on March 15, 2002
Here is one of the great intellectual, action movies in the tradition of "Lawrence of Arabia!" The sharp screenplay by Robert Ardrey, an African historian, is crammed with ideas: colonialism, religion, fate, politics, etc. At the same time, it is an incredible recreation of the battles surrounding that period of history and the siege of Khartoum. The battle sequences were directed by none other than Yakima Canutt, the legendary director for the chariot race in "Ben-Hur." Charlton Heston's performance as General Gordon is one of his finest. Laurence Olivier's performance as the Mahdi is outstanding and will leave you a little spooked as he reveals the mind of an Islamic fanatic. This film was not a hit in the United States. I believe that is because it was released in the summer and a movie about the desert should never be released then. ("Lawrence of Arabia" was released right before Christmas.) If released in the winter, it would have done much better business and been given more respect as part of the traditonal end-of-year important films. It was also released in Cinerama, the defunct curved screen process, making the film's incredible photography and direction truly spectacular. And it explains some of the photography angles. I see the DVD is not preserving the original 2.75 Cinerama/Ultra Panavision aspect ratio ("Hello, MGM! Wake up!") but no matter. This is one of the finest historical films you will ever see. And with the recent trajedies, it is even more pertinent. History does repeat itself! One of the finest lines in the film is when General Gordon, Charlton Heston, says to the Mahdi, Laurence Olivier, "While I may die of your miracle, you will surely die of mine." It really does not get much better than this.
Though the historical events in this film took place in 1884-85, there are aspects of it that remind one of today's headlines; this is a sadly underrated film, with a fantastic cast, massive battle scenes, and a beautifully written script about an extraordinary man.
There are scenes that take "artistic license", but the film is quite accurate in its facts on General Gordon; a military genius who hated war, a deeply religious man who worked to end slavery, and who fell in love with the desolate scorching sands and the people of the Sudan.
The pairing of Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier is fabulous, and their scenes together are riveting. Heston is gaunt in this film, to closer portray the slightly built Gordon, and speaks with a subtle but excellent English accent; Olivier is the fanatic who calls himself The Mahdi ("The Expected One"), waging a holy war with his followers to destroy anyone who opposes his beliefs, with the aim of conquering the world for his fundamentalist faith.
Other wonderful performances come from Richard Johnson as Col. Stewart, Ralph Richardson as Prime Minister Gladstone, Nigel Green as Gen Wolseley, and Johnny Sekka is a delight as Gordon's servant Khaleel.
After British-led Egyptian forces are massacred by The Mahdi's insurgents, the British government asks Egypt to give up the Sudan, and General Gordon is called to evacuate the European and Egyptian civilians from the Sudan; he stays to ward off the terrorists and the siege of Khartoum takes place.
The sweeping panoramas of the desert and the Nile river are sumptuous (cinematography by Edward Scaife), and the Frank Cordell score is terrific, though it owes a bit to Maurice Jarre's music for "Lawrence of Arabia"; released 6 years earlier, "Lawrence" has some comparisons to this film, as they are both about adventurous men of courage who felt comfortable in Arab lands.
This film sparked my imagination and made me want to know more about Gordon's fascinating life and the history that surrounded him, and it is one I could watch repeatedly. Total running time is 134 minutes.
"...but there is this: A world with no room for the Gordons, is a world that will return to the sands".
on April 4, 2006
This is the story of British General Charles "Chinese" Gordon's final battle. It is a little know episode to Americans but is a compelling story made even more so by this fine production.
Gordon won fame by ridding the Sudan of the slave trade and as a successful general in the Opium Wars in China. When a religious fanatic rises in the Sudan and massacres a British led force, Gordon is sent in to bring out the Egyptians and Europeans. The prime minister, however, is not willing to commit to anything else. He doesn't even want to do that. He has no desire to run a colonial empire. The politicians in London care about little other than keeping the egg from their own faces.
