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Saturday Night Cinema: Khartoum

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Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema feature is a sweeping historical epic that actually depicts what Hollywood considers the undepictable, the unmentionable, the sacrosanct – jihad.  And for that reason alone, it is must viewing.

Khartoum is based in 1884-85 when Egyptian forces led by a British general Charles “Chinese” Gordon defended Khartoum against an invading Muslim army led by a Muslim religious leader and self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad., played by Laurence Olivier. more here.

The film also stars Charlton Heston as British Gen. Charles “Chinese” Gordon and a supporting cast that includes Richard Johnson and Ralph Richardson. The story is based on historical accounts of the 1884-85 defense of the Sudanese city of Khartoum. Egyptian forces led by General Gordon defended Khartoum against an invading Muslim army led by a religious fanatic, the Mahdi.

Jon Hall wrote of it:

What would make a history-based movie from 50 years ago more relevant today than when it premiered back in the mid-1960s? The answer is events; the world has changed and has made the movie more relevant, more vital. With the rise of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and ISIS, and with videos on the Internet of Americans being beheaded, the events of the last 50 years require us to look at the Middle East a bit differently. Fifty years ago Beirut, Lebanon, was known as the “The Paris of the Middle East”; I even knew a fellow who taught at the American University there. It’s doubtful that many Americans would want to teach there now.

The film I’m recommending today is Khartoum (1966), which treats events beginning with an 1883 massacre in Sudan and ending with the 1885 sack of Khartoum, both atrocities perpetrated by one Muhammad Ahmad, a.k.a. the Mahdi. (Winston Churchill wrote of these events in The River War.)

I’ve written about this film in another article, but only to quote the Mahdi’s bloodcurdling “I am a poor man of the desert” speech. That speech is a fair representation of the mind of a jihadist. However, in the 49 years since its release I don’t believe that I had ever screened Khartoum in its entirety. So when Turner Classic Movies ran it recently, I set my DVR, and what a treat.

The main relevance of the film is still the jihadism that continues to inform the fundamentalist sects of Islam, but there’s much else in this film to savor. Khartoum begins with a shot of the Giza pyramids at dawn with voice-over narration that might make one think of old travelogues. The narrator talks about the Nile, and the desert, and we see the ancient monuments, but soon we’re taken up the Nile to the Sudan, where the British mercenary Colonel William Hicks is commanding an Egyptian army in pursuit of the Mahdi. Actually, the Mahdi is luring Hicks & Co. into the vast wastes of the Sudanese desert, where he slaughters them “to the last man,” capturing their considerable arms and ammunition.

After this battle scene, the film cuts to England, where we’re privy to a meeting of Prime Minister Gladstone with his cabinet and military brass. It seems the government is caught in a sticky wicket, a public relations disaster. Gladstone bewails: “Why did Egypt have to hire an Englishman?” Colonel Stewart, just back from Khartoum, says to Gladstone:

Colonel Hicks and his men were fighting for wages. The Mahdi and his men were fighting a holy war. Also Hicks thought he was fighting an ignorant savage and he wasn’t. The Mahdi is the most extraordinary man the Sudan has ever seen. And he knows his people. He promised them a miracle, he had to deliver it. (read the rest here).

Khartoum earned the writer, Robert Ardrey, an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay. The film also earned Ralph Richardson a BAFTA Award nomination for Best British Actor.

Released in 1966, the film was written by Robert Ardrey and directed by Basil Dearden. Filmed by cinematographer Ted Scaife in Technicolor and Ultra Panavision 70 it was exhibited in 70 mm Cinerama in premiere engagements…..

Video thanks to Larry

Screen:’Khartoum’ Opens:Olivier Excels in Tale of Blood and Sand

By BOSLEY CROWTHER, New York Times
Published: July 14, 1966
JUST as “Lawrence of Arabia” lost the character of a famed adventurer in a massive screen presentment of desert warfare, intrigue and sand, so in “Khartoum,” which opened at the Warner Cinerama last night, the character of another British hero is lost—or allowed to stray—in another massive assembly or desert spectacle.

Somehow the large, resplendent figure of Sir Charles (Chinese) Gordon, who was the glorious hero and tragic victim of British involvement in the Egyptian Sudan during the last part of the 19th-century, becomes uncertain and blurred in this vast exposition of his adventures that is spread across the Cinerama screen.

