Sunday, March 26, 2023

Khartoum (1966)


                        “Khartoum” is an epic about the siege of Khartoum in the Mahdist War in Sudan.  It was directed by Basil Dearden (“The Captive Heart”) with a screenplay by Robert Ardrey.  He was nominated for an Oscar.  It was the last film made using Ultra Panavision 70 until Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight” 49 years later.  The exteriors were filmed in Egypt.  Burt Lancaster turned down the lead.  Although the producers claimed no horses were injured in the making of the film, it has been claimed that over one hundred were killed or were so severely injured that they had to be put down. 

                        Remember when epics opened with overtures?   This one has a six minute one.  (There was also an intermission.)  Then a narrator wakes you up to tell you the Nile is a great river.  Along its banks rose an Islamic uprising led by a charismatic prophet called the Mahdi.  The British sent an expedition to put down the rebellion.  The movie opens with this expedition getting its ass kicked.  The massacre is brief, but features a lot of extras.  We meet the Mahdi.  He’s Laurence Olivier, which is bit distracting at first.  But so was Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal in “Lawrence of Arabia”.   If you can cast a great actor, to hell with the nationality of the character.  Meanwhile in Great Britain, Prime Minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) wants to wash his hands of this Sudan mess.  He decides to evacuate British forces, but is convinced to send the Pattonesque “Chinese” Gordon (Charlton Heston) to handle the evacuation.  Gladstone knows Gordon is the exact opposite of the type of general to follow orders and withdraw from a fight efficiently.  His advisers argue that Gordon will be a “gesture” of British concern for the Sudanese.  And if he fails, he can be blamed for the loss of the Sudan.  Gordon accepts the mission, although he knows what Gladstone is pulling.  His ego tells him he can walk into and out of this trap and besides, he has no intention of following orders.  A Col. Stewart (Richard Johnson) is sent as Gordon’s aide and babysitter.  His role is going to be as frustrating as Col. Brighton’s in “Lawrence”.  Gordon arrives in Khartoum to great acclaim and he eats it up.  The people now have their own messiah.  Do I have to mention “Lawrence” again?  Gordon has the obligatory cinematic meeting with the Mahdi.  The Mahdi makes it clear he is interested in more than just the Sudan.  Khartoum’s sacking will be a good example for anyone standing in his way.  And he’s not going to allow a peaceful withdrawal of Egyptian forces.  This gives Gordon the excuse to have no choice but to hold Khartoum.  The rest of the movie covers the siege.

                        Clearly the movie wants to be the next “Lawrence of Arabia”.  They both are basically biopics of charismatic Christians mingling with Muslims in the Middle East.  The problem for the box office is Gordon ain’t no Lawrence.  And he was a loser.  And deserved to lose.  Although well known in Great Britain, he was virtually unknown to American audiences.  The movie downplays Gordon’s erratic personality.  He is not heroic so much as a pompous ass.  That doesn’t mean the movie has the guts to make the Mahdi the hero.  It was made in 1966, after all.  The two leads are fine with Olivier outstanding as the Mahdi.  I’m not an expert of accents, so his might not be accurate, but the effort is mesmerizing.  The supporting cast is fine, with Richardson getting nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA.

                        The battle scenes are big, but brief.  They don’t stop the show.  The siege is simplistic and does not really show the suffering of the people.  There is lack of suspense and frankly it is hard to care about Gordon’s fate.  I assume most Americans need a spoiler alert here.  He is in some ways the British Custer. For discerning viewers, Gladstone is actually in the right.  And he’s a politician!   As far as the exteriors, it’s no “Lawrence”, but the aerial views of the scenery are beautiful.  This is diluted a bit by some truly fake rear projection.

                        The movie is surprisingly historically accurate.  (See more below)  Gladstone was reluctant to send Gordon to the Sudan for the reasons outlined in the movie.  The movie does a good job on the political machinations, but the reasons why Gordon was an insane choice are only hinted at.  And then his actions are made to seem reasonable.  Those actions follow the historical chronology fairly well.   He, of course, did not meet with the Mahdi, but the scene does reflect the two men’s positions.  The movie implies that Gordon had no choice when actually he could have evacuated Khartoum.  Trying to hold the city was a big mistake.  The siege needed more emphasis on the starvation and exhaustion of Gordon’s forces.  Stewart’s death is what happened to him, but Gordon found out in a less shocking way.  The siege did end quickly as the movie shows and Gordon’s death is based on the most likely scenario.

                        “Khartoum” is a misfire.  It aims too high with a story that just is not epic-worthy.  It might have worked if the battles balanced the politics more.  For a long movie, there is not enough combat.  It also would have helped if Gordon was a more compelling character.  The real Gordon was mercurial and unstable.  Not exactly the type of character you hire Heston to portray.  A remake would be as different as “Little Big Man” was to “They Died with Their Boots on”. 