Gordon makes it to Khartoum but is unable to accomplish his mission. The Mahdi is willing to let the Europeans go but he is not willing to let the Egyptians go. Gordon is unwilling to sacrifice any of his men so he stays to fight, sure that London will send an army to save him. The politicians do send an army but is has order to drag its feet. They believe that Gordon will flee on his own when things get too dire. It is a matter of politicians not understanding the motivations of a principled man and that same man not understanding the baseness of politicians. It is a gripping story.
Gordon is played by Charlton Heston who does a superb job. The Mahdi is played by Sir Lawrence Olivier who succeeds in portraying an Islamic religious fanatic in a light that is not stereotypical. It is a great job all around.
on October 8, 2005
This is a wonderful story and a riveting film, as the other reviewers have noted. This DVD version is crisp and clear, well done. The final narrator comment is on the mark -- A world in which there is no room for Gordons is doomed to turn to sand.
If you would like to learn in exquisite detail what the Mahdi was truly like, his background, the games he played interposing himself between God and man, his private vices versus public face of holiness, the extent of his crimes against duped humanity, how he died [the narrator fo the film says we will never know, but Rudolph Slatin reported the cause of death more than 100 years ago], then by all means read "Fire and Sword in the Sudan," written by Colonel Sir Rudolph Slatin Pasha, an Austrian officer held captive inside the inner circles of both the Mahdi and his successor the Khalifa Abdullahi for twelve agonizing years. General Gordon's severed head was brought to Slatin in prison before it was taken as prize to the Mahdi. Slatin, an expert linguist and accomplished field commander, was appointed by Gordon as governor of Darfur and led troops in the field against rebels for one year after being cut off from all contact with his government. He played convert to Islam as a strategy to inspire his troops and to stay alive as a personal slave to the Mahdi and the Khalifa, biding his time until he could make good his escape. Slatin's story is at least as inspiring as the life of the legendary General Gordon. Several anecdotes Slatin reveals about Gordon give a special insight into the kind nature of the great but human general.
My only complaint about "Khartoum" -- The movie was grossly slanderous toward General Hicks, who commanded the troops massacred in the opening scene. Rediculed in the movie as a "fool," the facts show him a great hero. When questioned by one of his friends before the fatal expedition in which Hicks died and his 10,000 troops were wiped out, Hicks said, "I am as Jesus Christ in the midst of the Jews." He knew he was about to become a martyr. He and his handfull of officers all agreed their chances were bleak. Still he marched off, thinking his honor might be impugned if he refused to advance. When the Mahdi made Hicks an offer to accept his surrender with terms and passed out hundreds of handbills along the route of march documenting that offer, Hicks refused. He died to protect his honor just as Gordon later died. An officer sent to his death for nothing by ignorant politicians. Sound familiar?
Sir Winston Churchill's book "The River War" is a brilliantly told first-hand account of the retaking of the Sudan. Churchill's written description of the charge of the 21st Lancers is as vivid as any war scene ever filmed.
General Gordon's Khartoum Journals are also available in several different printings.
"Khartoum" will open an entirely new world to those interested enough to study the history. Those were days when 3,000 men could be killed in one twenty minute clash by spear and sword, rifle and pistol. The scenes of bravery on a large scale are like nothing we could imagine today. Many of us tend to panic at the scale of human life taken in today's war on terror. We forget the huge scale of the battles our ancestors fought before the dawn of the age of modern weaponry and terrorist attacks. We underestimate the ability of a strong society to absorb incredible blows in battle, and risk joining the ranks of the terrorized and self-defeated. Abraham Lincoln once wrote that if this great nation is to ever die, it will be by suicide, not at the hands of foreign armies incapable of stealing a single drink from the Ohio river.
