Khartoum is a 1966 British epic war film written by Robert Ardrey and directed by Basil Dearden. It stars Charlton Heston as British Gen. Charles “Chinese” Gordon and Laurence Olivier as Muhammad Ahmed (a Sudanese leader whose devotees proclaimed him the Mahdi), with a supporting cast that includes Richard Johnson and Ralph Richardson. The film is based on historical accounts of Gordon’s defence of the Sudanese city of Khartoum from the forces of the Mahdist army, during the 1884-1885 Siege of Khartoum.
In 1883, in the Sudan, a force of 10,000 poorly trained Egyptian troops under the command of the colonizing British Army Col. William “Billy” Hicks (Edward Underdown) is lured into the desert and defeated by native tribesmen led by Muhammad Ahmed (Laurence Olivier), a Nubian religious leader of the Samaniyya order in Sudan who had declared himself Mahdi. British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (Ralph Richardson), who does not wish to send more military forces to Khartoum, is under great pressure to send colonialist military hero Major General Charles George Gordon (Charlton Heston) there to salvage the situation and restore British dominance. Gordon has strong ties to Sudan, having tried to break the slave trade there in the past, but Gladstone distrusts him. Gordon has a reputation for strong, if eccentric, religious beliefs and following his own judgement, regardless of his orders. Lord Granville (Michael Hordern), the British Foreign Secretary, knowing this, tells Gladstone that by sending Gordon to Khartoum, the British government can ignore all public pressure to send an army there, and absolve themselves of any responsibility over the area if Gordon ignores his orders. Gladstone is mildly shocked at the suggestion, but as it is popular with the public and Queen Victoria, he adopts it for the sake of expediency.
Gordon is told that his mission, to evacuate troops and civilians, is unsanctioned by the British government, which will disavow all responsibility if he fails. He is given few resources and only a single aide, Colonel J. D. H. Stewart (Richard Johnson). After an attempt to recruit former slaver Zobeir Pasha (Zia Mohyeddin) fails, Gordon and Stewart travel to Khartoum, where Gordon is hailed as the city’s saviour upon his arrival in February 1884. He begins organising the defences and rallying the people, despite Stewart’s protests that this is not what he was sent to do.
Gordon’s first act is to visit the Mahdi in his insurgent camp, accompanied by only a single servant. He gains the Mahdi’s respect and, in the verbal fencing at the parley, discovers that the Sudanese leader intends to make an example of Khartoum by taking the city and killing all its inhabitants. The River Nile city of Khartoum lies at the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile. A qualified military engineer, Gordon wastes no time upon his return in digging a ditch between the two to provide a protective moat.
In Britain, Gladstone, apprised of how desperate the situation has become, orders Gordon to leave, but, as he had feared, his command is ignored. Colonel Stewart is sent by Gordon to London to explain the situation in Khartoum. Over the next several months, a public outcry forces Gladstone to send a relief force, but he sees to it that there is no urgency, hoping to the last that Gordon will come to his senses and save himself.
Gordon, however, has other ideas. News arrives in Khartoum about a relief force led by General Wolseley being sent from England. When the waters recede in winter, drying up his moat, the small Egyptian army is finally overwhelmed by 100,000 native Mahdist tribesmen. On 26 January 1885, the city falls under a massive frontal assault. Gordon himself is killed along with the entire foreign garrison and populace of some 30,000, although the Mahdi had forbidden killing Gordon. In the end, Gordon’s head is cut off, stuck on top of a long pole, and paraded about the city in triumph, contrary to the Mahdi’s injunctions.
The film ends with another narration by Leo Genn explaining the aftermath. The British relief column arrived two days too late.
The British withdrew from the Sudan shortly thereafter, and the Mahdi himself died six months later. In the United Kingdom, public pressure, and anger at the fate of Gordon, eventually forced the British and their Egyptian allies to re-invade the Sudan ten years later, and they recaptured and colonized Khartoum in 1898.
- Charlton Heston as General Charles Gordon: military governor of Sudan, commander and an engineer.
- Laurence Olivier as Muhammad Ahmed, the Mahdi.
- Richard Johnson as Colonel John Stewart: Gordon’s aide.
- Ralph Richardson as William Ewart Gladstone, Prime Minister.
- Alexander Knox as Sir Evelyn Baring, Consul-General of Egypt.
- Johnny Sekka as Khaleel.
- Nigel Green as General Wolseley: a British Army officer.
- Michael Hordern as Lord Granville, the British Foreign Secretary.
- Peter Arne as Major Kitchener: a British Army officer.
- Hugh Williams as Lord Hartington.
- Zia Mohyeddin as Zobeir Pasha: former slaver.
- Ralph Michael as Charles Duke.
- Douglas Wilmer as Khalifa Abdullah.
- Edward Underdown as William Hicks.
- Alan Tilvern as Awaan.
Robert Ardrey wrote the script at the encouragement of producer Julian Blaustein. Ardrey says it took him three years “on and off” but once he did it he sold it for $150,000.
In May 1962 MGM announced they would make the film from Ardrey’s script. It was to be an adventure movie in the vein of 55 Days at Peking (1963) and Lawrence of Arabia.
In October 1963 Ardrey scouted locations in Africa with Blaustein.
“Everybody was interested and nobody doubted the subject,” said writer Robert Ardrey. “But there was strong feeling against the big picture which might gross $12,000,000 but cost $25,000,000. Frankly Khartoum is a proposition that could bust a studio if handled the wrong way.”
In April 1964, Blaustein announced he would make the film for United Artists and that Burt Lancaster would star as Gordon. The following month Laurence Olivier agreed to play the Mahdi and Lewis Gilbert signed to direct.
However filming was pushed back meaning Lancaster, Olivier and Gilbert had to pull out. In April 1965 Charlton Heston agreed to play Gordon. By June Olivier was back on the film with Basil Dearden to direct. In July 1965, it was announced that Ralph Richardson and Richard Johnson would join the cast as Prime Minister Gladstone and Colonel Stewart respectively.
Filming took place in Egypt, Pinewood Studios and London. It started at Pinewood on 09 August 1965 then in September moved to Egypt. Once location filming finished, the shoot went on hiatus to give Olivier time to be available for interior scenes in December.
It was the last movie filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 until The Hateful Eight, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino forty-nine years later.
Reviews for Khartoum at the time were generally positive.
- The opening and closing scenes are narrated by Leo Genn.
- Khartoum was filmed by cinematographer Ted Scaife in Technicolor and Ultra Panavision 70, and was exhibited in 70 mm Cinerama in premiere engagements.
- A novelisation of the film’s screenplay was written by Alan Caillou.
- The film had its Royal World Premiere at the Casino Cinerama Theatre, in the West End of London, on 09 June 1966, in the presence of H.R.H. Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, and the Earl of Snowdon.
- Khartoum earned Robert Ardrey an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.
- The film also earned Ralph Richardson a BAFTA Award nomination for Best British Actor.
Four Feathers Films
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Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Basil Deardon and Eliot Elisofon (introductory scenes).
- Producer(s): Julian Blaustein.
- Writer(s): Robert Ardrey.
- Music: Frank Cordell.
- Cinematography: Edward Scaife.
- Editor(s): Fergus McDonell.
- Distributor(s): United Artists.
- Release Date: 09 June 1966 (Premiere, London).
- Running Time: 134 minutes and 128 minutes (US).
- Rating: U.
- Country: UK.
- Language: English.