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The Mahdi did launch a holy war (what we would call today a jihad), but the intro does not really explain why.  The Sudan had been written off by the British, but Egypt was trying to retain control.  The British government decided it was Egypt’s problem now.  The Mahdi tapped in to the resentment toward British, and now Egyptian rule.  Taxation was the main beef, but other sparks were religious, like the appointment of non-Muslims to government positions.  One of these had been Gordon who was governor from 1873-80.  He warred with a native chief for three years and retired in 1880, returning to England.  After he left,  Muhammad Ahmed (the self-proclaimed “guided one” or Mahdi) started his uprising.   Egypt sent a very poor army to put it down and it was surprised in camp and massacred by the ill-armed Mahdis.  They acquired arms, ammunition, and confidence from the battle.  The British government responded to public pressure by sending the Hicks Expedition led by Col. William Hicks and consisting of 8,000 Egyptians.  They were wiped out by 40,000 Mahdis in the Battle of El Obeid.  This is the battle at the beginning of the movie.  Gladstone decided to evacuate from Sudan.  This was basically the Egyptian garrisons.  Press and then public clamor for Gordon put pressure that Gladstone did not withstand.  The movie does a good job on how Gordon got the job and the cynicism of the government in appointing him.  Stewart’s role is accurate.  Gladstone was a aware that Gordon would be a problem and most likely not implement the policy.  The movie omits the biggest mistake Gordon made.  When he got to the Sudan, he unbelievably announced that he was there to supervise the withdrawal, thus destroying the morale of the forces loyal to the British.  The movie accurately has Gordon proposing the use of a former slave trader named Zobeir Pasha.  I doubt Gordon was responsible for his son’s death, but the British government did put the kibosh on that idea.  Gordon made reforms in Sudan which the movie skips.  Ironically, although he had abolished the slave trade when he had been governor, he reinstated it at this time because it was popular.  He was greeted as a savior in Khartoum and it did go to his head.  Gordon and the Mahdi did not have a sit-down, but they did communicate.  The opposing views are simplified, but the Mahdi insisted on the British abandoning the Egyptian garrisons and give up Khartoum and Gordon was not prepared to do so.  He felt it would be dishonorable to cave to the Mahdi’s wishes and pushed the domino theory that the Sudan would be first and then Egypt.  He did refuse orders to do the evacuating he had signed up for and at first Gladstone was taking a good riddance approach.  Public outcry forced the sending of the relief expedition portrayed in the movie.  The Khartoum Relief Expedition, led by a friend of Gordon’s – Sir Garnet Wolseley, drug its feet shamefully.  Some friend!  The movie throws in a confusing battle which I think was supposed to be the battle where the Mahdis slowed down the relief, not that it was busting ass before that.  Meanwhile, the siege was underway.  Gordon was overconfident in his men and the city’s defenses.  The siege lasted from March, 1884 to January, 1885.  Many months beyond the city’s six month food supply.  For a while, it was possible to take ships down river, but the Mahdis shut this down and the movie shows the deaths of Stewart and everyone on board one of them.  The Mahdi did not show Gordon his severed hand, but instead sent him letters that could only have been in Stewart’s possession.  The movie does not go as far as many historians in insinuating that Gordon had a death wish and a martyr complex.  The storming of the city was not well-contested as the movie depicts.  Most historians feel Gordon’s death was as shown.  He was descending a staircase and was speared.  The relief army arrived in the area several days late. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Coriolanus (2011)


               I am currently reading Livy’s history of Rome, specifically the accounts of wars and battles. Virtually every year, Rome was at war with one or more neighboring cities. One of those perennial opponents were the Volscians. They were a real thorn in Rome’s side. The Romans won almost every battle against them (according to Livy). There was a lot of ravaging of the enemy’s territory, by both sides. It’s a bit repetitive, but occasionally a battle or person stands out. One of those heroes was Coriolanus. He is a unique figure because he went from hero to traitor. His story also incorporates the ongoing strife between the patricians and the plebeians. Over the years, the plebeians had gotten more power from the patricians. Sometimes it took protests and strikes. One significant gain was the creation of government officials called tribunes. The tribunes represented the plebeian class. They could prevent Senate legislation that was deemed harmful to the lower class. William Shakespeare found the legend of Coriolanus to be worthy of a tragedy. “Coriolanus” is not one of his famous plays, but it made for a good war movie. 

                  “Coriolanus” was a project of Ralph Fiennes. He made his directorial debut. He made the decision to put the play in a modern setting. The characters dress contemporaneously, but their words are Shakespeare’s. He had an outstanding cast to work with. Besides himself, the cast included Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, and Brian Cox. It was filmed in Serbia and Montenegro which was appropriate because although set in Rome, the film uses the Yugoslav Wars as a template. The movie cost $8 million, but made only $2 million. Fiennes was nominated for a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. 

