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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
A Thinking Man's Fictionalized Biography; A Beautiful Historical Re-creation
As a writer and actor, I found "Khartoum" to be a fascinating project. And even if the producers never solved all of the fictionalized biography's inherent questions and problems entirely, the resulting cinematic feature came out I suggest as intelligent, literate, thoughtful, a film very much worth seeing more than once. The chief question about George Gordon, a pseudo-religious colonial general, administrator and enigmatic character is whether he really championed the subjects of Britain's evil Empire or whether he just wanted them quietly subjected; there is much evidence on both sides of the question. In the film, for filmic purposes, we assume he is genuine; that he is in fact jeopardizing his own life at low odds doing something most political experts consider impossible because he cares about the Sudanese and their (we assume) more-hopeful future under British rule than under that of a pseudo-religious murderous and highly-intelligent zealot. Nothing, I suggest, could be more timely for men to consider not long after the 9/11 attacks staged by the Mahdi's equally-repulsive spiritual brethren than the real attitude of the imperialist power of the last century targeted by a rival imperialist have-not Musilim fanatic. If we assume, as the screenplay's author Robert Ardrey would have us believe, that the core truth about Gordon was that he cared about responsibility more than about playing Establishment politics, playing leader or staying alive, then the man is definitely worth making a film about, and worthy his place in history. After an interesting but leisurely exposition of the region and the background to the Nile, the Sudan and its peoples, replete with lovely scenes, and a narration read by the great actor Leo Genn, we witness the destruction of an ill-officered British army by the forces of The Expected One, a dangerous new religious rebel. Back in England, Horace Gladstone, Prime Minister and Machiavellian politician, is appalled. There seems to be no solution to his problem of what to do next, until someone suggests getting General "Chinese" Gordon to risk his life opposing the new fanatic. They believe he would have to be crazy to do so; they tell him so. He agrees to go. So with no plan and what he discovers is a pat hand dealt by Fate against him, he heads to Egypt. He tries to get the slaver whose son he killed and whose power he reduced to be governor of the Sudan; the man refuses, angrily. He finds the Mahdi making headway, but he is received by the British in Khartoum and the populace as a savior. "It's good to be home," he tells them. But in truth, he is in a hornet's nest. Eventually, he has to pack all the foreigners out, and then he must fortify the city on the Nile; wait out the flood season while its heights keeps the invaders away, and eventually also he must conduct a great raid 1. to deprive the Mahdi of supplies; and 2. to provision the city. Then there is a wait--as a relief army by a reluctant Gladstone is trained, and straggles up the Nile to relieve him--three days too late. The film is beautifully-made. My only complaint is that we hardly see Khartoum at all after the initial welcoming scene. Every other scene in the film is to me like seeing history brought to life. The two great invented scenes--a meeting between Gordon and Gladstone and a meeting between the Mahdi and Gordon are the best dramatic scenes in the film in my judgment; if they did not happen, they certainly should have. Basil Dearden's direction to me is admirable in every respect; atmosphere goes past style in difficult and reward-level; this film is frequently atmospheric. The art direction by John Howell and the cinematography by veteran Edward Scaife are both outstanding. Yakima Canutt of Ben-Hur chariot -race fame directed the elaborate battle scenes. Pamela Cornell was the chief set dresser. In the cast are Charlton Heston trying very hard and frequently succeeding as Gordon, even though he cannot quite do a British accent. As the Mahdi, Olivier is award level, making spare but telling use of his wide arsenal as an actor; he used his Moorish success as "Othello" to flesh out a most memorable monster. In the cast, Richard Johnson is very good, Ralph Richardson, Nigel Green, Michael Hordern and Alexander Knox are outstanding. My favorite scene is the great meeting between Gordon and the Mahdi; but there are others--the great roundup, the arrival, Gordon and his servant (Johnny Sekka) in several maddening attempts to gain information, the great reception and the Prime Minister's meeting, the annihilation of William Hicks's army, etc. I find this is a very underrated film, made by adults perhaps too late to find an audience capable of appreciating its full values.
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