War Movie Mondays: ‘Khartoum’

This week’s pick is the classic 1966 British colonial film Khartoum directed by Basil Dearden and written by Robert Ardrey. Charlton Heston stars as famed British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon who defended the ancient city against Muslim extremists in 1884-85 Africa. The film also stars Sir Laurence Olivier (The Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmed), Ralph Richardson (Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone), Richard Johnson (Col. J.D.H. Stewart), and Nigel Green (General Garnet Wolseley).

Khartoum is a thundering epic made when epics were the norm in Hollywood. After the success of Lawrence of Arabia, the studio system was looking for another fantastic story which would have the same effect as David Lean’s masterpiece had done. The events surrounding the siege of Khartoum are not widely known however, it was an incident which sparked controversy throughout the British Empire in the late nineteenth century, and threatened the stability of a region which is still plagued to this day by internal conflict.

The film opens with sweeping photography and music which helps to set the stage for a grand story of chivalry and adventure. After years of British rule trying to control various warlords and bandits, an Egyptian army which is poorly armed and trained is led by a Col. William Hicks whose army has marched from Egypt in order to pursue rebels under the command of The Mahdi (Olivier), a religious figure who believes himself to be “the expected one of Mohammad”.

The Mahdi plans to unite all tribes against British rule in the Sudan and to also initiate a jihad against those who are none believers of the Muslim faith. Hick’s force is ambushed and slaughtered. Public outcry in Britain demands that Gladstone’s (Richardson) cabinet do something to avenge the death of Hicks. Gladstone doesn’t want to commit more British troops to a massacre and is under pressure to dispatch General Gordon (Heston), the man who ended the slave trade in the Sudan to restore British prestige and hegemony in the region.

The meeting between Gordon and Gladstone in a railway station is “Hollywood”, but is effective in conveying to the audience the volatile situation which Gordon is about to face. Gladstone doesn’t fully trust Gordon and issues an order saying that Gordon is on his own in the matter. He is to evacuate British troops and civilians from Khartoum and to avoid a war at all costs. If Gordon fails, his involvement will spark stringent denials from Gladstone’s government. Gladstone does however tell Gordon that the Queen and the British public are all in favor of a national hero being sent to diffuse the situation. Gordon is at first un-interested in going and tells Gladstone that he has been commissioned by the King of Belgium to oversee the construction of a bridge in the Congo. Gladstone pleads that Gordon is the only man who can save the Sudan and is respected by the Sudanese who honor him for ending the slave trade years earlier. Gordon is swayed by Gladstone and leaves immediately for Egypt and begins preparations for his trek down the Nile to Khartoum. Gladstone informs Gordon that an aide, Col. Stewart (Johnson) will accompany him and is to report all actions to Gladstone.

While in Egypt an attempt is made to recruit the powerful figure Zobeir Pasha (Zia Mohyeddin), a respected ruler and slave trader who Gordon believes can assist him in defeating the Mahdi. Zobeir hates Gordon due to Gordon’s involvement in killing his son. Gordon and Stewart leave Egypt and head down the Nile by steam ship. Along the banks of the river, Stewart and Gordon see the Mahdi’s spies who have heard that the great Gordon Pasha has once again returned to the Sudan.

The scene when Gordon and Stewart arrive in Khartoum is grand. The Sudanese sing in praise and cheer for the return of their hero and savior. Gordon dawns a red Egyptian Fez as a Governor General would and salutes the people who praise and worship his return. Defying Gladstone’s orders, Gordon begins to strengthen the city’s defenses. Stewart pleads with Gordon and informs him that this is not his mission and that he is forbidden to defend the city against a massive force of jihadists.

The film portrays the back and forth communiques between Gladstone and Gordon perfectly. As time went on, Gladstone saw increased public anger against the fact that one of their heroes was to be sacrificed by a government that didn’t want to commit itself. The phrase “Save Gordon” was shouted outside of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. As Gladstone dragged his feet over the matter to send a relieve force to get Gordon out, Gordon was attempting to meet with the Mahdi in order to spare Khartoum from destruction.

Gordon travels to the Mahdi’s encampment on the outskirts of Khartoum with Kaleel (Johnny Sekka) his servant to parlay for a peaceful resolution. Gordon reveals his regal attire to the Mahdi’s men who are in awe that he is in fact the real Gordon Pasha. In actuality Gordon and the Mahdi never met, but corresponded with one another during the series of events. In earlier scenes of the film, Olivier’s face is darkened to give the appearance of  Sudanese which could be considered by many to be “black face”, but Olivier plays a fantastic role even though his appearance may be considered offensive by today’s standards. Gordon expresses to the Mahdi that he too loves the Sudan and does not wish to see it further destroyed by war. The Mahdi respects Gordon and tells him that he shall not wage war upon him. Gordon buys some time, but the Mahdi pledges that all who stay in the city will parish at the hands of his army.

In Britain, Gladstone capitulates to the public’s outcry and dispatches a force to relieve Gordon but are far too late to do any good. The Mahdi’s forces attack the city on January 26, 1885 and destroy it. In the final moments of the film, the narrator tells the audience that a long campaign for over ten years resulted after the siege of Khartoum and that the actions undertaken by Gladstone’s government destroyed his political career. The siege of Khartoum and the aftermath still echo today with political instability and massive genocide which has prompted international intervention to end conflict in the Sudan.

Khartoum has always been a favorite Victorian/colonialism film of mine due to the history and politics surrounding the event. Heston, Olivier and the rest of the cast turn out great performances as their historical counterparts. The film also shows how Gordon was sacrificed by his own government, even though historians also state that he was a man who also fell in love with his own living legend, and that he did recklessly exceed his orders and defied Gladstone at every turn. Nevertheless, the film is a wonderful throwback to the epic films of yesteryear and it is a very well made historical piece.

Khartoum is available on DVD through MGM/UA Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

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