The great British public have always loved a good failure- Scott, Shackleton and Oates (to name several Antarctic-related examples) all became national heroes because they did not succeed in their efforts, but put up a jolly good fight none the less, and showed the world that the British upper lip remains stiff till the end. To this distinguished list one can add Charles 'Chinese' Gordon, the Governor-General who died at the siege of Khartoum in the Sudan in 1885. In 1966, following the success of Lawrence of Arabia, he finally appeared on film.
The shadow of that earlier movie looms large over Khartoum. Once again, a charismatic English military man is sent into the burning sands to live amongst Arabs (and Europeans in blackface!) and rally them for a historic battle. Sound familiar? In this case that man is Charlton Heston as 'Chinese' Gordon, hero of the Crimean and Opium Wars. British Prime Minister William Gladstone sends Gordon back to the Sudan, where he had clashed with slave traders just a few years before. Trouble is brewing there in the form of one Mohammad Achmed (Laurence Olivier), the self styled Madhi, or 'expected one', who is uniting the various Sudanese tribes against Anglo/Egyptian rule.
The politics of this time are not easily understood, and to its credit the film does try hard to hint at their complexity without getting bogged down in too much detail. If you'll bear with me, I'll provide a little background: Britain under Gladstone was at an unusual point in its Empire-building career. While he was virulently anti-colonial, the British Empire ironically grew faster under his watch than at any other time. Despite his protestations, events continually conspired to cause Britain to engulf country after country.
The Khedive of Egypt, while nominally a subject of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, was in reality completely under the influence of the British and French due to the massive debts the weak ruler owed to European countries. Britain, criticized for allowing Egypt to go to ruin, 'reluctantly' decided to take a more hands-on approach. Thus Gladstone also inherited an unwanted responsibility towards Egypts own 'empire'- the Sudan. Egypt, however, was clearly not up to the task of combating the Mahdi's uprising. Gladstone was left in the unenviable position of having to prevent a humanitarian crisis (the large amount of Egyptians and Europeans who would be massacred should Khartoum fall to the Mahdi) while not wanting to directly involve the British government or army.
So, one's interpretation of the situation (and of the film) may be, to a large degree, depend on one's opinion of Gladstone himself. He is played as a bit of a villain in the film. As an Irishman, I certainly have a lot of time for the Grand Old Man's distaste towards Britain's habit of acquiring colonies. But having inherited what was already the largest Empire on Earth, this attitude frequently caused him to flip-flop on issues. His refusal to commit to the Sudan- a situation that Britain was already up to its starched collar in- was bound to end in disaster. In place of official British intervention, Gladstone unofficially sent the one man he knew he could distrust- Gordon. But enough history. Is the film any good?
Damn straight it is. For starters, anyone who questions Chuck Heston's ability to carry off charismatic characters like Gordon deserves a bayonet through their DVD collection. Granted, the Omega Man is an extremely unusual choice to play a 19th century British officer, but there wasn't a man alive in 1966 who'd done more to prove his chops for carrying historical epics. His accent tends to migrate more than a wandering albatross, but he brings just the right sense of pathos to Gordon, as the man who fears failure but not death slowly realizes that Khartoum will bring him one of both of these things. Laurence Olivier also makes the most of his part- his Mahdi is a character to be feared from a distance more often than encountered, but his (fictional) meetings with Gordon do not disappoint.
The music is also truly awesome- it ranges from stirring military marches to the kind of exotic sensationalist Orientalism that would have Edward Said choking on his Turkish coffee. Hell, if you're not a fan of un-PC depictions of Eastern culture, then stay away from 19th century British history, and stay the hell away from Khartoum! This is a world of minarets, dancing harem girls and blackface white actors praising Allah. Having said that, the Madhi in particular is played as a smart and complex man, who points out to Gordon that their aims are not so very different. And if he's also portrayed as a barbarian who collects the heads and hands of his enemies- well that's ok, because the real Mahdi was a man who collected the heads and hands of his enemies. So its not all Arabian Nights fantasy.
As I've stated above, this movie does suffer by comparison with Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence is a British film made by a visionary director comparable in style to Stanley Kubrick (in fact I believe I made this very comparison myself in a previous review). Khartoum is very much a straightforward American-style movie, and fits very much into the 1960s 'epic' movie cycle. The shots are slightly more artless, and the desert is used as a slightly arbitrary location rather than as a character. Perhaps comparisons would be unfair- were it not painfully obvious that Khartoum clearly got the green light because of the success of Lawrence. It even steals the 'overture' and 'intermission' structure of David Leans movie, slightly watering down the concept in the process.
But such gripes aside, the quality of the movie is good evidence that it ought to have been made regardless of circumstances.