Judge Clark Douglas thinks Charlton Heston is probably better off battling apes and mutants.
Our review of Khartoum, published May 28th, 2002, is also available.
They say the Nile still runs red from the battle of Khartoum!
"Every man has a final weapon: his own life. If he's afraid to lose it he throws the weapon away."
Facts of the Case
The year is 1883, and 10,000 Egyptian troops (serving under the command of a British Colonel) have just died in battle at the hands of the ruthless Sudanese leader Muhammed Ahmed (Laurence Olivier, Richard III), who just so happens to believe that he is the Mahdi (Muhammed's chosen one). The British Prime Minister (Ralph Richardson, Time Bandits) is eager to resolve the situation, but refuses to sacrifice any British troops to do so. After some consideration, it's determined that esteemed General Charles "Chinese" Gordon (Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes) will be sent in to handle things. If he succeeds, then the British Empire will be credited with a diplomatic win. If he fails, then Gordon (whom the Prime Minister dislikes on a personal level) will be the one to take the blame. Will Gordon find solution to this challenging diplomatic dilemma?
In many ways, Khartoum is an exceptional film. A classically-told drama that lands somewhere between The Four Feathers and Lawrence of Arabia, the film emphasizes military philosophy and strategy over action. It's the very definition of a "thinking man's epic," with the large-scale battle scenes playing second fiddle to well-crafted scenes of verbal negotiation. The film looks positively gorgeous, and it's all underscored by terrific music from the underappreciated Frank Cordell (whose main theme here strongly foreshadows the "Throne Room" music from John Williams' Star Wars score). I'm a sucker for this sort of thing, but Khartoum's casting proves so disastrous that it nearly undoes the whole thing.
First (and most obviously), we have Laurence Olivier donning blackface as a murderous Sudanese Arab. Yes, Olivier is doing his best to turn in a professional performance, rolling his r's and delivering his speeches with a slow-boiling classical intensity. Critics (who were generally cool with this sort of thing at the time) praised his performance, but today it's painfully clear that Olivier shouldn't be playing this part. I realize that there are members of a certain generation who are going to find such an assertion preposterous, and insist that I'm a politically correct twit who should ignore the whole blackface thing and focus on the quality of Olivier's work. It's not just Olivier, though—nearly every non-white character who has any dialogue is played by a white actor in blackface. That would be bad enough in 1930, but it's hard to believe that films were still employing such techniques in 1966.
Less controversial (but nearly as disastrous) is the casting of Charlton Heston in the lead role of General Gordon. Heston was one of the sturdiest leading men of his era, but his all-American masculinity is a poor fit for this intellectual British leader. Heston's British accent is woefully inconsistent: he sports nasally stiff-upper-lip crispness in some scenes, and nearly loses the accent entirely in others. No matter how hard Heston tries to capture the heart and soul of the man, the wobbly voice proves a consistent distraction. As such, we are left with a movie starring two good actors who are simply incapable of convincingly playing the roles they've been handed.
If you can get past that (and many seemingly can, judging by the glowing user reviews found on IMDb), you'll find a movie that is actually quite well-written and well-crafted. It wouldn't be the next Lawrence of Arabia even if it had featured more appropriate actors (at 138 minutes, it actually feels a bit rushed given the sheer amount of material it's attempting to cover), but there's a stellar film hiding beneath the cringe-inducing casting.
The folks at Twilight Time have done a stellar job with Khartoum (Blu-ray) on a technical level, presenting the sprawling 1080p/2.75:1 imagery with superb detail and depth. The desert locations are certainly a pleasure to behold; the film takes every opportunity it gets to immerse the viewer in eye-popping visuals between the lengthy, intimate dialogue scenes that occur in small rooms. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio mix is also exceptional, with Cordell's score in particular benefiting from the rich, beefy mix. The battle scenes aren't particularly overwhelming, but this is a vibrant, clean track. Supplements include a strong audio commentary with Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs, a trailer and an isolated score track (a much-appreciated regular feature on Twilight Time's releases).
If you can get past the casting, you'll find much plenty to enjoy in Khartoum. Alas, Heston's shaky British accent and Olivier's make-up will severely hamper the viewing experience for many. Proceed with caution.
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