Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Movie Review: Khartoum (1966)


A historical epic in the desert sands, Khartoum is an engrossing spectacle. The battle of ideology between British General Charles Gordon and self-appointed Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad is a microcosm of the struggle for Sudan's soul in the late nineteenth century, with resonance through to the present.

It's the 1880s, and Sudan, superficially governed by the British via Egypt, is being rocked by an Islamic uprising. Muhammad Ahmad (Laurence Olivier) has appointed himself as the Promised One, and is leading thousands of men on a quest to wrest control of the country from foreign domination. A poorly trained Egyptian force of 10,000 men, led by British Colonel William "Billy" Hicks, is dispatched into the desert to quell the rebellion, but Ahmad's men wipe-out the Egyptians and seize all their weapons.

In desperation and not wishing to get further embroiled in a military conflict, British Prime Minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) sends the highly respected General Charles Gordon (Charlton Heston) to organize an orderly evacuation of Khartoum before it is overrun by Ahmad. Gladstone also assigns Colonel Stewart (Richard Johnson) to accompany Gordon and keep an eye on him. A devote Christian, Gordon had previously helped to end slavery in Sudan and harbours a deep attachment to the country. Gordon and Stewart arrive in Khartoum to find Ahmad's revolution spreading much faster and farther than anticipated. Gordon refuses to evacuate, and instead digs in with the residents of Khartoum, hoping to shame Britain into sending an army to save the day.

Combining the Englishman-in-the-Middle-East-desert elements of Lawrence Of Arabia (1962) with the stubborn man-of-integrity from A Man For All Seasons (1966), Khartoum may not be as perfect as either of these two classics, but is nevertheless an absorbing experience.

Director Basil Deardon demonstrates a functional but limited repertoire of skills, and defaults to letting the scenes and settings speak for themselves without introducing eloquent shadings of style. Edward Scaife's cinematography is also unable to find too many interesting new angles to animate the desert. What Khartoum does have in its favour is a more compact story, geographically well-defined around a besieged town, and a religious struggle of the times impersonated by two memorable men.

Robert Ardrey's Academy Award nominated screenplay takes a few liberties with the known facts of the conflict, but otherwise demonstrates vividly that historical events do indeed echo down the centuries. In Khartoum, Muhammad Ahmed declares that he is the Promised One, and convinces himself and others that he is the recipient of commands and inspiration through holy visions. He proceeds to advocate a holy war against a myriad of imagined enemies, and envisages a sequence of great victories that will subjugate all the Arab capitals to his will. Written in the mid-1960s to represent an extremist from the 1880s, the exact same words were recycled late in the 20th century to re-ignite another round of blood-letting in the name of religion.

Khartoum draws considerable power from Gordon as a single man and Ahmad at the head of an inflamed revolutionary army waging a private battle over Sudan's future. Olivier portrays Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad as a leader riding on a high of multiplying victories, and committed to accelerating his revolution. He is coldly confident, understatement replacing bombast. Heston's Gordon is also more internal fortitude than external passion, but Heston adds the intriguing complexity of a hero disobeying his own government, banking on public opinion thousands of miles away to move an army, simply because he loves a foreign land and its people.

There are two entertaining and multi-faceted secondary characters that add to Khartoum's drama. Richard Johnson's Colonel Stewart has an interesting journey of his own, as he enters Gordon's sphere of influence with a clear mandate but exits with a decidedly re-aligned perspective. And Ralph Richardson is delightful as Prime Minister William Gladstone, exhibiting all the slipperiness of a politician looking for hidden exits, convenient scapegoats, and moral escape routes out of a highly inconvenient situation.

Khartoum ends with bloodshed, slaughter and chaos, seemingly intelligent men proving incapable of rising above a lust for power, religion again abused for a depraved personal purpose. Over the course of history, only the names and locations change.






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