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.
The Video and Audio
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.