               Rome is in a food crisis. There is martial law to cope with the unhappy lower class. Protest marchers descend on the grain depository yelling “Bread! Bread! Bread!” A general named Caius Martius (Fiennes) stands up to the mob. He calls them ingrates and refers to them as “fragments”. A phalanx (a unit used by the Romans at the time against the Volscians) of police banging on their shields confronts the protesters. The city of Rome has this civil unrest while it is also at war. There is a lot of bitterness between the Romans and the Volscians. The Volscian leader Tullus Aufidius (Butler) executes a Roman captive on video shared with the Romans. Martius and Aufidius are sworn enemies who have vowed to kill each other. Being able to leave the stage, the movie is able to depict urban fighting in the city of Corioles. Martius leads an assault on a building held by Aufidius and his men. Martius is a killing machine and his rampage ends with a knife fight with Aufidius. An artillery shell creates belligerence interruptus. Martius returns to Rome a hero and is given the cognomen Coriolanus. His mother Volumnia (Redgrave) encourages him to run for consul (similar to a president). He is a reactionary who wants to return to the good old days when the plebeians lacked any power. He manages to fake respect for the lower class, but in the end, he is a military man, not a politician. His political mentor Menemius (Cox) advises him to kiss up to the commoners, but Coriolanus just can’t help but rant about the damned rabble. He ends up banished from Rome. He is determined to make Rome pay. 

                  I realize I am more open to the play “Coriolanus” because I have an interest in Caius Martius. He is one of the most interesting figures in the Roman Republic. Livy wrote his history to make Romans proud of their heritage. His history emphasizes great Romans, starting with Romulus. Most of those heroes are saintly. Gaius Martius is unique -a brilliant general defeats Rome’s enemy and later goes over to their side! Not only that, he’s a politician who can’t bottle his true feelings about the masses. That’s pretty unique, too. Ralph Fiennes deserves a lot of credit for bringing the play to the screen. He assembled an outstanding cast, but his performance is the standout. Coriolanus is a character who an actor can really sink his teeth into. Fiennes is brilliant in depicting a man who tries but fails to keep his true feelings bottled up. He is like a tea pot coming to boil. Fiennes’ involvement reminds of Laurence Olivier’s and Kenneth Branagh’s takes on Shakespeare’s “Henry V”. Both did great acting jobs in portraying the king, but Henry was portrayed as a sympathetic figure. He is able to come down to the level of his common soldiers. “Henry V” is a drama. “Coriolanus” is a tragedy. His hubris can not be contained. The great warrior and failed politician is also a momma’s boy, which will factor into the ending of the movie.

             Fiennes decision to place the play in a modern setting and to allude to the Yugoslav Wars was brilliant. That messy situation is the closest to Rome versus Volsci that could be found. The rubble of Corioles is similar to Livy’s sacked city. Other than the police phalanx, Ancient Roman warfare is not replicated in the movie, for obvious reasons. However, other than that, the movie adheres to Livy’s tale faithfully. For this, we have to credit Shakespeare for doing his research. The decision to keep Shakespeare’s dialogue will be oft-putting for some potential viewers who would need more than subtitles. Shakespeare’s words feel a bit anachronistic, but the brilliance of his dialogue overcomes this. Screenwriter John Logan wisely pared down the speeches to their essentials. Thanks. 

               I am approaching the end stage of creating my 100 Best War Movies list. It is a bit perturbing to see great war movies this late in the game. I recently have been looking at various lists of good war movies to see if I have missed any. Usually when I watch the rare “great” war movies that I hadn’t seen yet, I wonder about the sanity of the list-maker. “Coriolanus” is the rare gem. I am not sure why it is rarely mentioned. It certainly is a war movie. It has a well-choreographed combat scene in Corioles. Speaking of choreography, the knife fight is amazing. It took two days to film. Unlike “Henry V", it is solid to the end. Livy, Shakespeare, and Fiennes make for a great collaboration. It’s available on Tubi.



Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Threads (1984)

                I had been aware of this movie for a while, but had purposely avoided it because I knew it would be depressing.  I’m not proud of myself for that.  A war movie reviewer should be able to watch any war movie.  Except maybe “Shaving Ryan’s Privates”.  “Threads” was a British/Australian production for the BBC.  It was directed by Mike Jackson (“Live from Baghdad”).  His research included consulting scientists, psychologists, doctors, and defense specialists.  For the nuclear winter scenes, he used a Science magazine article entitled “Nuclear Winter:  Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions” by Carl Sagan and James Pollock.  The movie was filmed in 17 days in Sheffield.  The city  was chosen because it was a “nuclear free zone” which meant the city council would be amenable to the disruption of a movie production.  Unlike the similar “The War Game”, which did not air in 1966 because of pressure from the Wilson government, “Threads” was aired to a large audience.  It was nominated for 7 BAFTAs and won for Best Single Drama, Design, Film Cameraman, and Film Editor. It came up short for Costume Design, Film Sound, and Make-Up (the third degree burns were Rice Krispies and ketchup).

