Though Criterion’s reconstructed It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) understandably got all the attention, January 22nd actually saw the release to Blu-ray of two filmed-in-Ultra Panavision, presented-in-Cinerama roadshows. The other was Khartoum (1966), a much less successful but still interesting historical epic dramatizing Britain’s equivalent to America’s Alamo. Had the film been released in 1956 instead of 1966 it would likely be remembered as an intelligent, intimate epic when compared to the more common, mindless CinemaScope spectacles that dominated the 1950s. But, ten years later, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) casts a long shadow. Khartoum can’t help but invite comparison, and in every way is inferior. A mostly British production but produced, written by, and starring Americans, Khartoum today is remembered as one of the first of a long line of failed Cinerama roadshows (it earned $3 million in U.S. and Canadian rentals versus its $6 million cost), the beginning of the end for that company and that type of roadshow exhibition, as well as for historical epics generally. But Khartoum does have its good points: the basic conflict is vast and intensely personal at once; the second unit work by Yakima Canutt is often spectacular; in retrospect the events in 1880s Sudan anticipate the rise of Islamic fundamentalism a century later; and some of the performances are interesting, though star Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Gen. Charles “Chinese” Gordon is maybe his least interesting within the genre. Twilight Time has licensed what originally was a United Artists release from MGM. The high-def results aren’t as splendiferous as the extremely pristine and aurally spectacular It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World but still good, plus there’s a smattering of interesting special features.
More than 10,000 British-led Egyptian troops are slaughtered by an army of Muslin fanatics, an army led by Sudanese Arab Muhammad Ahmad (Laurence Olivier), self-described Mahdi (“messianic redeemer”) who believes Mohammed has chosen him to lead a crusade to spread radical Islam across the region. To set a very public example, he intends to murder the entire population of Khartoum, moderate Sudanese and Egyptian Muslims not allied with Ahmad and non-Muslims alike. Word of the massacre reaches pragmatic British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (Ralph Richardson). He’s loathe to send British troops to Khartoum in order to save the thousands of Egyptians and Europeans stranded there, this in spite of Britain’s close ties to Egypt (and its Suez Canal). Instead, he decides to unofficially dispatch celebrated war hero Gen Charles Gordon (Heston) to the region, believing that if loose cannon Gordon’s mission to evacuate Khartoum with Egyptian troops fails, the British government will be absolved any liability or political fallout. Accompanying Gordon on this suicide mission is Col. J.D.H. Stewart (Richard Johnson), whose responsibility it is to try and keep Gordon in line. Formerly Governor-General of the Sudan who broke the slave trade there some years before, Gordon is hailed as a god-like savior upon his return but the situation is dire, with the Mahdi having cut Khartoum off from the rest of the world. A large British force is the only thing that can save Khartoum now, and that’s not likely to happen. Khartoum’s main point of interest is in the way playwright-anthropologist Robert Ardrey’s screenplay essentially makes Gordon and the Mahdi two sides of the same coin: True Believers (the real Gordon a devout Christian cosmologist) who’d gladly surrender their lives for the Greater Good. The only difference seems to be that Gordon barely recognizes the dangers of such unquestioning devotion. The movie’s best scenes are two brief meetings between Gordon and the Mahdi, meetings that didn’t actually happen though dramatically justified here. Part of the problem with Khartoum is that Gordon pretty much remains an enigma, nor is this characterization helped by Heston’s atypically reserved but still indulgent performance. The script, at least as far as one can make out in the final cut of the film, hints at Gordon’s evangelism but not enough to present any real clear picture of the man. The screenplay also suggests Gordon as egotistical, cocksure, but charismatic, qualities similar to T.E. Lawrence. Some of these Heston gets across, but like the mid-Atlantic accent he affects, mostly Heston hedges his bets, more often than not playing Gordon as a stiff upper lipped, A.E.W. Mason-inspired British Empire stereotype. Further, much of Ardrey’s script posits Gordon as the great white savior lording over adoring dark-skinned followers in “his” Sudan, especially in all the scenes involving Khaleel (Johnny Sekka), Gordon’s devoted valet, he forever bemused by Gordon’s faith and this strange Jesus fellow reads about in Gordon’s Bible. (What the film does not mention is that Gordon reinstated the slave trade to Khartoum upon his return. I doubt that went down well.) Laurence Olivier’s Muhammad Ahmad is another matter. Something like an extension of his controversial blackface performance as Othello, Olivier hides behind dark brown make-up, a thick beard, and flowing robes, affecting an inconsistent accent that, in his first scene addressing victorious troops, has the unintended comical effect of reminding viewers of Leo McKern’s Swami Clang in The Beatles’ movie Help! (1965). (I suspect that may have been the first scene Olivier shot; he dials back the accent considerably for the rest of the picture.) However, after 9/11 Olivier’s performance can’t help but remind contemporary viewers of Osama bin Laden, whose ambitions, fanatical beliefs, and terrorist strategies were starkly similar. In full make-up, Olivier even looks a little like bin Laden. Moreover, the British government’s interests in the region likewise draw eerily similar comparisons to America’s more than a century later. Another problem with Oliver’s scenes is that all too clearly the actor never set foot outside a British soundstage. In all of the location scenes Olivier is clearly doubled, the effect similar to Fun in Acapulco, G.I. Blues and other Elvis vehicles where the actor is painfully absent in all the location scenes because “Col.” Tom Parker refused to let his precious commodity travel abroad. In Khartoum, the flawless performances of the always-good Richard Johnson and Ralph Richardson outshine the two leads. Heston reportedly was happy with Basil Dearden’s direction, and indeed his unimaginative camera set-ups don’t help. The film has extraordinarily few close-ups, and the use of Ultra Panavision’s extremely wide canvas is bereft of visual flair. Yakima Canutt’s second unit work is far more interesting. The climatic moment of the picture, based on George W. Joy’s famous painting General Gordon’s Last Stand, is particularly disappointing and ineffectively edited.
Twilight Time’s 1080p Blu-ray of Khartoum sources superior 65mm film elements, made clear by the “in Cinerama” title card which would have been removed for 35mm engagements. Also intact are the film’s original overture, intermission break, entr’acte, and exit music. At 136 minutes, this also seems to be the longest original cut of the film, which is missing several minutes in the original U.S. release, making it one of the shortest narrative roadshow releases. The image is strong throughout, with good detail and accurate, vivid color. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio lacks the directionality of the original 6-track magnetic stereo mix; it’s not clear why MGM couldn’t use those sound elements as they apparently still exist. Optional English subtitles are included. The disc includes an original Cinerama release version trailer, also in high-def; an isolated music track (DTS-HD mono, alas); an audio commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman; and Kirgo’s typically observant liner notes (she aptly describes Olivier as looking “like a bearded walnut,” and rightly likens Khartoum’s portrait of Gordon to the later Patton). Khartoum, then, is a deeply-flawed epic but also an ambitious, mostly intelligent one that, on Blu-ray, can at long last be assessed more fairly than decades of panned-and-scanned viewings on 13-inch TV sets allowed. That it aims so high and falls well short of its goal doesn’t negate its many fine qualities, and Khartoum deserves the wider audience this handsome Blu-ray release allows.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Khartoum rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary, Cinerama release trailer, isolated score track, booklet.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES
Twilight Time 1966 / Color / 2.76:1 Ultra Panavision 70 / 136 min. / Street Date January 22, 2014 / $29.95 Starring Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Richard Johnson, Ralph Richardson.. Director of Photography Edward Scaife Music Frank Cordell Written by Robert Ardrey Produced by Julian Blaustein Directed by Basil Dearden