Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
By 1965 the bigscreen roadshow epic was in full swing, and Khartoum had most of the elements
considered necessary for success: exotic locales, huge battles, history writ large. It also had a
literate script that looked the politics of the situation in the eye. Very enjoyable as a
spectacle, it falls short of greatness, for a number of reasons.
1884. The Mahdi, a self-ordained leader of a new Jihad that he hopes will sweep the
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 failure in Africa. 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. With
Colonel J.D.H. Stewart (Richard Johnson), Gordon travels to Khartoum, but finds 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, who prepares a vain defense of Khartoum against
Shot in Ultra Panavision (that's 70mm, slightly squeezed), Khartoum has a grand look and
some wonderfully detailed battles. One conflict makes very clever use of matted red skies to evoke a
convincing pre-dawn look. 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
also makes the complicated politics of the situation clear. Only a few years before, an entire
government fell because of a defeat by the Zulus at Ithsandalwanda. Gladstone's intention is not
for action but instead to make 'gestures', that will effect his desired political ends without
risk of defeat.
Khartoum does its best to heighten the clash between two determined, religious men,
General Gordon and the implacable Mahdi. In actuality, 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.
The big message in the script is that without clear policies, foreign affairs are
doomed to messy and tragic wars without honor or purpose. It was too early for 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. Khartoum is resolutely
colonial in its insistence that Gordon is some kind of savior to the Sudanese - in one scene,
his main black lieutenant confuses him with Jesus Christ. It now seems strange for this script
to credit Gordon with such humanitarian values. 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 why
the Mahdi was such a demon. Could he be justified in liberating his country from the influence of
so many Europeans and Egyptians in Khartoum? Or is he simply another accursed maniac up to no good,
like our present boogeyman Osama Bin Laden? Khartoum is critical of British policy, but it
is still told, more or less, from only the British point of view.
Khartoum was Charlton Heston's last major roadshow movie. Unlike El Cid, it has
absolutely no romantic angle and is therefore limited in boxoffice appeal to male war and
battle buffs. For a roadshow, it's rather short; with overture, intermission and curtain music,
it is still only two hours and sixteen minutes long. West Side Story was 150 minutes, but
had no intermission, and the typical
roadshow was between 160 and 190, with an intermission at about the 100 minute mark. It's a nice
form 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
roadshow format is not likely to return.
Charlton Heston is so good at playing grand larger-than life military hero characters that he
overcomes the fact that he hasn't an English bone in his body, and doesn't physically 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, something that Heston takes to naturally.
Laurence Olivier's part was carefully designed so that all of his shots could be made 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. In particular,
he pronounces 'Khartoum' as if he were clearing his throat to spit. But the deviousness in his
eyes, and the reptilian glee with which he informs Gordon that all of his hopes for reinforcement
are doomed, are exceedingly well-expressed.
Ralph Richardson and Michael Hordern do their usual solid jobs as the standard equivocating
politicians. Richard Johnson, once considered for James Bond (he played Bulldog Drummond in a couple of
spy pictures) is a dashing-looking but almost completely inexpressive leading man, perfectly suited
to these kinds of stiff-soldier roles. Surrounded here by knights and classier players, in the 70's
he turned to crude Euro-horror - zombie movies, Exorcist ripoffs. Several of the leading
Arab roles are played by the usual English imitators - Marne Maitland, Douglas Wilmer.
At the end, General Gordon goes to his fate and we're simply told that his alter
ego The Mahdi followed him in Death soon thereafter, as Gordon had predicted. Whether this worked out
well for Gladstone and his political cronies is not divulged. Instead we get 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.
MGM's DVD of Khartoum once again takes a reasonably good epic movie and makes it a pleasure to
watch. The sharp and colorful image flatters the original photography. 1
The only extra is a trailer. The soundtrack is in stereo surround, and a full stereo
surround Spanish language track is included as well.
MGM DVD has its frustrations from time to time, but it's hard to find fault with these great epic
discs. They may mostly be plainwrap (The Vikings certainly is not) but the quality
for the price is terrific - they retail at $14.95 and can easily be found with deep discounts.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 20, 2002
1. According to MGM, the Roadshow only added the music bookends and
intermission, so this 35mm-sourced version had not been cut. Since the standard release was
down-converted to ordinary Panavision, it explains why the aspect ratio is a standard 2:35 to 1.
2. Ardrey's previous script, The Wonderful Country is a piece
of perfection unknown in all but Western circles. Unfortunately, a music rights dispute has kept
this great United Artists movie from coming to home video in any form.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson