum had most of the elements considered necessary for success: exotic locales, huge battles and historical figures writ large. It also has a literate script that looks the politics of the situation in the eye. It may fall short of greatness, but is still a hugely enjoyable spectacle boasting a pair of powerful performances. 1884. The Mahdi, a self-ordained leader of a new Jihad that he hopes will sweep the Mohammedan world (Laurence Olivier), threatens the Sudan and Egypt, vital centers of influence for the British Empire. Egypt has already lost an army trying to subdue him, and Prime Minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) has no intention of miring his government in another African fiasco. He sends General Charles 'Chinese' Gordon, hero of the opium wars (Charlton Heston). Gordon brought peace and an end to the slave trade in the Sudan a decade before, and perhaps can turn the tide now. Accompanied by Colonel J.D.H. Stewart (Richard Johnson), Gordon travels to Khartoum only to find that the Mahdi cannot be dissuaded. Morally bound not to quit the city, he forces Gladstone's hand, and an army is indeed sent up the Nile under the command of General Wolseley (Nigel Green). But its purpose is to assuage critics back in London, not save Gordon. The legendary General prepares to defend Khartoum against overwhelming odds. Shot on location in Ultra Panavision (that's 65mm, slightly squeezed), Khartoum has a true epic feel and some wonderfully detailed battles. One conflict makes clever use of matted red skies to evoke a convincing pre-dawn look (see next image below). The geography of the Nile River and Khartoum's location at a fork between two major tributaries is very clearly spelled out. Robert Ardrey's Oscar-nominated script clarifies the politics of a highly contentious situation. Just five years before, an entire British government fell because of a defeat under the spears of an African Zulu army. Gladstone's intention is make the right 'gestures' to achieve his desired political ends -- without risk of another humiliating disaster. Khartoum does its best to heighten the clash between two determined religious men, General Gordon and the implacable Mahdi. In reality the two never met face to face, but the script has them engaging in two meetings anyway. This may be bad history, but is a necessary contrivance to animate the story. Both men believe in divine intervention and the utter rightness of their cause. The Mahdi has delusions of grandeur, and Gordon's vanity is legendary. Both are ascetics to some degree, and both believe their ultimate reward will be found only in the next life. Screenwriter Robert Ardrey was a social scientist known for scholarly nonfiction. He's also the screenwriter for the nearly perfect western The Wonderful Country, in which gunslinger Robert Mitchum finds himself in a political bind between Texas lawmen and Mexican warlords. The big message in this colonial-era story is that without clear policies, foreign affairs are doomed to end in messy and tragic wars without honor or purpose. It was too early for the judiciously left-leaning producer Julian Blaustein (Broken Arrow; The Day the Earth Stood Still) to be alluding to Vietnam, and the movie is better for not having to carry that baggage. The irony is that, even as Khartoum shows the cynical way Gladstone regards colonial issues, the movie still resolutely insists that Gordon is some kind of savior to the Sudanese. In one scene, his main black lieutenant confuses him with Jesus Christ. Crediting Gordon with humanitarian aims is difficult to justify. His previous experience was helping to subdue China for the opium trade, one of the most cynically wretched campaigns in colonial history. If the film never transcends the 'favorite battles' genre, it's because we never learn much about the Sudanese people or why Gordon was so beloved. For that matter, we also aren't told exactly what made the Mahdi such a demon. Could he be justified in liberating his country from the influence of so many infidel Europeans and their passive Egyptian cronies? Or is he yet another accursed maniac bent on slaughtering multitudes in revenge against the West? Khartoum is critical of British policy, but it is still told from an exclusively British point of view. Charlton Heston is so good at playing larger-than life military heroes that he overcomes the fact that he hasn't an English bone in his body. He also doesn't remotely resemble the reportedly short and stout Gordon. Few actors could face a mob of assassins with just a walking stick in his hand and not look foolish, but that's the exact kind of scene that comes naturally to Heston. Laurence Olivier's part was carefully designed so that his entire performance could be filmed on a soundstage back in England. This works out all right, except that it adds to the static feel of much of the picture. Dyed dark brown, and affecting a manner of speech that's either inspired or the all-time bad 'Wog' imitation, Sir Larry has come up for some heavy criticism over the years. The Mahdi pronounces 'Khartoum' as if he were clearing his throat to spit, and when his mouth is at rest he often lets his tongue protrude, like a third lip. But the deviousness in The Mahdi's eyes, and the reptilian glee with which he informs Gordon that all hopes for reinforcement are doomed, are exceedingly well expressed. It's Acting with a capital A, and it provides the film with a credible, fascinating villain. Ralph Richardson and Michael Hordern do their usual solid jobs as the standard equivocating politicians. Richard Johnson was Bulldog Drummond in a couple of spy pictures and was once considered to play James Bond. He's a suitably dashing but almost completely inexpressive leading man, perfectly suited to these kinds of stiff-soldier roles. This is one of his best pictures, as J.D.H. Stewart is a sympathetic good soldier doing his best for his country and his ego-driven commander. Surrounded here by knights and classier players, in the '70s Johnson turned to crude Euro-horror - zombie movies and Exorcist rip-offs. The English actor-chameleons Marne Maitland and Douglas Wilmer cover the leading Arab roles. The prologue scenes of Egypt are attractively filmed, although the "Africa is mysterious" voiceover that goes with them doesn't prepare us for the cynical politics that follows. Perhaps taking a cue from the cost overruns of Sam Spiegel's Lawrence of Arabia, the mostly unadventurous director Basil Dearden puts economy first. As both Gordon and The Mahdi stayed in their headquarters during the major battles, the actors do a lot of their emoting on English sets and process stages. Heston definitely spent time on location for scenes showing Gordon traveling by boat and preparing the defenses of the city, but he's also matted into quite a few dialogue scenes, sometimes not very convincingly. Most of the scenes of massive armies clashing in the desert and at the gates of the city, no recognizable actors are on view - an editor could easily paste the same footage into another movie and few would be the wiser. (spoiler) At the finale General Gordon goes to his fate like a noble martyr. We're simply told that his alter ego The Mahdi followed him in Death soon thereafter, as Gordon had predicted. Multitudes of Sudanese, Egyptians and Europeans are presumed to perish, along with all the good and dutiful soldiers we have met. Whether this worked out well for the conniving Gladstone and his political cronies is not divulged. We are instead given the movie's low point, a thudding final benediction: "A world with no room for the Gordons, will be reclaimed by the sands." Huh? It almost sounds like, 'A Day without a Wicket is a Day without Sunshine', from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. This entertaining epic criticizes colonial politics, and then eulogizes them. Khartoum was Charlton Heston's last major Road Show movie. Unlike El Cid, it has absolutely no romantic angle and is therefore limited in box office appeal to male fans of war and battle. For a Road Show it's rather short: only two hours and sixteen minutes with overture, intermission and curtain music. A typical Road Show was between 160 and 190 minutes, with an intermission at about the hundred-minute mark. It's a nice format that would be fun to see come back, as it was always exciting to have a mid-point chat about the show (and run to the restroom) before getting back to battles. With the modern cinema's lack of pageantry (no fancy curtain rituals) and desire to cram in as many shows as possible per day, the Road Show format is not likely to return. Audiences are now often asked to sit through 2.5 - 3 hour movies without a break. The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Khartoum is a glorious thing. Beautifully remastered from 65mm elements, the HD transfer reflects the fine work of MGM's restoration people at Deluxe Digital. The movie has few opticals and it appears to have been perfectly stored and preserved. Frank Cordell's "King & Country" flavored compositions are auditable on a discrete Isolated Score Track, a Twilight Time specialty. An original trailer is also included. The commentary by Nick Redman, Lem Dobbs and Julie Kirgo offers a useful comparison of the film to historical accounts of the Siege of Khartoum. A wealth of detail was left out, much of it presumably to make Chinese Gordon appear more heroic. For instance, the great emancipator of The Sudan reportedly reinstated the slave trade during the siege. In other respects the commentary seems ill judged. Khartoum is constantly being belittled in comparison to Cy Endfield's Zulu. A commentary shouldn't end up as critical target practice... Khartoum has nothing to be ashamed of. Ms. Kirgo's liner notes are more balanced. She finds apt comparisons between Basil Dearden's epic and Franklin J. Schaffner's Patton. To this writer, the obvious forerunners of this 'Brits in Africa' saga are the several versions of The Four Feathers, a more rousing but considerably less enlightened adventure epic. By Glenn Erickson