on October 9, 2001
Does history repeat itself? I first saw this movie years ago. After the first terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center in the mid-1990's, when Osama Bin Laden first declared a "jihad" against the United States, I was reminded of the movie. Osama Bin Laden is the spitting image of the "Mahdi", played by Lawrence Olivier. The parallels are uncanny. Believing that he was "the predicted one" spoken of by the prophet Muhammad to bring the sword against infidels and convert the world to Islam, the Mahdi sprung up from the deserts of the Sudan in 1883 to organize a Holy War against the British Empire and all Christendom. A century later, Bin Laden also sprung up from the Sudan (he was expelled from Sudan in 1996 and his assets there seized). In fact, recall when then U.S. President Bill Clinton bombed the aspirin factory there in an attempt to annihilate Bin Laden - in Khartoum! To understand what is taking place in the world today, this movie is a must see. I would highly recommend it for high school and college students, as well as adults desiring to make sense of what drives the radical Islamic jihadists. This movie reveals that their radical mindset is nothing new - it was alive and well in 1883 much the same as today. Besides being a true story, Khartoum is a gripping tale of good versus evil, full of action, battles, and edge of your seat suspense and intrigue. If you haven't seen Khartoum, do it now. It's a TOP 10 for sure.
on December 2, 2002
The sound is what my review is about. I was working at the Cinerama Theatre in West Hartford, Ct where this film was playing. It was shown in 70mm and 6 track magnetic sound. Why was the transfer only done in two channels?I have noticed lately the botched up transfers of magnetic film either 4 channel or 6 channel to DVD to be rather slopy. Doesn't anybody check this stuff before it's released to the public?I was very disappointed with the sound of this film. Why did they ever do away with flogging?
on July 5, 2003
In 1962, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer started to use three camera Cinerama to tell stories rather than travelogues. But in 1963, three camera Cinerama was relegated to the trash heap and Ultra Panavision, a 70mm anamorphic process giving a 2.75 aspect ratio, was used for Cinerama movies. The depth generated by the technology was replaced with the director's ability to set up scenes that would not get distorted on the large curved screen. Of course, all the technology in the world can not replace an intelligent story and the story-telling Cinerama movies had its ups and downs. Here is one of the highlights. A fascinating, little-known history lesson is made into an intelligent action spectacular written by an author who specializes in African history, Robert Ardrey. In the tradition of "Lawrence of Arabia," we get a psychological and political analysis, a mixture of action set pieces directed by the remarkable Yakima Canutt (the director of the chariot race in "Ben-Hur") and character analysis directed by Basil Dearden. The acting is phenomenal. Charlton Heston does his finest acting since "Ben-Hur" and Laurence Olivier is outstanding, even frightening. But do not forget Ralph Richardson, Richard Johnson and the rest of the cast. They are all equally effective. I believe the reason that this film was not more of a success or more appreciated was a timing issue: it was released during the summer. Not a good time to release a film situated in the Sudanese desert. Even "Lawrence of Arabia" was released right before Christmas. The five star rating is for the film. Now, for the DVD, MGM continues its practice of delivering the worst product. Of course, this is a member of their less expensive collection and my criticisms are little. First, the titles have been changed. The original titles were presented on a backdrop of royal blue while the letters were thin, gold and contained jewels. Here, they appear as yellow letters from a word processing package on a black background. Why was it changed? Second, the aspect ratio is 2.35 rather than the Ultra Panavision 70mm 2.75. Third, the sound is absolutely horrendous. It must be monaural. No bass, no depth, no surround effects. The explosions shook the theatre. Here, they disappear into the background. Still, despite the presentation, with only a couple of artifacts in the film, it is still an excellent motion picture that more and more people should discover.
