Basil Deardan’s Khartoum has a bit of a soft spot for England’s colonialist doings in the Middle East, focused as it is on the final days of Charles Gordon (Charlton Heston), the British general who died while trying to protect the titular city from the militant followers of the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier). Asked to evacuate Khartoum peacefully before the Mahdi attempts to take the city, Gordon is written here as the last line between the Sudan and the rise of religious fanaticism, and having him portrayed by Heston gives him the look and attitude of a war-tested hero. That the film never quite conveys the foolishness that goes hand in hand with the bravery of Gordon’s endeavor limits both the character and the film’s lofty themes, not least of which being the interconnection and collisions that arise when being beholden to more than one idea of duty.
In Deardan’s film, one of revelatory international scope as compared to the smaller genre works that characterized the director’s overall career, Gordon is a Christian evangelist making a kingly return to the city he helped liberate from slavery years ago, but also walking into the jaws of death. The mission, his higher-ups agree, is nothing short of a suicide mission, one that also serves as a crucial though empty reminder that England will fight for its property. The politics are simple and straightforward, when not outright wrongheaded, but they’re less important than the politics of faith underlining the uprising. Robert Ardrey’s script equates the loss of Khartoum as a matter of Gordon’s resolved belief in his work as a divine crusade. The film’s most narratively engaging sequences focus on Heston’s Gordon essentially talking to himself (and Him) in his office, his temperament becoming increasingly strained as the Mahdi’s offense looms.
Nevertheless, Khartoum is primarily an adventure picture, decked out in Ultra Panavision vistas that would make David Lean weep. Indeed, Deardan is clearly working in the Lean mode here, and he rises to the occasion in this respect. A thrilling set piece toward the end of the film, involving a riverboat full of essential personnel defending itself against the Mahdi’s followers, is enlivened by the crack and chug of artillery, but is just as remarkable for the fullness of the conflict Deardan captures in his framing and Fergus McDonell’s editing. If he never quite gets the desolation and enormity that Lean conjured with seeming ease, he certainly doesn’t shrink in the transition from the more intimate shooting styles of his earlier films to the gorgeous widescreen landscapes of the Sudan.
The film does get bogged down in the more dialogue-heavy scenes, mainly involving the history of England’s stake in the Sudan and the stature of Gordon’s career. The more personal elements of the struggle—religion, colonialism, nationalism, etc.—play a part, but the filmmakers seem hesitant to bring the existential panic of Gordon’s character to full visual life. It’s the vastness of the natural world, ravaged by righteous men, that Deardan prefers, which would be more powerful if Heston’s performance wasn’t so clean-cut and heroic. The doubt Gordon is plagued by never seems as consuming as the dialogue suggests, and his decision to face the Mahdi’s men in Khartoum is never given the essential tinge of madness. Indeed, the filmmakers change the circumstances of his death in a slight but crucial way to suggest the Mahdi’s respect for his opponent was greater than his disdain for the white overseers. You can’t really blame them, as the fact that Mahdi didn’t gasp in horror at the sight of his opponent’s severed head would shatter the film’s fictional view of war as a game of honor meant solely for gentlemen.
Not many of Twilight Time’s recent releases look half as good as their treatment of Khartoum. Clarity is excellent, bringing out the texture of the Sudanese wardrobe and the detail of the splintered, shot-away wood on the riverboat. Color is consistently superb, with deep reds and perfectly inky blacks. There are no compression issues and very little signs of digital touch-ups. The audio is a solid 2.0 that gives Frank Cordell’s epic score plenty of room in the back, while keeping dialogue crisp and out front. One might have hoped for a bit more clarity in the effects and wild sound, but this is rarely a distracting hindrance while watching the movie.
Included here is an odd but nonetheless involving commentary track from Twilight Time’s own Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo, accompanied by screenwriter Lem Dobbs, who recently penned Haywire. Dobbs focuses on screenwriter Robert Ardery, who also collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there’s a good amount of technical talk surrounding the incredible Panavision shots (the film was originally shown on 70mm). Unless you count trailers and an isolated music track, that’s all there is, unfortunately.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release of Basil Deardan’s telling of Charles Gordon’s last mission in the Sudan rightfully showcases the director’s widescreen, war-torn vistas.