There are a couple of reasons why Basil Dearden’s Khartoum hasn’t resonated through the decades in the way Lawrence of Arabia, it’s closest bedfellow, has managed to do. Even if you have never seen David Lean’s 1962 epic, you more than like understand its impact on cinema and influence on several generations of filmmakers. Khartoum does not have the luxury of being either as well made or sporting a historical story which has stood the test of memory, focusing as it does on the British colonial conflict against the Madhi of Sudan in the 1880’s.
No? Me neither. That doesn’t mean Khartoum lacks an interesting tale to tell, wrapped around the very Lawrence-style story of colonial war hero Charles George Gordon being sent by Prime Minister William Gladstone (played wonderfully oily by Ralph Richardson) to tame the Mahdi uprising and after a slaughter of 10,000 Egyptians at the hands of a Muslim horde who believe their saviour has been reborn. Gordon has an affinity with the Sudanese and while having to balance British political standing on the one hand, he has to try and bargain with the Mahdi and retain the respect of the Sudanese on the other.
The problem with Khartoum is that it is so painfully trying to be the next great epic, propped up by the biggest theatrical and cinematic stars of the age, it stands out for all of the wrong reasons. I mean, come on, Charlton Heston as a colonial British war hero? Really? That’s like casting Tom Cruise in a biopic of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Heston does what he can in the role, in fairness, resonating the charisma he brought to the previous historical epics he made his name in (Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments etc…), but he’s hampered by Robert Ardrey’s mechanical script, which feels more like a historical document than a sweeping story – you only have to listen to the frightfully dull and *long* opening scene-setting narration for that to be underscored.
The bigger issue than Heston, however, is with Sir Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi. Yes, the Greatest British Actor of all time, known principally for bringing some of Shakespeare’s finest creations to life on the big screen, playing the prophesied Muslim saviour reborn, replete with, and there’s no easy way to describe this, a shocking case of ‘blackface’. It instantly dates Khartoum, indeed the film feels stuffy and outdated even for the mid-1960’s, and while Olivier is as typically magnetic as you would expect, this is racist British casting at its very worst. There is no excusing it.
For fans of the historical epic, Khartoum is worth experiencing for one or two reasons. While the script is stodgy and Dearden is no Lean, there are some beautiful shots and sequences in Khartoum which capture the resplendent Egyptian and African landscape with a rare grandeur. This was the last film shot in Ultra Panavision 70 until Quentin Tarantino recently revived it for The Hateful Eight, and man the format looks beautiful, particularly on BluRay. Frank Cordell complements these sequences with a beautiful, regal score which recalls John Barry at his best, and really took me for one by surprise.
Khartoum is however, ultimately, one best reserved for completists of historical British cinema. Eureka provide some insightful extras, including an audio commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman (as all the main players involved are pretty much long dead), a new video interview with film historian Sheldon Hall, and a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Phil Hoad, alongside a selection of rare archival imagery.
Are they enough to justify the price tag? It depends how much you love your history.
Khartoum is now available on DVD/BluRay from Eureka Entertainment.