by Alexandre Paquin
Textbook history may be limited in appropriateness to readers with only a fleeting or superficial interest in the subject, or a desire to appear more knowledgeable than they truly are. This type of history is only a beginning point as far as scholars are concerned, but for films, it often proves particularly useful for a film aimed at a larger audience. However, a film adaptation of textbook history is not exempt from rules which determine the success, or the failure, of a motion picture; this explains why it may be considered, to a certain extent, appropriate to modify historical events in a film if such tampering of records can help the story. Indeed, the crimes most often committed by a film dealing with well-known history is not deliberate inaccuracy vis-à-vis its subject, but dullness and predictability. The second factor is very much unavoidable unless one modifies history so much that it becomes unfit to be called as such, but the first is indeed very frequent, mostly because of the failure to make history come to life, to give any depth to historical characters beyond their better-known public profile, or to properly contextualize events so that these can make sense to an audience remotely informed of the details. Only when these details are correctly treated (and with the general characteristics of a good film present) can the predictability aspect of the storyline be overcome.While Khartoum (1966) is a film which benefits from good acting, competent direction, and compelling cinematography, the treatment of its historical topic leaves much to improvement. In other words, it is a story competently told, but in the end it is a failed attempt to transpose history to the screen. Based on a famous event in British history, Khartoum is set in the city of that name in the final year of General Charles George Gordon's life, which was spent in an ill-fated stand against an Islamic fanatic, the Mahdi, in 1885. In this case, the inevitable knowledge of the conclusion of the event -- the massacre of Gordon and the population of Khartoum after a siege that lasted from March 12, 1884 to January 26, 1885 -- has a major influence on the enjoyment one can draw from the film. Because of this, beyond the cinematic competence, there is not much one can appreciate in Khartoum, a historical film which remains cryptic to the very end.
"The End of General Gordon"
In November 1883, following an Islamist uprising led by Mohammed Ahmed, known as the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier), in the Egyptian province of the Sudan, the government in Cairo had sent a force of ten thousand men under the command of a retired British officer, Colonel Hicks, to stamp out the rebellion, but the operation was a disaster: the force was ambushed, the Egyptian troops were annihilated, and their European officers, massacred. The incident also provided the Mahdi with much-needed firearms and ammunition, and this was what worried the British government the most. While the Sudan was theoretically under Egyptian control, Britain's vested interest in the Suez Canal meant that the government in Whitehall studied events in Egypt with great interest. British military interventions in the area were still fresh in memory; in 1882, the British had to send troops to crush a nationalistic regime which had overthrown the collaborationist government in Cairo, and from that time on, Egypt was a de facto puppet state administrated by London through the Consul-General to Egypt, Sir Evelyn Baring (Alexander Knox). Following Hicks's massacre, the British government was under pressure to avenge the fallen soldier, and Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) was attempting to appease the imperialists seeking revenge, for instance the Secretary for War Lord Hartington (Hugh Williams), while trying to uphold his personal policy of limited intervention in Egypt. The obvious solution to Gladstone's dilemma was to appoint General Charles George Gordon (Charlton Heston), who was as much of a freelancer as one can be while holding a commission in the British army: he had earned his reputation fighting for the Emperor of China against religious fanatics (which earned him the nickname of "Chinese" Gordon), and travelled the world in a multitude of assignments afterwards, including as a governor and governor-general in the Sudan from 1874 to 1880, during which Gordon's antagonism with Sir Evelyn Baring developed. Even though he was an ardent defender of "native rule", Gordon was about to accept a commission from King Leopold of Belgium as governor of the Belgian Congo when he was approached for the task of going to Khartoum to report on the situation and evacuate the foreign nationals before the Mahdi's invasion of the city. Gordon accepted, and he and his second-in-command, Colonel Stewart (Richard Johnson), set out for the Sudan. The two arrived in Khartoum on February 18, 1884, and the rest is history.
