Sunday, May 31, 2015

As if Ripped from Today's Headlines

Film: Khartoum
Format: ThisTV Chicago on rockin’ flatscreen.

I wasn’t specifically in the mood for a massive military epic today, but I’m constantly fighting a battle against the amount of movies saved on the DVR. Khartoum is a long one, particularly with the addition of commercial breaks. It doesn’t help that I keep recording films that aren’t otherwise available on NetFlix. It’s not unlike struggling with one’s waistline.

It’s interesting to me that the heart of the plot seems like it could be taken from pretty much any month’s newspapers in the last decade. We are dealing here with a military uprising of Muslims under the leadership of a charismatic and religiously-fueled leader claiming to speak for the prophet. Despite the 50 years separating this film and the present day, much of it seems incredibly relevant.

Khartoum is the story of the Mahdist uprising in the Sudan and the desperate siege suffered under the command of Charles “Chinese” Gordon (Charlton Heston) in 1883. We start with the slaughter of several thousand Egyptian troops under the command of Billy Hicks (William Underdown) by the religion-crazed forces of Muhammad Ahmad (Laurence Olivier). Ahmad believes himself to be the Mahdi, more or less the rightful heir to Mohammed. Ahmad plans to essentially conquer all of Northern Africa and the Middle East and more or less make the world tremble.

The military defeat is a huge loss of face for the British Empire, but William Gladstone (Ralph Richardson), prime minister at the time, does not want to commit more troops to the area. Under pressure, he sends Gordon. Gordon had a previous history with the Sudan, having ended the slave trade there years before. However, Gordon is also something of a wild card with a penchant for ignoring orders he doesn’t like and for a kind of personal religious zealotry.

It becomes a political issue. Gordon is a military hero to the British people, and sending him would be a boost in morale both at home and in the beleaguered area. Additionally, with Gordon in place, Gladstone can essentially ignore any additional pressure to send in troops. And so off Gordon goes, assisted by Colonel J.D.H. Stewart (Richard Johnson), who is more or less Gladstone’s spy. Gordon’s orders are to evacuate any Egyptian citizens from the area, an order that he immediately ignores.

Gordon heads to the titular Khartoum, where he sets up camp. A meeting with Ahmad fills him in on the Mahdi’s plan, which includes wiping out every living soul in Khartoum to serve as an example. To counteract this, Gordon takes advantage of Khartoum’s location at the confluence of the White and Blue Niles by creating a moat around the city and bringing in as much livestock and grain as possible to hold out for a siege. In response to public pressure, an army is sent from England, but is given instructions to move down the Nile as slowly as possible from Cairo, with the hope that Gordon will eventually leave. The results of this are better left out of the review, since this covers the final act of the film.

There are a number of positives with Khartoum, not the least of which being the central performance of Charlton Heston, who is ably assisted by Richard Johnson. I also very much liked the character of Khaleel (Johnny Sekka), Gordon’s talkative assistant/servant. These are characters worth admiring. It’s also a solid story and very nicely written front to back. We’re given a great deal of actual character in the main players here. These are not cardboard action movie cutouts, but real people with real motivations and real goals.

The whitewashing is pretty objectionable, though. It may well be that finding an Arabic actor was difficult in 1966, but just as an idea it would seem that Omar Sharif would have been an excellent fit. Olivier is fine in the role, of course. It is Laurence Olivier, after all, and the man could play anything. It just seems ugly to modern sensibilities to have bury someone under that amount of cosmetics.

The biggest issue, though is one of how the film is billed. Khartoum plays itself off as a military action film, and certainly there are moments of battle here, some of them crossing well over into “epic” territory. But in reality, this is much more of a political film punctuated with moments of war. In all fairness “political drama with camels” probably doesn’t play as well to a typical audience as something worth seeing, so I partially understand. Still, there’s a lot less action here than is promised.

Khartoum isn’t a bad film, and in a very real sense, it’s not really disappointing. Charlton Heston was born to play roles like this one, and he handles himself admirably and with a great deal of dignity. If nothing else, this is a film that exemplifies the idea of doing one’s duty in the face of impossible odds. There’s a nobility in that that carries through, no matter the unfortunate whitewashing of the main villain role.

Why to watch Khartoum: War on a grand scale.
Why not to watch: It’s pretty talkie for an action movie.

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