When an Egyptian army, led by British troops, falls for a trap in the Sudanese desert and is brutally murdered, it presents a major problem for British Prime Minister William Gladstone (Ralph Richardson). The Sudan is a protectorate of the UK, and they are obligated to help the people there, especially considering the battle helped arm the attackers, a group of Muslim zealots led by the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier). However, Gladstone is reluctant to send more of his army to die in the desert for what he believes is a lost cause. In the hopes of saving face, he and his cabinet members settle on a plan: send former Governor-General of the Sudan Charles Gordon (Charlton Heston), who helped break the Sudanese slave trade, to the city of Khartoum with the instructions to rescue the citizens. If (when) Gordon fails, the UK government can claim they tried their best, despite providing Gordon with no troops and only a single aide, Colonel J.D.H. Stewart (Richard Johnson), who believes Gordon is arrogant to take the job. The result is as much an ideological battle as it is a physical one, with the Mahdi's uncompromising beliefs clashing with Gordon's own.
One of the last roadshow epics, Khartoum is a good film that never quite becomes great. It's sharply written and sharply performed, but these accomplishments feel technical, like a paint-by-numbers piece that follows the lines with impressive precision, but lacks spirit or life. When Gordon and the Mahdi speak to one another, their dialogue provides plenty of philosophical food for thought, but there's no electricity in the air. These aren't great characters meeting (and as such, not a face-off between great performances, either), they're more like walking themes, moved around like chess pieces on a board.
For the most part, Khartoum is not about warfare, but politics. When Gordon agrees to travel to the Sudan, he's well aware that the government is counting on him to fail. He gambles on the possibility of a deal with a former rival and comes up short, so he rides into Khartoum with little choice but to remain there, in defiance of Gladstone, until the British agree to send in more troops. Much of the film's tension comes from Gordon sweating situations out, hoping that his superiors will flinch when it comes to supplies and shelter, all while the Mahdi's army gets closer and closer, capturing more towns up and down the Nile. During his negotiations, Gordon relies on Stewart's stubbornness and disapproval of his plans to help clarify his own dedication. It works: the more pessimistic Stewart becomes, the quicker Gladstone and his advisors realize he's not going to back down.
As the situation drags on, Gordon not only builds up his picture of the Mahdi and his army, while unavoidably re-assessing whether or not his own convictions are as strong as he makes them out to be. What he discovers is twofold: he and the Mahdi are disturbingly similar, and a better sense of his own shortcomings. Both men are driven by the conviction that God will validate their decisions and show them the route to success. The Mahdi believes this unconditionally, but the desperation of the situation forces Gordon to see the truth about his own arrogance. In agreeing to help Khartoum's people without true support from the Prime Minister, he's placed innocent lives in front of himself, using them for a chance to feed his own ego. The scene in which this revelation dawns on Heston is one of the most moving moments in the film -- a fleeting glimpse of something Khartoum calls out for more of.
Director Basil Dearden punctuates Khartoum with battle scenes, which vary in quality. Some of the early desert battle scenes are chaos, lacking a narrative to drive them, but a later scene involving a boat attempting to pass silently down the Nile and the final siege of Khartoum are tense and dramatically engaging. Otherwise, the cinematography has a simplistic feel to it, with Dearden content to rely on the natural scope and scale of the Ultra Panavision imagery than add much flair or style. Scenes of Olivier as the Mahdi were all shot on soundstages in the U.S., and the difference is obvious. Taken as a whole, Khartoum is a film that accomplishes its goals nicely but not so memorably -- it's hard to call it notable, but it fully embodies the last effort of an era of cinema on its way out the door.
Khartoum original painted poster artwork graces the front cover of Twilight Time's Blu-Ray release, with their elegant banners appearing at the top and bottom of the image. The back cover is a little awkward, with the text coming off as cluttered and split up uncomfortably by the UPC code and the picture, but I'm probably the only one who cares about these details. (I also find TT's spines to be boring.) The disc comes in a standard Blu-Ray case, and there is a booklet inside with an essay by Julie Kirgo.
The Video and Audio
Presented in the extra-wide Ultra Panavision aspect ratio of 2.76:1, using the AVC codec, Khartoum is a strong effort. Although the grain is very fine, almost invisible while the film is in motion, there is no sign that noise reduction is the reason. The occasional fleck or scratch appears on the print, and I noticed more flicker watching Khartoum than I can recall noticing during any other Blu-Ray, but otherwise it is clean and reasonably detailed, although much of the film is shot at too much of a distance for one to be able to pick out the kind of textural details that other HD transfers reveal. During early scenes, colors seem subdued, but the sight of Gordon's ship compartment is proof that this is by design. All in all, I expect fans of Khartoum to be more than satisfied by the PQ.
The AQ, on the other hand, is more complicated. According to the disc's audio commentary, Twilight Time was unable to locate the film's original 6-track mix, which would have provided the material for at least a 4.0 mix. Instead, the disc contains a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track...yet, recent revival screenings of Khartoum have included the original 6-track mix. It's a frustrating situation for fans, knowing that they don't have the best possible audio presentation, but it's also worth their time to give the disc a spin before getting up in arms over the compromise. There were times throughout the film when I wouldn't have guessed I was only hearing a 2.0 mix; the battle scenes and music are mixed with such enveloping atmosphere that it's hard to avoid being sucked in. When various armies rush to attack each other, the yelling hordes have a startling authenticity to them. Music is presented with great care, allowing the viewer to submerge themselves into the film during the Overture. Although I can only imagine a 4.0 mix would've sounded even better, it's hard to complain about the 2.0 mix that's actually presented on the disc. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
In addition to the usual isolated score track (presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, culled from composer Frank Cordell's personal mono tapes) and the film's original theatrical trailer, Twilight Time has created one supplement for this release, an audio commentary by Twilight Time's Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo, and screenwriter Lem Dobbs. This is an informative, if scattershot track in which the participants talk about whatever subjects come to mind, from minutia about the actors, the true story Khartoum is based on, the technical history of the prints or sound elements used for the Blu-Ray, and much more. The only downside is that the commentators basically trade off on tangents; if one subject isn't all that interesting, the participants are likely to stick with it for five to ten minutes before a different person takes a moment to dominate the conversation.
Although Khartoum's "competition" includes Lawrence of Arabia, no less than the defining cinematic epic of all time, the film suffers from a general stuffiness even aside from sitting in Lean's shadow. There's a mechanical nature to the film that prevents it from consistently drawing the viewer in, and instead finds success in fits and spurts. Twilight Time's Blu-Ray of Khartoum matches the film itself, delivering a handsome, but not entirely optimal presentation of the film, including a slightly dated video master and a compromised but lively 2.0 audio track, and an above-average but uneven audio commentary. Recommended.
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