Gordon's siege at Khartoum was, in many ways, a British Alamo. Both events were, at their core, motivated by the most dubious reasons. In the case of the Alamo, Texas in 1836 was still Mexican property, while the American settlers, far from leading a noble fight against Mexican tyranny, were very much enforcing that particular blend of American expansionism justified by Manifest Destiny; Khartoum, on the other hand, may have been under genuine threat from the Mahdi, but in an era marked by European imperialism, not only in Great Britain, but also in France and Germany, it was obvious that Britain had more reasons to become involved in the situation than to pursue international peacekeeping. Furthermore, both the Alamo and Khartoum had long-lasting consequences. Texas briefly became independent before its annexation to the United States in 1845; Great Britain waged war intermittently in the Sudan until 1899, with the aim of destroying both local revolutionaries and French influence over the area (the "Fashoda Incident" of 1898). And in spite of the long-term political gains derived from these events, their impact upon their respective countries would have been lessened without the dramatic involvement of well-known public figures such as Davy Crockett and Charles Gordon, who were instantly elevated to martyrdom following their death defending an apparently hopeless cause in a far-removed corner of an empire with the apparently complete indifference of the central government.
Khartoum's screenwriter, Robert Ardrey, who was nominated for an Oscar for this film, is better-known for his books on behavioral evolution, most notably The Territorial Imperative, published the year the film was released, and African Genesis. Not surprisingly, the siege of Khartoum provided ample opportunity for Ardrey to attempt to prove, through a concrete example, the rather simplistic theory he had put forward in The Territorial Imperative, namely, that humans have an innate desire to defend a territory as an "exclusive preserve". In the case of Khartoum, the origin of the conflict which led to the end of General Gordon is created by a revendication of the Sudanese territory by the native inhabitants, who have never known any other soil, while the territory was theoretically under Anglo-Egyptian ownership according to spheres of influence and geographical border lines that are always easier to determine on paper than in real life, factors which in any case eluded the local populace completely. The Sudan would be completely useless to any colonial power except as territorial expansion for its own sake were it not for the two branches of the Nile running through it (they meet at Khartoum), but the only fact which imported for the Sudanese was that the foreign nationals were making a nuisance of themselves.
The screenplay unfortunately leaves several points of interest out of the way, most probably because they were deemed too complicated for an audience who had probably never heard about General Gordon and who couldn't locate the title city on a world map if their lives depended on it. The necessity of British involvement in Egypt is simplified to fit in a single line from Gladstone: "We have the Suez Canal, say it!". In 1875, a mere six years after the canal had been completed, Great Britain purchased the bankrupt Egyptian government's shares in the waterworks at a bargain price, and enforced its ownership for eighty years. 1966 audiences undoubtedly remembered that as recently as a decade before, Great Britain and France had intervened militarily to prevent Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the Egyptian strong man of the day, from nationalizing the canal, but had to back out due to international outcry. But in 1884-1885, England's vested interest in the Suez Canal and the realization that Egypt, which had just lost in the Sudan an army of ten thousand men under Colonel Hicks, was unable to stamp out the Mahdist uprising, made impossible any retreat from Egypt. And even though England in the 1880's was at the pinnacle of its colonial expansion, a few politicians, led by Gladstone himself, were opposed to massive colonial expansion; this reluctance to become involved in the Sudan was the cause of the fatal delay which killed Gordon. But Khartoum does not bother the explain that; throughout the film, save the beginning, politics is reduced into inconsequence.
Throughout the film, it is the lack of contextualization which affects the story. For example, when Gordon arrives in Cairo, he meets with Zobeir Pasha, a former influential slave trader whom he had crushed during his first tenure as Governor-General of the Egyptian Sudan. Surprisingly, Gordon's visit to Zobeir is to offer him the Governor-Generalship of the territory now occupied by the Mahdi after Gordon has restored order there. In the film, Zobeir refuses, but in real life, the situation was more complicated. Zobeir had accepted the offer, but after Gordon had reached Khartoum, the proposal was dropped by the British Cabinet following pressure from the Anti-Slavery Society. This departure from historical facts has two benefits for the screenwriter: it allows him to ignore the full impact of Gordon's first tenure in the Sudan while it facilitates a circumnavigation of all the political consequences of Zobeir's nomination. Unfortunately, a film which aspires to historical accuracy, and even comprehensiveness, cannot afford to overlook details which may appear trivial but which in fact are indispensable to the understanding of politics in Victorian England. The screenwriter obviously researched the subject matter, but seems to have both deliberately simplified some elements which should have been covered in more length, and unwittingly omitted details which would have been useful to the viewer; although Sir Evelyn Baring, Lord Hartington and Lord Granville (the Foreign secretary) are present in the film, their political views and their importance on the chains or events are never fully explained.
