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Film / Khartoum

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Khartoum is a 1966 British epic historical war adventure film, directed by Basil Dearden and starring Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, and Richard Johnson.

The film is based on historical accounts of Charles Gordon's defence of the Sudanese city of Khartoum from the forces of the Mahdist army during the Siege of Khartoum in 1884–1885.

Contains examples of:

  • Blackface: Laurence Olivier, and many of the other English actors playing Sudanese characters, wear skin-darkening makeup. It was one of the last times the technique was used, before it fell out of favor.
  • Downer Ending: Though perhaps the label of Bittersweet Ending would also be fitting depending on one's interpretation. In spite of his determination and best efforts the city of Khartoum winds up overrun, and Charles Gordon himself is killed by a spear to his chest with his head being taken off and put on top of a pike and paraded around the city. However, the final narration does establish that the Madhi died only six months later and public outrage at the fate of Gordon finally forced the British to re-invade the Sudan 10 years later, where they recaptured Khartoum in 1898 for what it's worth.
  • Dramatization: As standard for historical based epics of the age, for the sake of dramatic effect elements of the real story are altered. A major one being how Gordon and the Madhi meet face to face in the film whilst they only ever corresponded through mail in real-life.
  • Epic Movie: The last film shot in Panavision until The Hateful Eight
  • Evil Counterpart: Muhammad Ahmad, aka the Madhi, serves as such to Gordon. In how both of them are devout men of faith, each is a gifted military commander that's adored by his followers, and have shown the capacity for ruthlessness when they think it is necessary for the greater good. The latter of which the Madhi throws back in his face during their first meeting when they speak of what he plans for Khartoum.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Gordon does so at the end when he walks out collectedly to meet his fate at the hands of the Madhi's men.
  • The Fundamentalist: The Madhi himself naturally. He believes himself to be the Expected One and thus seeks to bring the entire world under his banner. Interestingly, Gordon himself can also be considered such and is in a sense confronted with that aspect of his character of Ahmad himself. It is the reason why the British officials were hesitant to send him in the first place.
  • Going Native: Gordon feels much more comfortable in the desert cultures, particularly the Sudan, than his own. Upon arriving at Khartoum one of the first things he utters is even, "It's good to be home".
  • Historical Hero Upgrade:
    • The film gives one to General Gordon in keeping with his Custer-like hagiography, it emphasizes his interesting in manumitting slavery and likewise emphasizes his personal rivalry with Mohammed Ahmad.
    • Gordon spent most of his career as a mercenary and had it not been for the crisis in Sudan, he would have served the Belgian Congo. Furthermore, Gordon was considered to be a highly mercurial officer given to exceed his command and it was mostly because of his skillful self-promotion that he even got a command in the Sudan to begin with.
    • Likewise, part of the reason why his actions in Sudan provoked mixed reactions in England was that he backtracked from his abolitionism, expressing willingness to concede to forms of slavery persisting afterwards, which angered many of his former supporters in England and upset Gladstone. This was the main reason why he allied with Zobeir. Far from being the Mahdi's Arch-Enemy as the film paints it, the latter saw Gordon as an Unknown Rival with Gordon's own letters projecting a fixation between them, while Mahdi merely asked him to step down and surrender and prevent additional bloodshed.
  • Intermission: As per usual of the genre at hand. Even though it isn't quite as long as most of its contemporaries.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The film actually doesn't show Gordon's decapitated head after his death; the audience is only given the Madhi's Reaction Shot after his followers gather outside his tent and he notices a particularly long pike. In case there's any doubt, the camera keeps tracking the pike before segueing into a close-up of the head of a statue of Gordon.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The politicians back in England try to put in the most minimal effort possible to not get involved with the situation but still save face to the nation. It gets worse later when they try to do all in their power to keep British reinforcements from reaching Khartoum in time.
  • Pride: Charles Gordon whist well intentioned is quite arrogant and self-righteous. A fact he's confronted with when he realizes that he and Muhammad Ahmad are more alike than he could have imagined.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Ultimately Gordon himself. He knowingly does so, and it ultimately leads to public outcry at his fate which finally forced the British to re-invade the Sudan 10 years later, where they recaptured Khartoum in 1898.
  • The Siege: The brunt of the movie centers around the siege of the Sudanese city of Khartoum.
  • Sympathy for the Hero: Ahmad is left horrified when he sees his soldiers dancing with Gordon's severed head.
  • Worthy Opponent: Interstingly, the Madhi appears to consider Gordon such. He seems to develop a genuine admiration for him, and seems to genuinely want to spare him from death. Confirmed by his reaction to seeing Gordon's severed head in the aftermath of the final battle.