Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Khartoum (1966)

Khartoum is one of the death films, which were a group of films about doomed heroic last stands that I discovered within several months of each other. One of the others was John Wayne’s The Alamo (which will be reviewed this weekend), and there were two others I don’t recall. All were films where everyone dies at the end and you're left feeling both bummed and kind of exhilarated. Watching them in rapid succesion I found my world was very colored. That however is a story for another time.

Khartoum is the story of the British last stand at Khartoum in the Sudan which came under attack by Muslim extremists lead by a character called the Mahdi. The British tried to hold the city but found they were being overwhelmed. In order to seem like they were doing something, some people suspected that the city was going to be lost regardless of what was done, they sent Charles“Chinese” Gordon to take control of the city. Gordon had a reputation for doing the impossible and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat(he had turned a similar situation around in China). He was his own man and decidedly eccentric even to the end when he decided to stay despite being the given the chance to leave.

In the film Charlton Heston plays Gordon and Laurence Olivier is the Mahdi. Heston isn’t really required to do much other than look strong and imposing while Olivier just looks awful in black face. Actually Olivier is a tad silly as well.

It’s a grand spectacle that was shot on location about the clash of ideas. Gordon is fighting for the British way, but there is also freedom and justice as well. The Mahdi wants to covert the world.

The battle between the two is reasonably accurate, with the exception being that to the best of my knowledge neither leader ever met the other. (Actually the interesting thing about the historical Mahdi is that we know almost nothing about him. He was a shadowy figure who whipped up the masses and swept across Africa. The taking of Khartoum was his high water mark, with his death following relatively closely behind. While he did spread Islam across Africa, his gains were eventually wiped away a decade or two later when the British army managed to take back much of what they lost.)

I really like the film a great deal, and will occasionally turn to this film to see a good, but not too taxing epic. I like that the film over comes the silliness of the leads to tell a truly moving story.

The film was recently revived for a single showing at Lincoln Center in their 70mm series because the film, in addition to being excellent, was shot in a widescreen process that was considered a single strip verion of Cinerama.

Definitely worth tracking

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