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Khartoum Review

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One of the fun things about going to the library is that you never know what you are going to get. They have a wide selection of DVDs, but very few are available at any given time. I was surprised this last time when I actually had a choice to pick from. Albeit it was a choice between 2 films (the few others available were either foreign films translated into French, or straight French films). The choice was between the Gary Cooper version of A Farewell to Arms and an unheard of by me Charlton Heston/Laurence Olivier adventure called Khartoum. Not in the mood for Hemingway, I decided a Heston/Olivier picture might be a treat.

To say this is a Laurence Olivier picture is to say too much. Though he gets top billing, and his character plays an important part in the picture, his actual screen time is minimal. He plays a part known only as The Mahdi, who is a Muslim that rose out of the dessert to claim his place as the chosen one. I believe Olivier is a African Muslim like I believe Heston is a Mexican cop. But we suspend our disbelief and all that for the sake of the story.

As it is the story is a grand one. Based on historical events, of which, sadly, I’ve never heard a lick of until this film, where the Mahdi attempts to take control of British ran Sudan. The mysterious General Gordan (Charlton Heston) is sent down to help things along. A standoff evolves and it is wit against wit.

It is not a bad film, but neither is it a great one. There are some truly beautiful shots of the scenery. Heston plays Gordan without as much conflict as the character requires, but with enough gusto to make it believable. Olivier is, as always, near perfect. With simple facial expressions he carries the convictions of a man who believes himself a prophet. The scenes between Olivier and Heston, though historically inaccurate, add a much needed emotional punch. The direction is a bit plodding, nothing particularly bad, but nothing exceptional either.

When watching a historical films such as Khartoum, having some connection with the actual events helps bring meaning to the picture. Films based on the holocaust are often forgiven some of their cinematic sins due to the weight of the history behind the story. Yet, historical films that are not as well known can also entrance the viewer through the weight of its story. Knowing that the events actually happened often stir the viewer to greater emotional depths than a depiction of completely fictional events. It is here that Khartoum failed for me. As I said there was nothing particularly wrong with the production, but it never really captured my emotions. Admittedly I know very little about British history, or the struggles of the Mid East beyond the years of my own life. This is a fault of my own, yet a film should be universal in its undertaking. If it fails to move an audience unfamiliar with its history then it must resign in relative obscurity. For those familiar with this particular history, the film may bring more to you than it did me. As for me, though it was a mostly entertaining, and interesting couple of hours in my life, it will be one that will largely be forgotten in time.

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About Mat Brewster

  • RJ

    Well, it was made almost 40 years ago. Maybe back in that time, people had a greater understanding of these historical events?


    Yep, 40 years ago, people actually had to learn history.

  • Mat

    That can’t be true. My dad was in school 40 years ago and he knows jack about history.

  • Damn but people’s ignorance of history is appalling…

    Actually the British Campaign in the Sudan was a fairly significant watershed for the British Empire in the Victorian era and General “Chinese” Gordon was an important historical figure (think Douglas McArthur-tupe famous).

    He was, incidently, called “Chinese” Gordon because he ended up commanding one of the great mercenary armies of history, the Ever-Victorious Army, an army-for-hire raised by private interests in China to defend the Imperial Government against the Taiping Rebellion. Gordon and quiet American named Frederick Townsand Ward between them brought the Taiping down in a bloody and crumbling heap, earning massive fame and recognition for Gordon and a grave in a paddy field for Ward.

    The Taiping Rebellion? Let’s see, what can you a say about the bloodiest war in history prior to WWI (more than 20-million estimated dead (and mostly without firearms)? Again, probably skipped right over in most history texts because it doesn’t fit into the neat and orderly slots that schools seem to think is the only way to teach…

    Sorry to go on…

  • Mat

    Sorry for the late reply. I had some computer problems.

    Not to stick up for the American education system, but you can hardly expect them to teach a “fairly significant watershed for the British Empire in the Victorian era.” My high school made students take one year of Oklahoma history (the state I lived in), one year of American history, and one year of world history. The events depicted in Khartoum would fit into the last category. Is it an important moment in history? Yes. Is it more important than ancient Egypt, Greek, and Roman cultures? Should it have superceded discussion on either World War?

    I understand your sentiment that too many people know very little history. I admit my knowledge of world history is quite limited. But I don’t think not having knowledge of these events is all that appalling.