“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”.
GRADE = C
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.