Thursday, November 13, 2014

British Empire in Film Blogathon Special: Khartoum

Starring: Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Richard Johnson, Ralph Richardson, Alexander Knox, Johnny Sekka, Nigel Green, Michael Horden, Peter Arne 
Director:  Basil Dearden, Eliot Elisofon 
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc., United Artists,  Julian Blaustein Productions Ltd., UK, 1966.
khartoum title
This is my contribution for "British Empire in Film" Blogathon (November 14-17 2014) hosted by Phantom Empires and The Stalking Moon. Visit their sites for great articles on movies about the British Empire!
The review will contain lots of spoilers, but those who knows the history of Major-General Charles George Gordon and Sudan should already know how the movie will end. For those who don't it pays to study the history of Mahdist War beforehand!

For the background a short history of Sudan is in place:
Since 1821 Sudan had been under Ottoman rule and also Egypt was part of Ottoman Empire (Turkey). Because Egypt was heavily debted for building the Suez Canal, Great Britain bought the Egyptian share of the canal and the British gained influence in Egypt. So technically Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire but the British and French (who also funded the canal) were the power holders in the Egyptian government. In 1860s the slave trade in Sudan was gradually suppressed. In 1870s Gordon was made made a colonel in the Egyptian army. In 1874 Gordon Turkish Khedive Ismail made Gordon the governor of the Equatorial Provinces of Sudan. However banning the slave trade caused an economical crisis in northern Sudan. There was also a war between Egypt and Abyssinia (later renamed Ethiopia) in 1875. The unrest increased in Sudan. An insurrection broke out in Darfur but after negotiations, Gordon managed to get many of the insurgents to join his side. In 1870s also a Muslim cleric Muhammad Ahmad began to preach for renewal of faith and liberation of Sudan. He proclaimed to be Mahdi, the promised redeemer of the Islamic world. After Khedive Ismail abdicated, Gordon's support was weakened. In 1879 he fought against slave traders in Darfur. He tried again peace negotiations with Abyssinia but was captured and returned to Egypt. He resigned in 1880 and returned to Europe being exhausted by years of hard work. In 1881 Mahdi declared a holy war against Turkish oppressors. Egypt failed to arrest Mahdi and his supporters. In 1882 the poorly equipped Mahdist troops destroyed an Egyptian army of 4000 men. After those events the story begins.

Like some of Hollywood epics of the era the movie begins with four minute of overture music, composed by Frank Cordell. That is followed by a poetic prologue about Nile.

