A 50-year-old Movie More Relevant than Ever

ChuckHestonby Jon N. Hall    1/6/15
What would make a history-based movie from 50 years ago more relevant today than when it premiered back in the mid-1960s? The answer is events; the world has changed and has made the movie more relevant, more vital. With the rise of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and ISIS, and with videos on the Internet of Americans being beheaded, the events of the last 50 years require us to look at the Middle East a bit differently. Fifty years ago Beirut, Lebanon, was known as the “The Paris of the Middle East”; I even knew a fellow who taught at the American University there. It’s doubtful that many Americans would want to teach there now.

The film I’m recommending today is Khartoum (1966), which treats events beginning with an 1883 massacre in Sudan and ending with the 1885 sack of Khartoum, both atrocities perpetrated by one Muhammad Ahmad, a.k.a. the Mahdi. (Winston Churchill wrote of these events in The River War.)

I’ve written about this film in another article, but only to quote the Mahdi’s bloodcurdling “I am a poor man of the desert” speech. That speech is a fair representation of the mind of a jihadist. However, in the 49 years since its release I don’t believe that I had ever screened Khartoum in its entirety. So when Turner Classic Movies ran it recently, I set my DVR, and what a treat.

The main relevance of the film is still the jihadism that continues to inform the fundamentalist sects of Islam, but there’s much else in this film to savor. Khartoum begins with a shot of the Giza pyramids at dawn with voice-over narration that might make one think of old travelogues. The narrator talks about the Nile, and the desert, and we see the ancient monuments, but soon we’re taken up the Nile to the Sudan, where the British mercenary Colonel William Hicks is commanding an Egyptian army in pursuit of the Mahdi. Actually, the Mahdi is luring Hicks & Co. into the vast wastes of the Sudanese desert, where he slaughters them “to the last man,” capturing their considerable arms and ammunition.

After this battle scene, the film cuts to England, where we’re privy to a meeting of Prime Minister Gladstone with his cabinet and military brass. It seems the government is caught in a sticky wicket, a public relations disaster. Gladstone bewails: “Why did Egypt have to hire an Englishman?” Colonel Stewart, just back from Khartoum, says to Gladstone:

Colonel Hicks and his men were fighting for wages. The Mahdi and his men were fighting a holy war. Also Hicks thought he was fighting an ignorant savage and he wasn’t. The Mahdi is the most extraordinary man the Sudan has ever seen. And he knows his people. He promised them a miracle, he had to deliver it.

Gladstone makes it clear that he will send no British armies “up the Nile.” He insinuates that Col. Stewart is an imperialist interventionist like the rest of them and “can see himself leading a British army 1600 miles up the Nile, flags flying, glory for all.” Stewart retorts: “I beg your pardon. Before I’d accept such a command, I’d resign my commission. I wouldn’t spend one British life to oppose the Mahdi.”

Gladstone then announces: “I shall suggest to Her Majesty in Scotland tomorrow that we shall discharge our obligations to Egypt by evacuating all the Egyptians from Khartoum.” But how, “without either a British army or loss of British honour?” Gladstone then entertains suggestions.

Granville suggests sending Major-General Charles George Gordon. “Send him to Khartoum and you’ll be applauded from Land’s End to Inverness.” But this is nothing but a cynical face-saving gesture: “If we send Gordon to Khartoum — Gordon, a national hero — and he fails, then the blame will fall on him, not on the government.”

So that’s our story; one British soldier sent to Sudan to save the Egyptians. Oh, and Gladstone sends Col. Stewart along for the ride to make sure that Gordon, a bit of a prima donna, doesn’t become a loose cannon.

One of the pleasures of this movie is the fine screenplay by Robert Ardrey. The dialog in the cabinet meeting is scintillating, as is that of the meeting between Gladstone and Gordon in the train station, where Gordon accepts the assignment. The back and forth between Gordon and Col. Stewart on their boat ride across the channel to Calais is also terrific stuff.

The cinematography is also very fine; I’d put some of the shots of the desert up there with David Lean’s in Lawrence of Arabia. And what’s a cinematic epic without epic music? The powerful score by Frank Cordell is a mix of styles. To my ear, the “Main Theme” is a mix of William Walton, Miklós Rózsa, and Edward Elgar. (Maybe I’m hearing things again.) The other styles Cordell uses are edgier, more cinematic.

This movie could easily have been titled “Gordon of Khartoum,” for it is Gordon who is the main character, not the Mahdi. And it is not the Mahdi but Gordon who changes.

Gordon seems possessed of such outlandish belief in himself that he seems to think he’ll be able to secure safe passage for the Egyptians merely by talking to the Mahdi; you know, being “reasonable” and “practical.” Despite Gordon’s self-delusion (“the vainest man alive”?), Heston2he becomes something of a Christ-like figure at the end. If Gordon intrigues, watch “Gordon of Khartoum,” a 1982 BBC documentary hosted by actor Robert Hardy (the program is also available here.)

With an A-list cast of lions of the British theatre that includes Olivier as the Mahdi, Richard Johnson as Col. Stewart, and Ralph Richardson as Prime Minister Gladstone, one needs a real heavyweight, an actor with “presence,” to play Gordon. We get that with an American, Charlton Heston. Chuck goes toe to toe with the Brits and acquits himself with honor.

The West has had to deal with these people since at least the Battle of Tours in 732. The relevance of Khartoum today is not to provide for our need for heroes, like Gordon, to honor (much less worship). Rather, the message of Khartoum for today is to remind us that radical fundamentalist Islamists have been with us for a very long time — and they don’t change.

(SEE IT: If your interest is piqued, before renting Khartoum from Netflix, Amazon, or YouTube: see your cable listings. The MGM Channel is running the flick on Jan. 14 (click Daytime). And the Screen Pack option of AT&T’s U-verse is offering it on-demand until March 30. So you may have already paid for Khartoum. In any event, you should be able to watch the preview for free on your HDTV.)
Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. • (2367 views)

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3 Responses to A 50-year-old Movie More Relevant than Ever

  1. Steve Lancaster says:

    I first saw this movie when I was a teenager in the South. I did not know much about Moslems but the story caught my imagination and spurred my already growing interest in history. I checked out a Koran from the city library and quickly discovered that was not only difficult reading, but contradictory and for a Southerner it might have made more sense if it were in Klingon.

    I persevered and waded through T. E. Lawrence 7 pillars of wisdom, frankly that was enough.

    There was a time when honor, integrity, and the defense of civilization meant something and we did not feel bad about putting in books and movies.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I remember we were going to see the movie after it came out, but it left the theater before we got to it, and I never have seen it (which is unfortunate for a fan of Heston). I have read about it, in Heston’s memoir and in George MacDonald Fraser’s The Hollywood History of the World. I will note that Gordon first came to notice (and earned his sobriquet of Chinese Gordon) when he took over the Ever-Victorious China after its founder (the American mandarin Frederick Townsend Ward — anyone interested him is invited to read Caleb Carr’s The Devil Soldier) and led it to victory against the Taiping Rebellion.

    Incidentally, there’s a nice joke my mother told me decades ago. A British family were living in some foreign country where there was a statue of Chinese Gordon. They took their small son to see Gordon, and the boy was very much taken and kept asking to be taken to see Gordon. Finally, there came the sad day when they were reassigned, and had to leave. So they took their son one last time to see the statue, where he said goodbye to Gordon. Finally, as they were leaving, he asked, “Mommy, who’s that man on Gordon?”

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I finally finished this movie a couple weeks ago. I generally liked it.

    It may be time to crank up “Lawrence of Arabia” with the passing of Omar Sharif.

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