If that’s not enough to pique the interest of those who’ve not seen this somewhat forgotten film (recently issued as a limited edition Blu-ray by Twilight Time), perhaps the presence of screen legends Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier will. Heston carries the film as General Charles Gordon, a real-life British military hero with a megalomaniacal bent. When Muslim extremist Muhammad Ahmad (Olivier, in a grotesque bit of brownface caricature, common in those days but unacceptable by modern standards) invades the Sudan and begins slaughtering thousands, the British government is faced with a real problem. Ahmad is a nut, totally convinced he’s the Mahdi, the prophesized “expected one” who will rid the world of evil (or something along those lines). The point is he’s planning to wipe out as many people and conquer as much territory as possible.
Gordon is sent into Khartoum, virtually alone, not so much to stop the self-proclaimed Mahdi in his tracks, but to evacuate the soldiers stationed there. The British government knows—and basically expects—Gordon to ignore his simple orders. British Prime Minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) doesn’t want massive military casualties. By sending in the unpredictable Gordon solo, Gladstone can wash his hands of the whole affair if things go south. Gordon self-righteously goes forth, a holy crusader in his own right. He’s driven by Christianity and his own ego, clashing with the Mahdi (during an imagined meeting that never really took place). Heston and Olivier (whose scant few scenes were all shot on a soundstage in London) share the screen briefly, but the latter is hampered by the makeup and silly accent. Olivier’s performance tips toward camp, while Heston’s work shines due to its relative restraint (despite a tenuous grasp of the English accent).
The more one knows about 19th century British and Sudanese history, the better prepared he will be for Khartoum. Despite the Academy’s recognition, Ardrey’s screenplay doesn’t seem to outline a very clean narrative. While director Basil Dearden infuses the battle scenes with a sufficiently awe-inspiring wonder (one has to specifically wonder about the safety of the dozens of horses seen toppling over), it’s all more than a little confusing at times. It’s as if this subject matter was, when all is said and done, too broad and complex for even a 136-minute film (that’s including several minutes of music-only stretches during the opening Overture and the particularly unnecessary Intermission). Still, if Khartoum sends viewers to the history books (or websites) to obtain a slightly better grasp of the events depicted, that’s certainly not a bad thing. But for those who aren’t already history buffs (or who aren’t interested in doing a little homework), the full significance of the Siege of Khartoum may be difficult to get a handle on.
The visual presentation of this 2.76:1 image is faultless. Even if the dense plotting doesn’t hook you, the scenery likely will. The opening sequence (directed not by Dearden, but by Eliot Elisofon) contains striking Egyptian landscapes offered up in breathtaking clarity. The source materials for this transfer were obviously in great shape, with only a few tiny speckles here and there. Tough competition (and likely the film’s failure to attract much of an audience) edged Edward Scaife’s cinematography out of a nomination, but based on what we see here that’s hard to believe. The enhanced detail is also highly welcome during the chaotic battle sequences.
I opened by pointing out that 70mm release prints allowed for six-channel sound. As explained in the audio commentary accompanying Khartoum, the masters for such a mix were apparently not available for inclusion here. While that has sparked understandable disappointment from some fans, the lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack is certainly adequate. While a full surround mix might’ve been something really special given the nature of this film, the 2.0 mix is undistorted and relatively robust, getting the job done without ever being as noteworthy as the visuals.
Again, many viewers might feel the need to do a bit of homework to put Khartoum in context. Luckily, the folks who contribute the excellent audio commentary—film historians Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo (latter also wrote the booklet essay), along with screenwriter Lem Dobbs—have done a lot of the legwork already. Their highly engaging running chat is packed with background information about the film, not only about the production itself but also some the history behind the story. Also included is an isolated score track presented in DTS-HD MA. It’s a nice bonus, as Frank Cordell’s music is gorgeous (again, 1966 must’ve also been a fiercely competitive year in that category as well).
Though some of the lengthy talky sequences are a bit dry, Khartoum is an ambitious film that’s well worth seeing. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition is limited to 3,000 and can be ordered from Screen Archives while supplies last.