KHARTOUM —–prestige historical spectacle from 1966, keeping company that year with the likes of The Sand Pebbles and The Blue Max. Despite positive press, a good deal of advertising, and an Oscar nomination for its script, it didn’t fare nearly as well with audiences. Costing something like $7,000,000 to mount, in the critical American market it only made $5,900,000, lagging just behind two lame Elvis pictures at 47th place for the year.
“Every man has a final weapon: his own life. If he’s afraid to lose it he throws the weapon away.”
The Sudan, the early 1880’s. Muhammad Ahmed, a religious mystic/zealot who proclaims himself the Mahdi–“the expected One“—leads desert tribes in Holy War. This includes wiping out an Egyptian army led by a British officer. Britain’s government, not eager to repeat a mess like the recent Zulu War, sends legendary General Charles Gordon to evacuate foreign nationals. The Mahdi’s overwhelming forces besiege the charismatic Gordon in Khartoum. The rest, as they say, is history—and one hell of a battle-movie.
Charlton Heston does reasonably well going stiff-upper-Brit as Gordon, and Laurence Olivier enjoys toying with righteous madness as the Mahdi; they share two invented but effective scenes together, as the well-matched zealots size up and parry with one another. Richard Johnson does sturdy duty as Gordon’s stalwart second-in-command, and Ralph Richardson shows up for a few exposition scenes as Prime Minister Gladstone (similar to his Themistocles in The 300 Spartans). Hardies such as Nigel Green and Michael Hordern are on hand and Leo Genn’s marvelous voice is brought to bear in the introductory narration.
“It is sometimes wise, Gordon Pasha, to provide the man with a few sunny hours of fraudulent hope so that when night comes he will have a more perfect inward vision of the truth of his hopelessness.”
Basil Dearden directed; the literate, reasonably balanced screenplay was written by Robert Ardrey, whose influential book “The Territorial Imperative” was published the same year. Apart from a few stagey old-style rear-projection shots, it looks magnificent, shot in 70mm Ultra Panavision by Edward Scaife, with Harry Waxman covering the 2nd-unit thrills. There are plenty, both with vistas of the Egyptian locations and the five spectacular battle sequences. Yakima Canutt arranged the swarming and furious action, which includes some horsefalls that are truly startling. In his autobio “Stunt Man”, he said that “there were no injuries to a single horse in our work.” I don’t know…
Frank Cordell composed the evocative and stirring music score. With Alexander Knox, Johnny Sekka, Peter Arne, Marne Maitland, Zia Mohyeddin, Douglas Wilmer. Eliot Elisofon directed the captivating opening scenes behind Genn’s narration. At 136 minutes, it’s short for an epic, and that includes composer Cordell’s nearly nine minutes of music for Overture, Intermission, En’tracte and Exit (no complaint, it’s all excellent). *
* The relatively short running time allows the script for just a pass at the fairly amazing backstory behind “Chinese” Gordon, who did enough—and was strange enough—to fill a mini-series.
Heston: “…it was clear my star power did not extend to a film with no women about a famous Brit largely unknown to American audiences.” As with Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, Heston was 6’3″ while Gordon was 5’5″. Does it matter? Nope. It’s how your carry yourself, and Charlton Heston had few peers at suggesting outsize heroes. Which— height-schmeight—Gordon was.
Julius Blaustein, the film’s producer, sent a copy of the screenplay to the Mahdi’s grandson, who returned it with a note saying it was “extremely fine script.” As to the invented meetups between his grandfather and Gordon he remarked “Ah, but Mr. Blaustein, they should have!”
Naturally, modern p.c.-engorged critics take issue with Olivier’s makeup. Perhaps the film should carry a sensitivity warning about how a movie, made halfway into the previous century, could provoke potential psychological peril by having a mass-murdering maniac played in a way that, decades later, might bother three or four people. Gordon shrugs. The Mahdi smiles. I watch Khartoum again.