Basil Dearden (director)
135 min (length)
03 December 2018 (released)
27 November 2018
The Sixties appeared to be very much the era of the historical epic and this star-studded film from 1966 very much typifies that time. It is almost impossible not to make some kind of comparison with David Lean's opus from four years earlier – Lawrence of Arabia - that made a star of Peter O' Toole.
Both T.E. Lawrence and General Charles Gordon were men of a certain and rather unique type whose hearts became entrenched in Arab Countries. It was the latter who died a hero's death in combat; Lawrence, of course, died somewhat less heroically in a motorcycle accident back in Blighty. A film about Gordon really had to be made sometime and producer Jules Blaustein had had the project on the go for some considerable time. Burt Lancaster, curiously around Gordon's age at the time, was originally the actor in line to play the hero of Sudan and there was talk of Carol Reed directing. We ended up with Charlton Heston (then in his early 40's) and Basil Dearden at the reins (funny that both actors were American and Gordon was very much the Englishman). Dearden, a busy and dependable director, had never been involved with anything on this scale before and he handles it pretty well. Heston also, now seemingly slipped from popularity, makes for a more than adequate Gordon (though he doesn’t even attempt an English accent) and embellishes the role with more depth than you may have had expected. It was a film he wanted to do and there lies the difference. Also we have a highly literate script from Robert Ardrey (best known now for his seminal work 'African Genesis').
General Gordon was born into a military family in Woolwich, London, and so it could be said the army was in his veins. Gordon was in many respects an exceptionable military man; calling him a 'one off' is near to an understatement. To sum up briefly before the tragedy of Khartoum (the capital of the Sudan) took place, Gordon had worked wonders in that country and practically all but abolished slavery and was seen as a hero there – and deservedly so. Unfortunately shortly afterwards the 'Mahdi' appeared on the scene; that is to say Muhammad Ahmad. His God “blessings and praise be upon him” had appeared to him in a dream and informed him that he was indeed 'The expected one'. He henceforth called himself Mahdi. Within a short time this man had amassed a huge following of fighting men all prepared to die in the name of Allah.
The film kicks off with a mighty battle scene in Sudan (the year is 1883) and 10,000 insufficiently trained Egyptians under the command of British Colonel Hicks are lured into the desert by Ahmad and his loyal troops where, a short time later, they are slaughtered. The great British Empire is humiliated though that’s what you get when you sent troops into battle which are ill-prepared. British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) is anything but keen on sending more military in the direction of Sudan but Great Britain’s reputation is at stake, after all, back then it was the greatest Empire in the world. Lord Granville (Michael Hordern) suggests to the Prime Minister that they send General Gordon there as a pawn; albeit a witting one. Now this, they know, is really something of an already lost cause but Gordon is not a man for lost causes nor a man who would do anything half- heartedly… au contraire, he is a man who follows his instincts rather then blind military command. Upon arrival in his beloved Sudan he finds something a little more than a worthy adversary in the mighty Mahdi (the mighty Laurence Olivier sporting dark-brown face paint)). These men soon realize how very much alike they are (this gives the film a rather special and chilling poignancy), both believing deeply in their own causes and what's more, are quite prepared to die for it. It is indeed strange that the Mahdi, a comparatively young man, died just months after Gordon. The Mahdi has great respect for this 'infidel' - a man of considerable courage who visits him in his own encampment with but one other man, Khaleel (Johnny Sekka), who is at great pains to point out he is not his black servant.
Despite the initial mutual respect the Mahdi will spare no one and a siege is inevitable. The government is taking their time about sending General Gordon any relief party – in fact it arrives two days after Gordon had been killed. The story of Khartoum is well enough documented and the name of General Gordon is not forgotten, but...
As Leo Genn's un-credited dark-voiced narrator informs us: “A world without the Gordons would soon return to the sand.” Much credit should be given to Frank Cordell stirring score, incorporating a number of old military motifs, and a memorable anthem for Gordon. Gordon's end is a near depiction of George William Joy's painting 'General Gordon's Last Stand'. Laurence Olivier's blacked up Mahdi is questionable now and should have been questionable even then. For example, why was the role of the Mahdi not offered to Omar Sharif – an Egyptian actor and altogether most likely more suited to the part? Only the casting director knows!
As for Ralph Richardson, he won a BAFTA for his portrayal of the Prime Minister while writer Robert Ardrey was nominated for an Academy Award. Of course, big praise most go to cinematographer Edward Scaife who filmed the lot using a special anamorphic technique called Ultra Panavision 70 (KHARTOUM was the last movie filmed in Ultra Panavision).