Khartoum is a city in Sudan. There, during the government of Prime Minister Gladstone, the famed British general Charles Gordon met a savage death at the hands of an Arab insurgent called Muhammad Ahmad who proclaimed himself the Mahdi (“the rightly guided one” – a redeemer expected by some Muslims to appear before the day of judgment).
This film abounds in desert battle scenes unmatched for their realism, presenting the frightening power of human tides of attacking Arabs through skilful photography, eye-level camera angles, and excellent editing.
The middle section of Khartoum gets tangled up in the complicated politics behind British intervention, with a lot of men with tufty facial hair sitting around in armchairs and vacillating.
In the climactic scene, the camera stares transfixed at the tops of the dunes as the fanatical yells of the attacking wave of Arabs are heard long before any of them are seen.
The moment is interminable, as it must have been for the doomed defenders of the city.
The photography – shot on location in Egypt – is gorgeous. A breathtaking prologue, filmed among the pyramids at dawn, is directed by the famed photographer Eliot Elisofon and sets the tone for the film. The desert, filmed as though it were the sea, dominates every action.
Performances by the principals are outstanding. Olivier swathed in Arab robes and generally immobile as the Mahdi, acts almost entirely with his eyes and voice to portray a frightening Mohammedan fanatic, for whom the slaughter of the inhabitants of Khartoum is divine will.
Heston, as Gordon, is his equally religious adversary whose faith gives him a supreme courage that makes him, even in death, the victor.
Afterwards, his head is brought on a stick to Muhammad Ahmad, who isn’t pleased at all. “Take it away!” he howls. In real life, Ahmad did specifically order that Gordon was not to be killed.
Top acting honours must go to Ralph Richardson as Prime Minister Gladstone, an unashamed politician who deals with Gordon as a pawn in an international power struggle and tells him so.
Ruthless yet candid, he provides the scope of world events and places the role of the tragedy of Khartoum in its historical niche.
Though he will be reviled for his sacrifice of Gordon, he acts boldly in what he believes to be his country’s best interests.
His is the best line of the film, spoken of Gordon: “I hate a man who consults God before he consults me!”
There are very few real flaws in the film. Some long shots of Khartoum are obviously badly-hued backdrops, and a few of the secondary Arabs are plainly walnut-stained Caucasians.
Horse lovers will not appreciate how the stuntmen treat the cavalry mounts in the battle scenes, but otherwise, this is a grand and often beautiful film for a family audience – somewhere between a Walt Disney epic and The Red Badge of Courage.
General Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon
Colonel J.D.H. Stewart
Prime Minister William Gladstone
Sir Evelyn Baring
Sir Charles Dilkel
Colonel William Hicks