Khartoum (Blu-ray Review)24 Feb, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Richard Johnson, Nigel Green.
Even within the context of a not particularly distinguished movie year from half a century ago, I wasn’t overly enamored of this wannabe Big One back in ’66. A late-era Cinerama release, it seemed like an unlikely commercial bet at least in the United States, where moviegoing minds at the time were concerned far less with the Middle East than on with what the recently late Pete Seeger would soon refer to as “Big Muddy” and the draft notices it connoted. Now, of course, this has all changed for modern audiences, a reality that adds at least a little charge to the battle of the bands seen here between Brit Gen. Charles George “Chinese” Gordon and Muhammad Ahmad — two bigger-than-life characters who never actually had a one-on-one in real life but do so (twice) on screen for what are in fact, the resulting movie’s two high points.
In an era of Adam Sandler and the “Jackass” franchise, Khartoum’s Robert Ardrey screenplay — at least for what was 1966’s more advanced idea of a June U.S. release — seems almost weirdly grown-up in that it deals with Brit prime Minister William Gladstone (good old Ralph Richardson in dependably on-point vocal form) sending Gordon (Charlton Heston) on a mission that the official government will have to deny, a concept that will likely have a familiar ring to jaded current-day audiences conditioned to roll eyes over their leaders. (So in this regard, the movie is kind of modern — though in other ways, no). Thus, Gordon has no real ability to do anything officially on behalf of his queen — though the unofficial mission will be to evacuate solder/civilian survivors out of Khartoum following a mass slaughter in the Sudan (one that opens the film) of about 10,000 less than crack troops, a defeat suffered at Mahdi/Olivier’s hands.
Of course, Gladstone & Co. realize that Gordon is a cowboy (sub-category: religious Fundamentalist cowboy) who just might elect to go it alone, which dovetails nicely and cynically with the government’s wish for plausible deniability. The Mahdi is a cowboy, too, though it would be a stretch to say that Olivier’s dark-skinned makeup (this was just a year after the actor’s screen version of Othello) suggests one. So this is the conflict that does give a talky epic at least a little juice, especially since Heston gives one of his better-to-best performances (matching his esteemed co-star, in fact) during what was a pretty solid mid-decade run for him with this film, Sam Peckinpah’s compromised but underrated Major Dundee and Franklin Schaffner’s studio-bound but durably watchable The War Lord.
Photographed in a kind of brown-and-brown that doesn’t take much advantage of the splendorous possibilities afforded by Ultra Panavision 70, Khartoum was directed by Basil Dearden — a filmmaker who was possibly over his head here though an able maker of then modern-day urban hothouse melodramas that Criterion sub-division “Eclipse “chose to salute in a box almost exactly three years ago. On the Twilight Time commentary by a colorful triumvirate of Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs, someone notes that the supporting cast of political types is reduced to a gathering of beards — and, indeed, this is one of those historical epics that looks a little like a photo shoot for some ad agency’s spot for Smith Brothers Cough Drops. The threesome’s bonus jawboning is a bit more upfront than usual about its corresponding movie’s flaws — while still respecting the lead performances and other redeemers. The Khartoum experience didn’t end very well for Gordon (nor in the long run, the Mahdi), and one of the commentators notes that here’s a large-scale production that begins in tragedy and ends in another. It’s not a slam-dunk flaw, albeit perhaps commercially, though you can see how when that particular story curve gets combined with so-so direction you can have an intended blockbuster that doesn’t go that far beyond the “interesting level.”
The number of films credited to Ultra Panavision 70 only numbered a couple handfuls, and even these count the “MGM Camera 65” blockbusters Raintree County and Ben-Hur before Panavision changed the name to something that sounded even bigger. The first film to advertise itself as being in Ultra Panavision 70 and then get projected on curved Cinerama screens was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — recently out on Blu-ray itself. Khartoum, in turn, was the last movie to fulfill both qualifications, which kind of adds some symmetry to the home-viewing month.