Released in 1966, Khartoum was given the hard ticket treatment based on the scope of British troubles in the Sudan in 1883 and the subsequent slaughter the Brits and the Sudanese inflicted upon each other in the battle for the city. Boasting a prestige cast that includes Charlton Heston as General Charles “Chinese” Gordon and Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi, with Richard Johnson, Ralph Richardson, Alexander Knox, Michael Hordern, Nigel Green and Douglas Wilmer, United Artists decided that the movie, running 2 hours and 16 minutes, needed the additional heft of seamless Cinerama. (For those who saw it during the roadshow run, only the 3:44 minute opening “explanatory” sequence would be impressively enhanced.) Though reviews were good to excellent, with Heston receiving his best notices since Ben-Hur and El Cid, especially from the London press, and Robert Ardrey’s often fuzzy script nominated for an Oscar, the epic was a disaster at the box office. Perhaps because it wasn’t huge enough—the spectacle wasn’t very spectacular, with a few too many process shots further exposed by the gratuitous blowup. Life magazine blurbed that Khartoum had “the most realistic battle action in movie history”; the London Daily Express, in faint praise, wrote “the battle scenes are a frenzy of action,” which is closer to viewer experience in that they’re scramblingly staged and edited. Other factors possibly accelerated its doom. Those interested might have remembered the 1955 travesty Storm Over the Nile, fictional nonsense about what happened in the Sudan after Gordon, starring an ineffable Laurence Harvey who demonstrates, and confirms in Carol Reed’s The Running Man, that any movie with Harvey in blond hair is begging for it. Audiences for reserved seat attractions had also sharply declined after the waste of Circus World, The Battle of the Bulge and The Hallelujah Trail, with more rot on the way. Although his script included Gordon’s boozing, Ardrey ignored the juicier attractions of his character issues. A life-long bachelor as follower of Christ, committed to celibacy in order to “subdue the flesh,” he used his extreme dedication to military assignments to counter what may have been ceaseless “sexual temptation.” Inevitably, this would be interpreted by some as suspicion of inversion; after Seven Pillars of Wisdom and accelerating with Lawrence of Arabia, it became sine qua non for sensation-seeking authors to create an adoxographical kinship between Gordon and T.E. Lawrence. The disappointment in the movie is the obligatory comparison just sits there. Neither is there isn’t much significant detail of Gordon’s military successes, nor suggestive groundwork for his Achilles’ Heel—his perplexing arbitrariness about doing what his government demanded of him. In past campaigns he got away with acts deemed insubordinate because they proved fruitful and very popular with the public, but at Khartoum the timing of luck in rejecting authority ran out. (His fate here is captured to reflect the famous George William Joy painting.) In lieu of Gordon’s militaristic religiosity, Heston has fun with his slight British accent and looks natty in his military finery and graying sideburns. Olivier, on the other hand, looks like he dashed from the set of Othello, already in dark tanning makeup, to the London soundstage to enter the flimsy tent and surrounding vegetation that don’t match the corresponding exterior shots. Real history records that Gordon and the Mahdi, as enemies locked in a test of wills, never met—though they were in frequent written communication with one another, often about each converting the other to his religion. The movie, bowing to anticipation, provides the excuse to give Heston and Olivier two scenes together during which you might have expected the pleasure of the latter’s compeitiveness wiping the former with the tent rugs, but Chuckles holds his own; it’s the stuff of wry New Yorker cartoons. (Equivalent moments that never happened can be seen in Mary, Queen of Scots, with Vanessa Redgrave in the title role and Glenda Jackson reprising her Elizabeth R regality, and in HBO-Channel 4’s Elizabeth I starring Helen Mirren.) Directed by Basil Dearden, produced by Julian Blaustein, director of photography Edward Scaife. Filmed in Ultra Panavision. (Opening 6/22/1966 at the McVickers, running 11 weeks.)
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Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.