In 1880s Mahdi, the Expected One calls the desert tribes for Holy War. To fight them, Egypt hires an army of 10000 men led by English commander Colonel Hicks (Edward Underdown). In 1883 the troops are sent to Sudan. The heavy march in hot desert takes it's toll, and that is just what Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad (Laurence Olivier) expects! The desert weary Egyptian troops are ambushed and killed. The Mahdist troops acquire a large number of modern rifles. 
Edward Underdown
Colonel Hicks leading the troops
Attacking Mahdist troops
The battle is fierce and ends bad for the British
In Britain the Prime Minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) is shocked by the defeat of a British officer. Britain's honour is at risk! Also it would be disastrous to Egypt should the arsenal in Khartoum fall into wrong hands. Charles George 'Chinese' Gordon (Charlton Heston) is sent on an unofficial mission to evacuate Egyptians and soldiers from Khartoum. Gordon is a mystic and religious man, a man of principle. He is not a good example of military discipline but he has gained a status of popular hero after many successful military campaigns. If Gordon fails the government will deny all involvement.
Ralph Richardson
Prime Minister Gladstone getting bad news
Laurence Olivier as Mahdi
Colonel J.D.H. Stewart (Richard Johnson) is assigned to observe Gordon and report to Gladstone. He must ensure that Gordon does not endanger his own life. However Gordon does not take orders from anyone. Gordon needs help from Zobeir Pasha (Zia Mohyeddin), an former slave trader whom Gordon put out of business. Gordon also killed Zobeir's son as a warning to slave traders. Gordon goes to Khartoum as governor-general. Gordon offers Sudan for Zobeir if he comes to Khartoum with his troops. However without official British support and because Zobeir holds a grudge about his son, Zobeir declines. 
Charlton Heston and Richard Johnson
Gordon meets Colonel Stewart
Zia Mohyeddin
Gordon and Stewart travel to Khartoum without an army. The troops of Mahdi are already nearing the city. Stewart asks Gordon to return back to London. He declines. In Khartoum Gordon is welcomed as a savior. By the way, Gordon's favourite drink turns out to be B&S i.e. Brandy and Soda. Gordon and his loyal servant & bodyguard Khaleel (Johnny Sekka) discuss about turning the other cheek but come to conclusion that Gordon is not Jesus Christ. 
Charlton Heston fez
Gordon is welcomed as a savior
Gordon and Khaleel visit Mahdi's camp to negotiate. Mahdi has many spies and he already knows about Gordon's failed negotiations with Zobeir. Gordon gets the respect of Mahdi, and wants Gordon to leave Khartoum. Mahdi tells that he will not be satisfied with conquering Khartoum, but will continue to Cairo, Mecca, Baghdad and Constantinople. The fate of the Egyptians will be bloody warning for all opposers and infidels. 
Charlton Heston riding camel
Gordon visiting the Mahdist camp
Charlton Heston and Johnny Sekka
Gordon and Khaleel in Mahdi's tent
Gordon is sworn to defend the country and the people he loves. The only choice Gordon has is to fight the religious fanatics. It is already too late to evacuate the city and the telegram wires have been cut. Meanwhile the politicians in Britain are pressured to send troops to help Gordon. So as a gesture they send reinforcements: a whole twenty soldiers and orders for Gordon to return to England. 
The citizens demand action from the government!
Gordon begins the fortification of the city and goes raiding for cattle and foodstuffs. They fight a small battle against Mahdi's troops. Reinforcements arrive with Major Kitchener (Peter Arne). Stewart goes to England to request more troops. It would look bad for the government if the British hero and thousands of civilians were slaughtered by Mahdi's troops. Prime minister has no other option than to send 7000 men to Egypt. The British are coming! But the new troops are unaccustomed to desert warfare, so they need training. Also their real mission is to get Gordon out safely, not to defend Khartoum.
Sir, that is not the right way to ride a camel
Gordon prepares for the siege and Stewart tries to get to Berber to hasten the troops. However Stewart's transport ship goes missing. In 1885 the morale is getting low in the city, and there is a cholera epidemic. After final meeting with Mahdi all hope is lost and Gordon is determined to fight the last stand. The city falls after a battle. The final moments of Gordon are also depicted in George William Joy's painting "General Gordon's Last Stand".
Mahdist commander
General Gordon's last stand
"General Gordon's Last Stand" by George William Joy
"General Gordon's Last Stand" by George William Joy
The historical accuracy of the movie is believable, although the meetings between Gordon and Mahdi did not occur. Also the final battle did not occur as depicted in the film. In reality the city fell after a siege of 313 days when traitors let the enemy in at the night and thousands were murdered in their beds.

The movie is an old school historical war film, having lots of negotiations and quite few but large battle scenes. The group battles are spectacular and massive with thousands of combatants clashing. This was the time before CGI, thousands of extras were used in the group scenes. They really do not make epics like this any more.

The actor choices are generally good. However some find it hard to approve that an American actor Charlton Heston was chosen to play British general. Sir Laurence Olivier plays Mahdi with his face painted brown, which may look caricaturish to modern viewers. However both of the actors do a good job as charismatic and enigmatic leaders. The sets and props look authentic. The cinematography is great with beautiful panoramic views of Egypt. 
Rating: Very good


  1. I'm a sucker for these giant epics from the 50s and 60s. This one has such a splendid cast. Really well done piece, with lots of historic detail. Thanks so much for joining in the blogathon!

  2. In spite of casting Heston, with one of the worst faux-British accents possible, amongst the best British actors of the day, this is a romper-stomper of a film and a great, great choice for the blogathon. Kudos and many thanks for joining in the fun!

    Clayton @ Phantom Empires

  3. Great review. I love that it was a true epic with a cast of thousands, there is something inspiring about watching battle scenes with so many real people, instead of CGI. I was not bothered by the casting of Heston as Gordon, but I find it hard to take Olivier seriously as the Mahdi. As you point out, it was quite accurate, aside from the more dramatic ending.


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