The valorous soldier, who took the assignment of going into the Sudan and trying to evacuate the British and the Egyptians from the Nile city of Khartoum when it was besieged by the forces of the Mahdi, a fanatical leader of desert tribes, merits much clearer definition than he receives in this film or in the granitic performance of Charlton Heston in the role.

The fault, I would say, is in the efforts of everyone connected with the picture to cram too much historical detail, too much geographical display, too many incidental characters, too many battles, too much mystery into a picture that was evidently inspired by the box-office success of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

As much as one respects Robert Ardrey, the scriptwriter, for trying to set the stage for General Gordon’s ambiguous mission by having him secretly meet with William Gladstone, the British Prime Minister — which was something, incidentally, he never did—this meeting and the whole early part of the picture only drag and confuse.

Likewise, the several meetings of General Gordon with British and Egyptian characters to try to make deals or arangements with them while en route to Khartoum, present and oppress the viewer with too much political plot. By the time General Gordon reaches his destination, the plot’s so thick it amounts to a pall.

And then, when the preliminary skirmishes and forays against the desert tribes begin and explode into massive pitched battles and desperate runnings of the river blockade, the situation has become so complicated and the fighting so involved and complex that it is hard to follow the maneuvers or even figure out who is fighting whom.

This is noted with full awareness that the history of General Gordon is complex and that the theatrical punch of his involvement is obstructed by one historical fact: He had—and has—but one confrontation with his formidable enemy. He and the extraordinary Mahdi come face to face only once. That is in a finely staged sequence in which the moral resolutions of the two men are forcefully and earnestly stated. The only trouble is the Mahdi makes the better case. General Gordon’s ideals and purpose are here and elsewhere allowed to remain somewhat mystical and confused.

Furthermore, the role of the Mahdi is so impressively and eloquently played by a dark-stained Sir Laurence Olivier, wearing a gleaming white burnoose and addressing his seething cohorts and General Gordon in beautifully chiseled words, that it is not surprising that he puts the gold-braided figure of Mr. Heston’s Chinese Gordon in the shade.

And finally the gallant hero has a negative mission to perform. He has to retreat in the face of pressure. Mr. Heston is not quite up to that.

Withal, the director, Basil Dearden, and his second-unit director, Yakima Cannutt, have gathered some mighty handsome scenery and some roaring battle happenings on the screen. The brick-red Egyptian desert, the flatness of the Nile, the masses of British-led soldiers clashing with white-robed Sudanese, river boats racing past shore forts, the killing of General Gordon with a spear—these are things that are beautifully and excitingly shown in this film.

There is also some good performing by a supporting cast that may have bewildering assignments but who do them manfully. Richard Johnson, as General Gordon’s aide-companion, is a sturdy, honorable type; Sir Ralph Richardson, as William Gladstone, is a truculent, scheming martinet; Nigel Green, as a stiff-backed British general, and Johnny Sekka, as a servant, are right.

There isn’t an important female in the picture. But we must blame the real General Gordon for that, not the “producer, Julian Blaustein, who, I am sure, would have preferred to have one in.

The Cast
“KHARTOUM,” screenplay by Robert Ardrey, directed by Basil Dearden, produced by Julian Blaustein and released through United Artists. At the Warner Theater, Broadway at 47th Street. Running time: 128 minutes.
Gen. Charles Gordon . . . . . Charlton Heston
The Mahdi . . . . . Laurence Olivier
Col. J. D. H. Stewart . . . . . Richard Johnson
Mr. Gladstone . . . . . Ralph Richardson
Sir Evelyn Baring . . . . . Alexander Knox
Khaleel . . . . . Johnny Sekka
Lord Granville . . . . . Michael Hordern
Zobeir Pasha . . . . . Zia Moyheddin
Sheikh Osman . . . . . Marne Maitland
General Wolseley . . . . . Nigel Green
Lord Hartington . . . . . Hugh Williams
Khalifa Abdullah . . . . . Douglas Wilmer
Colonel Hicks . . . . . Edward Underdown
Bordeini Bey . . . . . Alec Mango
Giriagis Bey . . . . . George Pastell
Major Kitchener . . . . . Peter Arne
Awaan . . . . . Alan Tilvern
Herbin . . . . . Michael Anthony
Frank Power . . . . . Jerome Willis
The Dancer . . . . . Leila
Lord Northbrook . . . . . Ronald Leigh Hunt
Sir Charles Dilke . . . . . Ralph Michael

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