BR: Khartoum (1966)

July 24, 2014 | By


KhartoumFilm: Very Good

Transfer: Excellent / Extras: Very Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  January 22, 2012

Genre:  Historical Epic / War / Drama

Synopsis: Sent to Sudan as an adviser and to facilitate the evacuation of British nationals, Gen. Charles Gordon finds himself at the centre of a power grab by a religious zealot who lays siege to the city of Khartoum.

Special Features: Audio Commentary with producer Nick Redman, film historian Julie Kirgo, and screenwriter Lem Dobbs / Isolated Mono Score Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by Film Historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3ooo copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.




A film clearly put into production to cash in on the success of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Khartoum’s central subject is another forgotten British hero – General Charles ‘Chinese” Gordon – whose claim to fame was problem-solving strife and divisions in Asia, Africa, and later the Middle East. His greatest reported accomplishment was in disbanding the slave trade in Sudan, after which he resigned his position and moved on to other endeavors in exotic lands, but in 1884 he returned to Sudan when the country, Egypt and other neighbours were threatened by a religious zealot, Muhammad Ahmad.

Proclaiming himself to be a Mahdi, Ahmad believed he was empowered by God to rid the world of infidels and evil, which included women and children, and within a short timespan he was able to grab control of significant strategic areas within Sudan and become a major threat to the region. No European power wished to enmesh themselves in what could evolve into a potential civil war, so while Gordon was sent to aide the Sudanese purely as an advisor and facilitate the evacuation of British citizens, he eventually created a situation wish could be characterized as interventionist. Eventually, the Brits sent a small force when it was clear Gordon wasn’t going to leave Khartoum for Ahamad and his men.

Even from the highly condensed historical events above (which screenwriter Robert Ardrey followed with some embellishments), audiences will find eerie present-day parallels to the drama in which an Islamist force seeks to establish a religious state, purging western influences from the region with blunt force, and plotting to bleed their violent struggle into neighboring lands. It’s that storyline which makes Khartoum rather relevant, and overshadow the film’s rather peculiar flaws.

Charlton Heston is fine as Gordon – besides extra grey hair, this is another charismatic historical figure for which the actor was so well-suited to play – but Laurence Olivier is a little surreal as the Mahdi, going for a vaguely Indo-Pakistani accent, and dying his skin in deep shoe polish tones, plus weird red tinting around his lips and gums. Olivier’s scenes were also shot back at Pinewood, and as commentators Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman, and Lem Dobbs opine, both Olivier and director Basil Dearden were lilkely working back at Pinewood in England while ace second unit director Yakima Canutt was on location in Egypt, crafting some gorgeous sequences.

Whereas Dearden, a director of character dramas (Victim) and comedies (The Smallest Show on Earth), handled the dialogue scenes, Canutt seemed to have instructed cinematographer Edward Scaife to keep the camera moving, and capture the immense scale of the desert terrain. The best shots aren’t Lean-styled, sustained ‘scope portraits of the desert but a pair of amazing deep-focus crane shots in which extras dot and pepper the peaks and pits of canyons. The action scenes are sometimes quite immersive, although after the lengthy slaughter sequence in the first act Ardrey downsizes the drama to a battle of wits between Gordon Ahamad. In the film, both men are deeply religious, but in real life Gordon was a bit of a zealot and nutter himself, reportedly believing God was seated on a golden throne high above the Earth. (That tidbit, along with Gordon’s zealotry, was left out of the film, but there’s still a sense the two men regarded each other as infidels.)

Unlike their film counterparts, the two leaders never met, but their ongoing missives from a distance, coupled with Ahamad’s laying siege to Khartoum, fed Gordon’s stubbornness, and prolonged his original save-the-British-and-get-the-hell-out mission to a year.

In spite of some sterile dialogue, Ardrey conveys the dynamics of Gordon’s remarkable final years, and the potent moments in which the British government realizes they’ve created a mess. Khartoum is filled with excellent actors – sneering Alexander Knox, curt Nigel Green, ever-reliable Michael Hordern, irritable Ralph Richardson, and dashing yet bland Richard Johnson – but only the leads are given enough material to transcend their characters. (One interesting bit of casting is Senegalese actor Johnny Sekka, who plays Gordon’s loyal assistant / comic relief / language mangler Khaleel, but is perhaps better-known for a co-starring role in Moustapha Akkad’s 1977 epic The Message, about the birth of Islam.)

Frank Cordell’s score is an odd yet affecting blend of heroic militarism and inventive theme variations, creating stark contrast between the dire situation of Khatoum’s trapped inhabitants, and Gordon’s resilience and inventiveness which enabled the city to fend off Ahmad’s forces with a much smaller (and not necessarily better-trained) group of men.

Khartoum was conceived as an epic, and it manages to hit most of the target points, but it does suffer from a sense of the familiar, perhaps because of Heston’s casting, and one can’t help compare Dearden’s mid-budget epic to Lean’s sprawling masterwork about heroism, egotism, and the deep affection shared by British military figures for the lands where vicious battles for independence and civil order were fought and won with British involvement.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a jaw-dropping, gorgeous transfer – one really wishes Dearden had held longer on several widescreen money shots – and the label’s chosen to record their own commentary track. It’s one of the label’s best because Dobbs is the needed naysayer among the trio; although he shares a childhood affection for the film’s scope and historical elements, he’s less enthused about the script, and his views spawn some lively discussions about the epic genre, as well as the film’s production history.

They also address the film’s status as one of the later (and better) films exhibited in single-lens Cinerama. The confusion about its proper aspect ratio lies in Khartoum being shot in 2.75:1 in Ultra Panavision 70, but like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), special ‘rectified‘ prints were struck for Cinerama’s curved screen presentation.

The trio also discuss composer Frank Cordell, whose score is presented in an isolated mono track. (The film mix is only in 2.0 stereo, but it’s a really vibrant mix that still conveys the scope of Cordell’s music + sound design.) The trio also explain the music track was supplied by the composer’s estate who not only discovered tapes of the score, but found Cordell’s unused music from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). (Some brief info on his rejected contribution to Stanley Kubrick’s space epic appears at the end of this interview with audio engineer Eric Tomlinson.)



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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