Ranking: #62/111

Director: Basil Dearden (Britain)

Genre: Historical Drama

Khartoum isn’t just a compelling historical drama: it’s a visual spectacle, on the scale of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. And, like Lean’s masterpiece, it is a desert epic which is steeped in history and in bold thematic reflections. The cinematography evokes the beauty of the desert and terrain of the Sudan.

Based on an insightful screenplay by renowned American playwright, screenwriter and science writer, Robert Ardrey, this underrated movie has a great vibrancy and a compelling fusion of imagery and sound throughout. Ardrey drew on General Gordon’s account of the defence of Khartoum against the forces of the Mahdist army during its 1884-5 siege of the city.

Both the mise-en-scène and the costumes in the film are phenomenal. Combined with strong dialogue and intense, compelling acting from Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Richard Johnson and Ralph Richardson, the effect is to lend to the film an electrifying vividness. Khartoum is a treat for the imagination of any cinephile, however many times it is watched. As if these qualities were not enough, the movie was shot in in Technicolor and Ultra Panavision 70, so that it could be exhibited in 70 mm Cinerama format, which only reinforced the sense of its historical scale. The film has a fine musical score, too.

The prolific British director, Basil Dearden, who directed the Film Noir masterpieces Pool of London (1951) and Violent Playground (1958) was at his creative peak in Khartoum.

The film opens with a beautiful shot of the Pyramids of Giza, accompanied with some poetic narration about the Nile (“The Nile has its memories”) from Ardrey’s pen. What a way to set the scene for the history that follows! It is the 1880s in Sudan and Muhammad Ahmed, known as the Mahdi (“the expected one”) has declared a holy war against all foreign forces in the region.

After the Mahdi inflicts a heavy defeat on a force of about 10,000 Egyptian troops, led by a former British Army soldier, Colonel Billy Hicks, in the Sudanese desert in 1883, the British government comes under political pressure to send out a force to deal with a deteriorating situation. British PM,  William Gladstone, played astutely by Ralph Richardson, overcomes his own distrust of the eccentric and headstrong Major-General Charles George Gordon and orders him to Khartoum to evacuate troops and civilians. Instead, Gordon, always headstrong, begins fortifying the city’s defences and rallying the people. Since the city lay at the confluence of the White Nile and Blue Nile, Gordon’s forces dig a ditch between the two to create a moat-like natural defence. However, when the waters recede in winter, the moat becomes useless and the small Egyptian army is overwhelmed by the superior, highly motivated, Mahdist forces. The city falls and so does Gordon. A British relief force arrives too late.

As for the Mahdi, he is on a mission to create a vast Islamic state from the Red Sea to Central Africa.

As a footnote, and in paying tribute to Dearden’s ability to get the best out of his actors, this is the only performance I’ve seen by Laurence Olivier when he wasn’t playing Laurence Olivier, because in Khartoum, he totally immerses himself into the character of the messianic and fanatical Mahdi, playing a truly memorable, magnificent role.  Heston is bedazzling as the enigmatic, brilliant, multifaceted General Gordon.

Khartoum, as a recreation of a turbulent period in British history, is a visual, auditory and cognitive extravaganza, with an extraordinary balance between the script, the dialogue, the acting, the action scenes, the scenery and the soundscape!