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MGM Home Entertainment
1966 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 136 min.
Starring Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Richard Johnson, Ralph Richardson, Alexander Knox, Johnny Sekka, Michael Hordern, Marne Maitland
Cinematography Edward Scaife
Art Direction John Howell
Film Editor Fergus McDonell
Original Music Frank Cordell
Written by Robert Ardrey
Produced by Julian Blaustein
Directed by Basil Dearden

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 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 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 overwhelming odds.

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  2 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, Khartoum rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
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

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