                The movie opens with a narrator proclaiming that society is made up of threads woven together.  This makes it strong, but vulnerable.  The film follows the families of Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale).  Ruth is pregnant so she and Jimmy are to be wed.  The Becketts are a working-class family and the Kemps are middle class.  The people of Sheffield are not concerned when the news reports that the Soviets have invaded Iran after a coup they blame on the U.S.  Three days later, an American sub gets sunk in the Persian Gulf.  The President claims the attack was unprovoked.  He sends American forces to Iran to protect the oil fields.  A week later, the U.S. accuses the Soviets of bringing tactical nuclear weapons into Iran.  Since Sheffield is near a NATO air base, the citizens of Sheffield should be fleeing the city.  It is an obvious target.  Most people are ignorant about the danger they are in.  Some leave when the U.S. issues an ultimatum that the USSR leave Iran.  Since governments are like people, they don’t like to back down, a red line has been crossed.


                I used to do a game with my American History classes in conjunction with covering the Cuban Missile Crisis. I called it “Escalation” because it emphasized that a Cold War confrontation could spiral out of control.  I divided the class into leadership councils for two countries.  They had to make decisions based on what the other country’s leadership had done.  In order to “win” or save face, it was eye-opening how far a country would go in a nuclear scenario.  My scenario had some similarities to “Threads”. 

                Since I doubt many of you will watch the movie, I’m going to run through what happens to Sheffield in the movie.  This may save your life some day as it is a realistic portrayal of what might happen.  You should not be in a major city when the nukes start flying.  We left the movie situation with the U.S. ultimatum.  Great Britain moves troops to Europe.  This results in pro-NATO and anti-war protests in Sheffield.  B-52s bomb Soviet forces in Iran. The Soviets use nuclear anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down several of them.  The Americans use a nuclear bomb on a Soviet base in Iran.  There is a naval battle in which an American carrier is sunk.  Now there is a traffic jam to get out of the city.  It’s too late. A nuclear blast over the North Sea fries all communications in Great Britain.  Nukes take out targets like the nearby air base and the city itself.   Sheffield is devastated.  Huge fires break out. Over 80 megatons of explosives hit the country.  Fallout blankets most of the country.  Few residents are prepared for the two weeks they must spend indoors away from any windows.  Hospitals are swamped with burn victims and radiation casualties.  The movie goes on to show the effects nuclear winter.  Survivors have to cope with lack of food in the present and the killing of crops and livestock in the next few months.  Ten years later, Ruth and her daughter are barely eking out their existence.  Civilization has collapsed.

                Watching “Threads” is a sobering experience.  I also could have used adjectives like gut-wrenching, depressing, emotional, and powerful.  Don’t avoid it as I did, especially if you have little idea of what a nuclear war will be like.  The scenario the movie posits is a realistic one.  Once one nuclear explosion occurs, anywhere in the world will be in danger.  If you want to live, you will have enough warning to take steps to survive.  However, watching this movie, you might not want to survive.  It is an indictment of human reaction to threats.  There was a time after the Cold War when “Threads” could be seen as a curio.  Unfortunately, the threat of nuclear war has returned. 

                For a low budget affair, “Threads” has high production values.  The special effects are gruesome, but they needed to be.  There are a lot of dead bodies, human and animal.  Don’t eat while viewing.  Just when you think it can’t be grimmer, there is a shot of a woman carrying her dead baby.  This movie is depressing.  Not one positive thing happens.  The film focuses on the emergency city council’s efforts to deal with a catastrophe that it is ill-prepared for.  There is no optimism even 13 years after war.  The final scenes depict the loss of humanity that will result from hundreds of nuclear explosions.

                The cast was mostly unknowns.  Director Jackson wanted fresh faces that the audience could identify with.  Karen Meagher stands out since her Ruth is the only character that is followed to the end.  Well, not quite the end.  Karen gives birth in a barn.  She cuts the umbilical cord with her teeth.  (That’s licorice, by the way.)  The acting is decent and kudos to make-up for showing how nuclear war will affect appearances. 

                I have the goal of seeing some more of the nuclear war subgenre.  Movies like “The Day After”, which was the American equivalent of “Threads”.  Also the animated “When the Wind Blows”.  But I think I’ll wait a while before I watch the next one.  Realistic movies about nuclear war can be real downers.