on September 12, 2001
Laurence Olivier and Charlton Heston star in a colorful historical drama that details the fall of Khartoum in 1885. In the mid-'60s, the film industry was winding down its interest in portraying historical spectacles on the big screen. A late entry in this cycle is this intelligent British film. Heston plays the Victorian hero "Chinese" Gordon, who viewed himself as the deliverer of the Sudan. Previously, Gordon had ended slavery in the region, and he feels connected to his loyal minions. Olivier is equally messianic as The Mahdi, the spiritual leader of hordes of Moslem warriors. God has commanded The Mahdi, he says, to worship in mosques as far afield as Constantinople. His war in the Sudan is a mere prelude to greater conquests. The conflict is essentially between two fanatic men. One inspired by faith, the other by ego. The immediate cause of conflict is the city of Khartoum. Besides indigenous people, the city is populated by Egyptians and Europeans. For political reasons, Gordon goes to the Sudan to sort it all out, and evacuate the non-native inhabitants. All the while preserving British dignity without entangling Her Majesty's government. Heston does well as the proud Gordon. Olivier seems amused by his role. Their scenes together are among the high points of the film, but they also stretch historical credibility. Ralph Richardson is good as British P. M. Gladstone, resisting Gordon's attempts to expand the British role in the Sudan. The large-scale battle scenes will please action-adventure fans. The director does an effective job of capturing the Victorian atmosphere of England in the 1880s. Location filming in Egypt and along the Nile enhances authenticity. An interesting sub-theme is the folly of foreign adventure, ironic for a film produced in the early Vietnam era. Recommended viewing. ;-)
on January 2, 2007
Heston essays one of his best roles as Charles "Chinese" Gordon, the patriot who thrives on challenge... Gordon becomes a national hero for his exploits in China and his ill-fated defense of Khartoum...
Gordon is a Christian with the Bible constantly under his arm... A national hero who abolished slavery in China... An honest man revered by the British, as well as by the foreigners... A martyr-warrior who ever truly loves the Sudan and cannot, under 'his' God, leave it to the misery and the sickness of which he once cured it...
Gladstone ((Ralph Richardson) decides not to send troops to the trouble area... Instead he will send General Gordon... Gladstone realizes if Gordon is sent to Khartoum and fails to prevent a massacre, it is he who will be blamed; not the Briish government... For heroes are supposed to perform miracles...
En route to Khartoum, Gordon discovers that most of Britain's allies and friends of his former exploits now support the mystic Mahdi... But when Gordon with Col. Stewart (Richard Johnson) finally reach Khartoum, the people give him a warm welcome... They feel their problems must soon be over now that Gordon Pasha has arrived...
Things, however, do not go as planned... Khartoum runs out of food... The Mahdi's men infiltrate the city... And Gordon seek a plan...
Lawrence Olivier is superb as the fanatical Arab leader, Muhammed Ahmed Al Mahdi, the Expected-One... His softly glowing black eyes never blink... His measured voice spreads holy terrors: "I have been instructed by the Lord Mohammed, Peace be upon Him, to worship in the Khartoum mosque. Therefore I must take Khartoum by the sword."
With outstanding color photography, exquisite sets and costumes, "Khartoum" has great moments:
- The bloody and brutal massacre of an entire army in a burning desert...
- The Gordon/Mahdi meeting... The only non-historic element of the film which, in fact, never took place - contributes enormously to the dramatic effect of the motion picture.
- The raid on the Mahdi's own supplies...
- The exodus of all foreigners and Europeans out of the city...
With an Oscar-Nominated script mounted on a grand scale, "Khartoum" is an epic entertainment, a fine and powerful motion picture...
The exploits, the single-handed capacity Gordon Pasha displayed again and again to control large groups of people quite unarmed and alone, is almost magical; quite scary, in fact...
I don't think I personally would pick Charlton Heston to play "Chinese Gordon" but Heston is definitely the hero type and, with all his flaws, so was Gordon.
The movie does a good job of telling the story of Britain's role in Egypt and the Sudan, of the politics which left Gordon virtually alone with a handful of Egyptian soldiers and local civilians to fight off the army of the Mahdi, or what we would call these days "Jihadists." Short on trained soldiers and worldliness, the Mahdi nevertheless had ambitions to take over the entire Islamic world and, eventually, the rest as well. The blind fanatacism and belief that they would be rewarded in the afterlife for their martyrdom made the Jihadists of these times almost as dangerous as the ones we have now. At least back then we didn't have Christiane Amenpour trying to get the head-chopper's point of view.
A fun movie and historic epic.