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Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier match on-camera wits and egos in the excellent 1966 epic KHARTOUM, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.
Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier match on-camera wits and egos in the excellent 1966 epic KHARTOUM, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.
(c) Twilight Time/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment

KHARTOUM

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A love story between two egomaniacs, KHARTOUM, a 1966 cast-of-thousands spectacular recounting one of British history's most callous disregards of human life, charges onto a limited edition Blu-Ray, courtesy of Twilight Time/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

The blunder that was Khartoum began in January 1884 and languished for ten long months, before ending disastrously. It was the English living statue General Charles George Gordon vs. the equally defiant fanatical Muslim leader Muhammad Ahmad, known affectionately to all those still wearing their heads as The Mahdi. Gordon, just as religiously crazed as his adversary, was, in turn, instantly recognizable to his fans as Chinese Gordon – not for his fondness of take-out, but because of his involvement in Taiping Rebellion, specifically his sanguinary victory in the 1864 Battle of Changzhou.

As the stoic sonic tones of narrator Alexander Knox tells us, “The Nile is everything...” Truly the gateway for “the Sun Never Sets” Empire crowd, or, in modern terminology: location, location, location. That this upstart Muslim too needed to command the area as part of his destiny to rule the world irritated the Brits to no end.

The wily and, to-be-honest, diabolical Prime Minister Gladstone saw this one of those sticky wickets that always seemed to rub the British Empire the wrong way. And one he attempted to resolve brilliantly – if not dastardly.

Like his African counterpart, Gordon, too, believed that he was God's chosen messenger. Gladstone saw this as a superb opportunity – his “Mission Accomplished” moment, if you will, to answer The Mahdi while absolving the Empire of all responsibility. “I trust no man who trusts God before me,” sneers Gladstone of Gordon (the wonderful Ralph Richardson) and thus, his evil plan is hatched. Send the General to ostensibly evacuate Khartoum, knowing that the man will almost surely disobey orders and attempt a stand against innumerable odds. Sweeten the pot by sending no support, and, since Gordon was known to achieve miraculous results under fire, the outcome options would either be: “Good God, the man's done it!” or “Blame will fall on him – and not the government.” Either way, win/win.

KHARTOUM, as one might surmise, is a devious, cynical political epic that abuses religious extremists to gain electoral points with the public. In this matter, it's sad to realize that little has changed in 150 years of shameless war mongering and the sacrificial relegation of human life to poll statistics.

To Gladstone, the almost sure death of Gordon in the Sudan was a gift, as, although idolized, the officer was a pompous pain in the ass. And who better to play a pompous pain in the ass than Charlton Heston? Indeed, it's as if the role were written for him. He struts around in his uniforms, spouting Godisms in his patented Cecil B. Demeanor, as if he was still on the plaster of Paris mountaintop at Paramount (Gordon’s somber realization that “I am not Jesus Christ” is likely the hardest line Heston ever delivered). He struggles with an English accent, occasionally triumphant – but more often relying upon a Jay Ward/Commander McBragg “I say, old bean, pip, pip and all that jolly old rot” approach. This actually works since, the ubiquitous writer/editor Frank Harris met and interviewed the real General Gordon, and tagged him as the most “un-English” Englishman he had ever met. A bizarre assessment, as Harris, an Englishman himself, was almost always taken for an American.

In his remarkable memoir (published privately between 1922-1927) My Life and Loves, Harris admits that he personally disliked Gordon with a passion, claiming him overrated, full of himself and a bore. “He looked on himself as an instrument in God’s hands to do whatever he was called upon to do. His fantastic belief seemed to me childish, the result of success and much praise working on a poor brain. His conceit, or, if you will, his faith, went beyond reason.” The scribe absolutely blamed the man for the immense loss of life at Khartoum, and claimed the true hero of the conflict came during the eventual “siege to rescue Gordon” by General Wolseley. The unsung champion of this climactic debacle was one Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby. Burnaby, who stood nearly seven foot tall with matinee-idol looks, was the bravest specimen Harris ever encountered. Honest to a fault, the officer was unofficially cashiered by his fellow soldiers when he made a terse comment about a current sex scandal involving one of their own. Shunned by his peers, he fell from grace with great rapidity. On the eve of his embarking for Khartoum, he prophesied his death to Harris. Sadly, he was correct. While Gordon fell pretty much as he does in the movie, Burnaby died a gallant mythic death – hurling “…himself into the gap in front of his old comrades…As the square reformed behind him, Burnaby, still fighting, though bleeding from a dozen wounds, went down with an Arab spear through his throat,” saving the lives of the many who despised him. Oh, well.

It's pretty much assumed, from all detailed accounts of Gordon, that he likely suffered from bipolar disorder. As General Wolseley described him, when possessed of Godspeak, he would defiantly gallop head-first into battle, leading untold hundreds (if not thousands) to certain demise. On numerous other occasions, during tumultuous warfare, he could be seen slithering through the mud on his belly.

In contrast, the Mahdi, pretty much the poster child for The Taliban-Victorian-style, seems almost reasonable. The clashing with Gordon was a scary, eerie noggin-banger of yammering mutual respect; in effect, the jihad couple.

This again, parallels the on-screen rapport between Heston and the actor portraying the delusional Muslim leader, Laurence Olivier.

Even with The Agony and the Ecstasy and The War Lord recently under his belt, Chuck had publicly chucked his association with “the epics,” the genre which made his career. Heston's backing off The Fall of the Roman Empire seemed to underline this vow, and one can only assume that he undertook KHARTOUM for the sheer kick of going one-to-one with Olivier. This is further brought out in the thespian's overstuffed 1978 published diary, The Actor's Life. “December 7. Today I began the memorable experience of acting with Olivier. He’s quite marvelous in the part…The whole thing, down to painting the inside of his mouth, is an example of the total devotion to the role that is probably part of his success…(A)n incredibly gifted actor.” In a December 19 entry, Heston credits Olivier’s greatness for helping him learn and accomplish “…something as well, though I don’t know whether I’ll be recognized.”

Olivier's take on his role displays far less rigor mortis than Heston's. It's a free-for-all Mahdi Gras of fun with the Shakespearean icon spouting his dialog with an accent that suggests he's channeling Peter Sellers' cameo from The Road to Hong Kong. Pigmented in Max Factor's Al Jolson # 9, and aided by a flattened nose and roguish beard, Olivier goes to town, revealing his lofty plans for world domination like Ming the Merciless. This seems to invigorate not only Gordon but Heston, who sits at Olivier's side, totally fascinated by each and every syllable. It’s love at first fright – and one of the duality of delights in this movie.

In his aforementioned tome, Heston's only critique of his costar was his look. Chastising the blackness of Olivier's skin and the proboscis comes off more like sour grapes. With Larry SO disguised, Chuck seems to think that many folk won't realize that it's “the” Laurence Olivier engaged with him in that verbal sparring intimate 70MM Ultra Panavision two-man show.

The blackness of Laurence Olivier brings to mind a story told to me by my late, great pal screenwriter Ric Menello. Ric had seen Olivier do Othello live, and told me that it was indeed a daring portrayal, as he impersonated the Bard's famed Moor of Venice just a tick shy of The Emperor Jones. This disturbed some of the theatre's patrons, but endeared the actor to Menello, even if for all the wrong reasons. Me too.

In real life, The Mahdi was at least on one occasion likewise far more rational than either Gordon or the English politicos. Prior to the carnage of Khartoum, the Muslim lord set out to do what every notable human during the period did – from kings and queens to Jack the Ripper – he wrote a letter to The Times. In it, he eloquently stated that yes, he was the chosen one, and would soon be the supreme ruler of the planet. Other than that, he was curious as to what the English wanted in the Sudan. If their demands were outrageous, they would be doomed. If, however, they were reasonable, the Mahdi suggested that they sit down and discuss it before the bloodshed begins. Gladstone never replied. And as all lunatic leaders must, The Mahdi proceeded to lop off the heads, arms, legs and any other protruding organ from the bodies of innocent civilians. Gordon was no slouch in this department either, and it's disconcerting to see Heston's shocked expression when Zebehr Pasha, the regal slave-trader pater of a son executed as one of the General's examples, refuses to side with him.

