Khartoum (1966)
Review by Doc Ezra

Written by Robert Ardrey
Directed by Basil Dearden
Starring Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Richard Johnson, and Ralph Richardson


Rating: NR

Anamorphic: Yes

My Advice: Rent it

At the close of the 19th century, the grand British Empire faced a rather dicey dilemma - the Sudan, recently relieved of the burden of slavers, and full of Egyptian citizens attempting to make their fortunes in this newly opened territory, is about to face a fairly serious threat. Out in the deserts of Sudan, a self-styled prophet (Olivier) has arisen whipping the Muslims into a frenzy about reclaiming the Sudan, and then onto Egypt and the Arabian peninsula. They call him the Mahdi, and he knows that in order to control Sudan, he must take the city of Khartoum, which sits at the fork in the Nile River, and is therefore of tremendous strategic importance.

Unfortunately, the British Prime Minister Gladstone (Richardson) has zero interest in floating a British army up the Nile River to deal with this threat and protect the city of Khartoum. But since the British and the Egyptians are kind of buddy-buddy, the PM's got to do something to at least give the impression that they're trying to help. So Gladstone turns to former hero of the Sudan, General Gordon (Heston). And sends him to Khartoum with only a single personal assistant - no army, no weapons, and no hope of further support.

Khartoum tells the epic (and true) story of General Gordon's attempts to defend Khartoum and evacuate the resident Egyptians to safety, with no support from his government and nothing more than his own wits and force of will. Shot in an appropriately sweeping style, Khartoum is an excellent example of the classic Hollywood epics, and brings together two of the more titanic stars of the era in Olivier and Heston. Beautiful cinematography, excellent performances from the leads and supporting actors, and a story that exalts the power of two individuals to shape the world all combine to make this a great film.

The movie makes for an entertaining view, but it doesn't quite jump to the level of such mega-classics as Heston's Ben Hur or the similarly themed Shaka Zulu, but it's solid enough. Heston is the perfect choice to pull off General Gordon's legendary bravado and swagger, and carries himself with such an aura of command and confidence that he's instantly believable as the man who single-handedly ran the slave trade out of Sudan. Olivier's turn as the civil (but quite mad) Mahdi is also a study in perfect casting (despite the obvious and somewhat distracting make-up job). Capable of great charm one moment and chilling bloodthirstiness the next, the part really requires someone of Olivier's talent and range, and his sheer screen presence makes his leadership of the Sudanese Muslims thoroughly believable.

The DVD transfer looks solid, with no more visual pops and streaks than are to be expected in a film of this age, and fewer such glitches than many of its contemporaries have. The anamorphic widescreen preserves all the amazing scenery shots, and the massive charges of opposing cavalry involving hundreds of extras. Sound is also good, presented in stereo.

Unfortunately, despite the huge production of the film, and the fact that Heston's still among us, the extras are non-existent. There's a theatrical trailer. And that's it. Couldn't somebody have gone and asked Chuck what it was like to share screen with Sir Laurence Friggin' Olivier? Didn't that seem like a relevant question, and one that might interest those who would bother to pick up the DVD? Alas, apparently not to those who packaged this DVD. So you get a good movie, with none of the additional material that would have made this a must-have. Rent it and see a great flick, but if you want a serious package of a classic Hollywood epic, go get Ben Hur.

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