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After an Egyptian army, commanded by British officers, is destroyed in a battle in the Sudan in the 1880's, the British government is in a quandary. It does not want to commit a British military force to a foreign war but they have a commitment to protect the Egyptians in Khartoum. They decide to ask General Charles "Chinese" Gordon, something of a folk hero in the Sudan as he had cleared the area of the slave trade, to arrange for the evacuation. Gordon agrees but also decides to defend the city against the forces of the Mahdi - the expected one - and tries to force the British to commit troops. Written by
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Confrontation between Western Imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism more topical than ever.
It has been argued that films dealing with historical subject matter always make for bad history. The pedants complain that the historical element has been simplified, or worse changed and therefore because it is bad history it is a bad film. But is it? By that standard Shakespeare's historical plays are bad plays. No one has ever argued that these kind of films can ever take the place of a well-researched book. That is not the point. Both mediums are subject to their form. Books can provide a wealth of information and detail that can and should demonstrate the complexity of history. Film on the other hand is essentially a visual medium, and subject to the demands of dramatic form and structure. The question should rather be, is it a good film even with the simplification of history? The Chorus from Shakespeare's "Henry V" actually provided the best justification for these historical epics; "Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram into this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt? O, pardon! Since a crooked figure may attest in little place a million; and let us ciphers to this great accompt, on your imaginary forces work, turning the accomplishment of many years into an hour glass..." The best historical films, of which "Khartoum" is one, do just that, they fire the imagination, however condensed and simplified the history, and hopefully inspire the viewer to delve deeper into the subject by purchasing a good book on the matter.
Robert Ardrey's screenplay is wonderfully literate and "Khartoum" is a pleasure to listen to as well as watch. The disaster that befell Col. William Hicks in 1884 and would set in motion the chain of events that would culminate in the confrontation between Mohammad Ahmed, called The Mahdi, (Laurence Olivier) and British General Charles George Gordon, called "Chinese Gordon", (Charlton Heston) are quickly detailed in a brief prologue featuring an uncredited voice-over by Leo Genn, and the first of several stunning battles staged by the great Yakima Canutt. Ardrey maintains the essential aura of mystery that surrounded these two fascinating enigmatic individuals. Gordon was nothing if not a very complex man. A solitary non-conformist who craved and despised public adulation, a devout Christian that never allied himself to any church, a reluctant empire builder more often sympathetic to those he had to oppose. Suggesting complexity of character, however was not one of Charlton Heston's strong points and he cannot begin to suggest Gordon's contradictory traits. He is too solid, too commanding, too physically heroic. But he does bring those qualities to the character, and he is an impressive physical presence, unlikely to get lost in the epic production of the film. One only needs to see Colin Ferrell flounder as Alexander the Great in Oliver Stone's "Alexander" to appreciate how important a charismatic presence in an epic film can be.
On the other hand, Laurence Olivier as The Mahdi is marvelously equipped as an actor to suggest the subtleties and nuance of his character. With far less screen time he makes every gesture, every vocal intonation, every flicker of the eye suggest layers of depth. He is holy man and realist, opportunist and idealist. His scenes with Heston are among the best in the film. Heston, a more natural film actor, wisely leaves the pyrotechnics to Olivier, and skillfully underplays, so when his big emotional moment finally arrives, it is all the more effective. The pedants will argue The Mahdi and Gordon never met face to face. That is true, but as one of Mohammad Ahmed's relatives told Producer Julian Baustein, "Ah, but they should have!" The two however did correspond at length. The same can be said of Heston's big scene with Ralph Richardson as Prime Minister William Gladstone, they never met face to face either. Both are examples of history being altered to suit the needs of drama and rightfully so for both provide for some high powered acting and make for a better film. Richardson brings to his part all the shrewd, ruthless, deviousness of a savvy political animal determined to survive. Richard Johnson as Col. J.D.H. Stewart, Gordon's reluctant adjutant and later admirer gives a stiff upper lip performance in the best tradition of John Mills, while Michael Hordern as Lord Granville, Nigel Green as General Wolseley and Alexander Knox as Sir Evelyn Baring all give very effective supporting performances.
Too often compared to its detriment with David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" of a few years earlier, in much the same way "Barry Lyndon" was compared unfavorably with "Tom Jones", Director Basil Dearden, (The League of Gentlemen) wisely resists following Lean's lush romantic style and instead opts for a more subdued realistic approach, clean, simple and direct. This approach is reinforced by Frank Cordell's score which is very reminiscent of the music of Edward Elgar and appropriately so. In fact Elgar himself at one point planned to write a symphony on Gordon. In the light of recent world events, this classic confrontation between Western Imperialism and Eastern Islamic fundamentalism makes "Khartoum" more topical than ever.
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