The movie, as sharply written by Robert Ardrey and crisply directed by Basil Dearden, outlines these lethal shenanigans as some sort of great game, not to be questioned by the masses – who, ultimately, have the most to lose. The literally tinderbox warfare (you'll see what I mean) is never anything less than another method to build up the portfolios and line the pockets of “greedy businessmen and conniving politicians.” Again, nice to know some things never change. 7000 men were led by Wolseley to help extricate Gordon – a tragic move that even before the order was publicly issued was shrugged off by Parliament as “all for show.”

The production of KHARTOUM the movie is mammoth. Why in 1966, the UK and United Artists collaborated on such an undertaking is easily explained 1) the 1964 release of Zulu, historically taking place around the same time, proved to be a box-office bonanza – for a while the highest-grossing motion picture in British history. And 2), the 1962 desert treat of Lawrence of Arabia. One can almost see producer Julian Blaustein making the Zulu Meets Lawrence pitch.

Director Dearden was savvy enough to understand that the action sequences had to be suitably rousing and breathtaking, especially in the large-frame format. He wisely decided to forego these segments, and instead secured the services of the daredevil extraordinaire – the second unit genius/stuntman Yakima Canutt. It is these sweeping moments of thousands of horsemen charging in swarm formation that will knock you off your sofa. Whether utilizing POV equine imagery or swooping down from pendulous way-too-close aerial shots, this is bravura popcorn heaven showmanship at its very best.

The lush Technicolor photography by Ted Scaife deserves equal praise. It's here that I must mention that KHARTOUM carries the Cinerama moniker. This is a falsity. While lensed in 70MM, KHARTOUM was not ever intended for the triptych screen experience. By 1963, the Cinerama trademark was licensed for sale to the highest bidder. Movies such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Battle of the Bulge (and later Grand Prix, 2001 and Krakatoa East of Java) were sold as Cinerama pics, but really shot in single lens 70MM. BIG difference (FYI, the only English-language narrative Cinerama movies are MGM's The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won).

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray is a worthy addition to any big budget buff's library. While the color isn't as rich as the beauteous panoramas I fondly recalled in 1966, it's still a wow. The clarity and detail, however, not surprisingly, encompass the best quality one is ever to see bestowed upon this title. While not from 70MM (I don't even think it played 70 in the U.S. Don't quote me, I could be wrong. I DO recall that it didn't play first-run very long, and quickly was relegated to the nabes, which is where I originally saw it), the 1080p 35MM transfer is a stunner. The 2.0 stereo-surround, featuring Frank Cordell's thumping score (available as an IST) is generally faithfully presented, although at times (at least on my system) the music had a slight scratchy replication. I do recommend accessing a second audio containing fascinating commentary by film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. There's also a neat theatrical trailer.

KHARTOUM is a movie that star Charlton Heston was particularly fond of, no doubt being the party conversation capper of “the movie I did with Larry Olivier.” Ultimately, Chuck considered it “one of my best films.” Don't let that or the Christianity vs. Islam deep dish subtext stop you. Admittedly, while it's not anywhere near Zulu proportions, KHARTOUM has enough pageantry and savage excitement to keep viewers fairly satiated. As for pomp, well's there's the two leads, of course, but, more so, there's a fantastic supporting cast, who play it refreshingly natural – to this a bow to Richardson, Johnny Sekka, Nigel Green, Michael Hordern and, as Gordon's reluctant adjunctant, the always-appreciated Richard Johnson.

Then there's that Gordon/Mahdi-Heston/Olivier attraction. Ooo-la-la!

KHARTOUM. Color. Letterboxed [2.76:1; 1080p High Definition]. 2.0 stereo-surround DTS-HD MA. Limited edition of 3000. SRP: $29.95.

Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com].