Khartoum (1966 Britain)

This has to be one of the most splendid films ever to come out of Pinewood Studios. Khartoum depicts the last chapter in the remarkable life of Gen. Charles “Chinese” Gordon; another one of those larger-than-life-personages seemingly produced uniquely by Victorian England; such as Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) or T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). To that last personage is the best comparison as they were both considered the best commanders of “irregular” forces of their respective times. And like Lawrence of Arabia this film barely scrapes the surface of the man’s life but they couldn’t make it three times longer could they?

The fifties and sixties were the golden age of the large-scale historical epic on the cinema screen. Most of these dealt with either Biblical, Classical or Mediaeval history, but there was also a fashion for making movies on a similar epic scale dealing with more recent historical events. Many of these, such as “Bridge on the River Kwai”or “Fifty-Five Days at Peking”, dealt with some aspect of European colonialism or with relations between Westerners and the inhabitants of some other part of the globe. Khartoum falls within this tradition. The cast boasts the likes of Laurence Olivier, Charlton Heston, Ralph Richardson and Nigel Green. They are all in fine form as they deliver the reasonably accurate, historical screenplay…

The film kicks off with the ill-fated expedition of a 10,000 man Egyptian army led by an Englishman, Col William Hicks, into the desert where they’re ambushed and massacred by the followers of the Mahdi. Thousands of rifles, millions of bullets and dozens of cannon are captured by the Muslims. The Mahdi proclaims his victory a miracle, the British prime minister, Gladstone, declares it a disaster, feeling he is responsible to find a remedy. Needless to say that some serious butt kicking of these uppity indigenous hordes is now a possibility. To restore British honour. Top-hole Brit warrior Charles “Chinese” Gordon is asked to go to Khartoum in an unofficial capacity to evacuate the European population. How can he refuse?

Gordon agrees, but decides to defend the city, leading to some great storming battles and a memorable meeting with the Mahdi. The British belatedly send a relief force. The Europeans flee the city in a steamboat and attempt to sail up the Nile to Egypt, but just when it looks as if they’re out of danger, those dastardly Muslims stop the boat, and although it’s not shown, wipe out the passengers. The Mahdi and Gordon meet, and the Mahdi shows proof that the escape failed. The Mahdi then predicts a miracle, the fall of Khartuom. Gordon replies that he may die from the Mahdi’s miracle, but the Mahdi will surely die from Gordon’s own miracle.

By having its heroes outnumbered, like cowboys surrounded by hordes of manic Indians, Khartoum manoeuvres its audience into siding with European colonialists. Elsewhere it uses Gordon’s demise to criticize political leaders who refuse to rally behind valiant troops. Heston, who spent the decade battling hordes of on-screen “savages”, is himself a caricature of British bravery, whilst the Mahdi never rises above the level of black-faced bogeyman. Still, Khartoum has its merits. Impeccably shot, tense, filled with impressive battles and awesome landscapes, it remains the best of a certain brand of 1950s/60s, pro-Imperialist adventure. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: