ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Khartoum (1966) starring Charlton Heston Blu Ray & DVD (Eureka!)
Major General Charles Gordon’s mission
This historical epic chronicles the 1884-1885 Siege of Khartoum and the events leading up to it. It starts in 1883 as British military leader Colonel Hicks (played by Edward Underdown) leads an army of 10,000 Egyptians into the Sudanese desert, where they are ambushed by the forces of an Islamic Fundamentalist leader known as The Mahdi (Laurence Olivier). Despite the advantage of both numbers and their access to firearms, the British-Egyptian forces suffer a crippling defeat.
This perceived loss of face proves to be a headache for Britain’s Prime Minister William Gladstone (Ralph Richardson), who is reluctant to get involved in more military adventurism but is under political pressure to turn the situation around. Things don’t look encouraging when Colonel Stewart (Richard Johnson), an observer in the region, gives his opinion that The Mahdi is virtually unbeatable by conventional military means. However, Foreign Secretary Lord Granville (Michael Holdern) persuades him to send in Major General Charles Gordon (Charlton Heston), an impassioned Christian who once freed Sudan from slavery, to evacuate the city of Khartoum before their adversary lays siege to it.
Gordon agrees to take on the mission. Just before he leaves, however, he learns that Stewart has been assigned to be his second-in-command - something which he is initially reluctant to accept as he feels that the latter has secretly been instructed to spy on him. His first plan is to recruit a former Sudanese slaver named Zobeir Pasha (Zia Mohyeddin) to aid him on his mission. However, Zobeir is still bitter about the fact that Gordon executed his own son and thus refuses to extend his assistance.
Undeterred and against the advice of Stewart, Gordon heads on down the Nile in a determined attempt to defend Khartoum from The Mahdi’s fanaticism. This ultimately leads to a dramatic confrontation between two unwavering forces.
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This historical adventure emphasises breadth and spectacle over depth
An expensive British-made production, Khartoum was released in 1966 to a moderate level of acclaim including nominations for two BAFTAs and one Academy Award. At the same time, some have criticised it for its historical inaccuracies, as well as for the casting of the American actor Charlton Heston as an English military figure and the English Laurence Olivier as an Arab.
All in all, it typifies everything that’s good and bad about many historical epics from the 1960s. On one hand, it has a great sense of sweep and scale in its vast onscreen vistas (beautifully lensed by Edward Scaife), which are filled as far as the eye can see with thousands of period-costumed extras, horses, camels, boats and the like. The atmosphere is also engendered via Frank Cordell’s rousing score, plus a grandiose intro with a Leo Genn narration playing over ravishing images of Egypt’s ancient landmarks. The battle sequences make particularly impressive use of the spectacular 2.76:1 aspect ratio shots, along with a few inserted close-in moments which contain as much injury-based gore as would reasonably have been allowable during this era (which is to say, it’s brief and mild). As audience members, we can just sit back and enjoy the lush, exotic adventurism of it all.
On the other hand, this tendency of the film to languish over its vast production values slows the story down to a snail’s pace. Not that that’s the only issue here by any means. While the storytelling has plenty of breadth, it doesn’t really have a lot of depth. Its approach is rather dry and largely lacking in either humour or a human dimension. Sure, there’s the occasional small moment such as one where Gordon’s manservant Khaleel (Johnny Sekka) briefly attempts to discuss his feelings on the Biblical concept of “turning the other cheek” with his employer. However, these are few and far between. The script hints at being a bit more thoughtful than a mere Boy’s Own adventure story but never properly explores either the men behind the historical figures or the inherent arrogance of the British colonial era. While there’s some allusion to the notion that Gordon and The Mahdi are two sides of the same coin of religious fervour, the former is still ultimately sanctified as the martyr-hero of the piece, whereas the latter’s vows to slaughter everyone who is unwilling to recognise the Prophet Muhammad firmly place him in the role of the antagonist of the piece.
The cast, while mostly good, is also a bit of a mixed bag. Charlton Heston has received some flak for his portrayal of Charles Gordon. Nonetheless, despite the fact that his attempt at an old English accent occasionally slips, the peculiar brand of charismatic, messianic bombast which he brings to his role actually works pretty well. Richard Johnson (who nowadays is probably most familiar for his role as Dr. Menard in Zombie Flesh Eaters) also gives a very sturdy performance as the earnest military man who is initially at loggerheads with Gordon but gradually gains a genuine respect for what he is doing. Numerous other familiar British character actors including Ralph Richardson, Nigel Green and Michael Holdern are underused but still manage to bring some much-needed life to their occasional scenes.