Khartoum


A visually stunning historical epic set against the deserts of the Sudan, Khartoum (1966) stars Charlton Heston as the enigmatic General Sir Charles "Chinese" Gordon, assigned by British Prime Minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) to protect their interests in the Sudan. The real life British General Gordon was killed in 1885 in a bloody clash with Sudanese rebels and became a hero to Victorian England and an icon for the British imperial cause.

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).
C-136m. Letterboxed.

by Felicia Feaster

Khartoum

A visually stunning historical epic set against the deserts of the Sudan, Khartoum (1966) stars Charlton Heston as the enigmatic General Sir Charles "Chinese" Gordon, assigned by British Prime Minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) to protect their interests in the Sudan. The real life British General Gordon was killed in 1885 in a bloody clash with Sudanese rebels and became a hero to Victorian England and an icon for the British imperial cause. 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). C-136m. Letterboxed. by Felicia Feaster

Quotes

Trivia

'Lewis Gilbert' was attached as director at one point

Notes

Locations filmed in Egypt. Released in Great Britain in 1966; running time: 128 min. Presented for roadshow engagements in Cinerama. Also known as Battle for Khartoum.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Summer June 10, 1966

Released in United States June 15, 1966

Released in United States Summer June 10, 1966

Released in United States June 15, 1966