“Did I understand you correctly? If we send Gordon to Khartoum — Gordon, a national hero — and he fails, then the blame will fall on him and not on the government?”
“It could happen that way.”
In 1965, Charlton Heston agreed to participate in Khartoum, a film in which he was to play 19th-century British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon. Heston accepted the job because he was greatly impressed by the script by Robert Ardrey (which in fact would earn an Academy Award nomination). Principal photography began at England’s Pinewood studios where most of the interiors were shot, and then moved to Egypt for the location work. The city of Masghouna, on the Nile River, was used to represent 1885 Khartoum. Filming was completed in November 1965 and the film opened in early 1966 with a Royal Premiere in London. It received generally favourable notices and did good business everywhere but in the United States. Possibly the unfamiliar subject matter and the lack of a female star were contributing factors to the latter. MGM has now released Khartoum on DVD as one of its standard catalogue offerings.
In 1885, the city of Khartoum, located on the Nile River and capital of the Sudan, is threatened with being attacked and occupied by Muslim fundamentalist, the Mahdi, and his followers. In addition to its large Sudanese population, the city is home to many Europeans and Egyptians. Loathe to commit British troops to defend the city, the British government sends General Charles Gordon to arrange evacuation of the non-Sudanese. Gordon’s arrival, by virtue of his past record in dealing with slavery in the region, brings much hope to the city’s inhabitants. Gordon, however, does not intend to evacuate Khartoum and instead hopes to force British intervention by refusing to leave the city. As time passes with the city’s inhabitants weakening due to lack of food and the Mahdi’s forces isolating the city, Gordon prepares Khartoum to repel invasion, all the time still hopeful of British intervention.
Khartoum appeared near the end of the cycle of historical epic films that had begun over a decade earlier with the introduction of the widescreen CinemaScope process. In Khartoum‘s case, filming was done using Ultra Panavision rectified for presentation in single-strip Cinerama. It was the last film shot in this manner. For practical purposes, the film was generally projected with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. In the hands of veteran British director Basil Dearden, the look of the film reflects how well it has taken advantage of the wide image, presenting generous vistas of the Nile River, Khartoum, and the desert environs. The interiors also use the wide screen effectively, in terms of both spatial and colour composition. Supporting Dearden is the renowned second-unit director, Yakima Canutt (of Ben-Hur fame, for example), who successfully generates excitement and realism in the film’s action sequences. These components represent some of the film’s strongest aspects.
The acting of the two principal roles is also a positive. In one of his best portrayals, Charlton Heston provides us with a General Gordon who is suitably heroic and inspirational, but he also successfully hints at Gordon’s weaknesses — his unwavering belief that Britain will do what’s right and his almost megamaniacal reliance on the power of his own force of will. As the Mahdi, Laurence Olivier manages to avoid what could have been a ridiculous spectacle. Done up in blackface, Olivier gives a very intelligent reading of the part, providing real conviction to lines that could easily have elicited laughter. His Mahdi is no one-dimensional fanatic, but a man of refinement and possessed of real concern for Gordon’s fate. The face-to-face meetings of Heston and Olivier’s characters are high points of the film (even if the two characters never met in real life). Ralph Richardson provides a nice supporting portrait of British Prime Minister Gladstone.
Despite Heston’s contentment with Khartoum‘s admittedly intelligent (and even somewhat accurate) script, it is the script that is also responsible for the film’s major weakness. At two and a quarter hours, the film is too long. The middle is wordy and static, and just drags despite how good it all looks. The players strive mightily to keep us interested as the intermission looms, but if you’re at all drowsy, sleep may win out.
MGM previously released Khartoum on laserdisc with a very pleasing image transfer, but its new DVD improves the experience even further. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is very fine indeed and comes complete with overture, intermission, entr’acte, and exit music. Colours are rich and vibrant (particularly in contrast with the grays and browns of the desert); the image is free of all but the very odd speckle; and contrast and shadow detail are excellent. The panoramic shots look beautiful and images where blue sky comes into play show no sign of video noise. Edge enhancement is not a concern.
The audio is a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround mix available in both English and Spanish. This is an effective surround presentation (apparently derived from the original stereo mix) that is mainly concentrated in the fronts (with some nice directionality), but with occasional subtle surround effects. Generally low-key bass effects are also apparent during some of the battle scenes. Volume level concerns with the previous laserdisc are not in evidence on the DVD. The pleasingly majestic music score by Frank Cordell is nicely conveyed. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Supplementary material is confined to MGM’s standard offering of the original theatrical trailer. It’s too bad that Charlton Heston couldn’t have been prevailed upon to do a commentary as the film is apparently one he is quite proud of.
If you like historical epics, Khartoum has lots to offer despite the fact that it’s perhaps a quarter hour too long. Fine performances, excellent cinematography, and an interesting story combine to make one of the last of such spectacles a worthy film experience. MGM comes through where it counts — with a very fine transfer both visually and sonically. Recommended.