However, the casting is really let down by one major elephant in the room: Laurence Olivier. While widely regarded as one of the greatest actors who ever lived, not all of his performances were necessarily praiseworthy (as anyone who has seen his Razzie-winning turn as General Douglas MacArthur in Inchon will attest). Here, smothered in brown-face makeup and saddled with a thick Arabic accent, he comes across as being more of a distractingly racist caricature than anything else. It’s not that he doesn’t try hard to bring some gravitas and dignity to the role - he does. Unfortunately, doing so could never be anything other than a losing battle in this instance. He isn’t in the picture for a lot of the runtime but the scenes where he is are rather pivotal to the story, thus making his miscasting a serious flaw.
Khartoum is a decent, worthy, old-fashioned epic with enough in the way of screen-filling spectacle to keep many male (and probably some female) viewers sedated in front of the television during an otherwise uneventful Sunday afternoon. It is a shame, however, that it never fully grabs the opportunity to delve deeply and objectively into a period of history which holds a significant place in a long cycle of tensions between the Arab and Western worlds. The fact that the film hails from an ostensibly more naive era doesn’t excuse it either; after all, Gillo Pontecorvo’s startling The Battle of Algiers came out during the same year.
Runtime: 135 mins
Dir: Basil Dearden, Eliot Elisofon
Script: Robert Ardrey
Starring: Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Richard Johnson, Ralph Richardson, Alexander Knox, Johnny Sekka, Nigel Green, Michael Holdern, Peter Arne, Hugh Williams, Zia Mohyeddin, Marne Maitland, Ralph Michael, Douglas Wilmer, Edward Underdown, Alan Tilvern, Roger Delgado, Leo Genn (voice only)
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Eureka Entertainment have presented the picture in the original 2.76:1 aspect ratio from the 70 mm print and it looks glorious. The colour grading is sumptuous and appropriately warm. Frank Cordell’s score is resplendent with orchestral glory, something which can be fully appreciated during the overture and intermission sequences which have been incorporated into this print.
Audio Commentary with Film Historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman
Once again, this trio lend the film a classy commentary which goes off on all sorts of genuinely interesting tangents. For one thing, while they enjoy Khartoum, they don’t shy away from discussing its numerous shortcomings. Dobbs opines that director Basil Dearden (who was mostly better known for small-scale British films) was out of his depth here, noting that the spectacular sequences were largely handled by either documentary photographer Eliot Elisofon (who filmed the opening Egyptian landscape montage) or famous stuntman turned second unit director Yakima Canutt (who staged the huge battle scenes). Actor Charlton Heston, who originally wanted Carol Reed to direct, was apparently rather disappointed with Dearden’s work himself. All of Laurence Olivier’s scenes were filmed in Pinewood Studios in England, whereas the shots featuring large flocks of his followers were shot thousands of miles away in Egypt. The production’s disjointed nature was perhaps the reason why the end result failed to fully nurture the story’s thematic potential.
Lem, Julie and Nick are rather more enthusiastic with regard to the film’s screenwriter, Robert Ardrey, whose social anthropological theory that violence is part and parcel of human evolution had inspired both Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick. With that, they go on to a fascinating discussion of real-life war and violence through history - including Nick’s own personal experience when he witnessed an IRA bombing in London during the 1970s.
They also delve extensively into the history surrounding the real-life characters and situations represented on screen. In reality, Major General Charles Gordon was a vastly more unhinged and morally dubious figure than the film depicts; for instance, despite being credited with abolishing slavery in Sudan, he actually reintroduced it in Khartoum in order to try and rejuvenate the city’s broken economy. He was never married and apparently spent an unusual amount of time in the company of young boys. Make of that what you will.
Interview with Sheldon Hall
Film critic Hall discusses the film in this decent featurette. He reveals that producer Julian Blaustein first pitched the idea to Charlton Heston in 1963 but the latter turned it down on that occasion. After a subsequent, aborted attempt to get it off the ground with star Burt Lancaster and director Lewis Gilbert, it was pitched to Heston one more time. He ultimately decided to accept it based on the strength of the script.
It was the ninth film to be shot in Ultra Panavision 70 mm - and the last one until Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight revived the process nearly 50 years’ later. It was also the third and last of these films to feature Charlton Heston, the other ones being Ben-Hur and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Reviews were generally positive in Britain but more lukewarm in America. It didn’t do well with audiences in the latter territory due to the fact that few people knew the significance of its title Khartoum. Some local distributors changed it to The Battle of Khartoum in order to make it easier to sell to viewers. The production failed to make back a budget which was set at $6 million but overran due to assorted challenges related to working at the Egyptian locales. For one thing, local businesses saw the filmmakers as rich pickings and tended to overcharge them for their services. For another, there were delays in getting various necessary items (including a period ship) out to the shooting locations.
A trailer and enclosed booklet round out the extras here.
Khartoum may have its flaws but it’s worth a watch if you enjoy old epic movies with thousands of extras (real people, not CGI figures) in each shot. The restored 2.76:1 aspect ratio picture looks amazing and the audio commentary is one of the best that I’ve listened to in some time.