Gordon's biographers have written accounts of the siege of Khartoum in which the General communicated with the Mahdi through emissaries, but none has gone as far as pretending that meetings actually took place between Gordon and the Mahdi. Alfred Egmont Hake (who had already published a biography of Gordon while the latter was alive) chronicled such an exchange in "The Death of General Gordon at Khartoum", an article published in 1885: 'I will make you Sultan of Kordofan,' (Gordon) had said on arrival to the Mahdi. 'I am the Mahdi,' replied Mahomet Ahmet (the Mahdi's real name), by emissaries who were 'exceedingly cheeky,' keeping their hands upon their swords, and laying a filthy, patched dervish's coat before him. 'Will you become a Mussulman?' Gordon flung the bundle across the room, canceled the Mahdi's sultanship, and the war was renewed." Khartoum, for plot reasons, invents meetings between the two adversaries, even though neither would have agreed to meet the other in a location where they would have been at his mercy. If Gordon had visited the Mahdi's camp, alone and unarmed, as in the film, it would have been immensely foolish of an experienced officer, but the film relies on such meetings to make the audience believe that the two men had a profound admiration for one another. Needless to say, such was not the case.
The film's greatest flaws are embedded in the character of Gordon. Indeed, the most unjustified choice of casting in the film was the selection of Charlton Heston to play Gordon, especially since a few talented British actors were involved in the production playing secondary roles, for instance Ralph Richardson as Prime Minister Gladstone, and Laurence Olivier, who of course is slated to play such an exotic role as the Mahdi instead. But Heston had played the role of an officer in 55 days at Peking (1963) a film on the siege of the international compound in the Chinese capital during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, so his choice might have appeared natural to someone comparing what the two films were about. To his credit, Heston does his best to put on an appropriate accent and look stately enough to look British, but even his best performance cannot overcome the obvious fact that he was miscast, and one can only wonder how better the film would have been with Alec Guinness, or Olivier himself, playing the part of the British general. However, if the character of Gordon fails to come to life on the screen, the greater part of the fault lies with the screenplay rather than with the actor. Even with an actor who made his mark playing heroes in Biblical epics, there is here no indication that Gordon could have liberated the Sudanese from the Mahdi with a march through the desert and across the Red Sea.
As far as the scholarship on Gordon is concerned, Khartoum is late by nearly half a century. One only has to read Lytton Strachey's caustic short biography of the general, "The End of General Gordon", published in 1918 as part of his classic work Eminent Victorians, to realize how substantially the film could have been improved if the screenwriter had taken into account such sources to transform Khartoum's treatment of Gordon into a full-blooded account of a credible historical figure. Strachey went beyond the typical First World War-era depiction of General Gordon as a martyr who had died for Queen and Country to reveal the inner beliefs and motivations of Gordon. Strachey's approach in retelling the lives of great men and women (Queen Victoria, Elizabeth and Essex) made him one of the most influential biographers of the early twentieth century. Strachey's Gordon was an eccentric and deeply religious man in a nondenominational manner, and his gentle appearance hid an overpoweringly strong will. Khartoum's Gordon is unfortunately deprived of any force of character which had made the historical figure worthy of respect and interest. Of course, there are occasional clues suggesting this in the screenplay, but these are told through the reminiscences of others (Prime Minister Gladstone, Colonel Stewart, Major Kitchener) rather than demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt by Gordon himself. Watching the film, it is dubious whether Gordon was a man who could have accomplished all that those historical characters, and now encyclopedias, tell about him.
Khartoum is not particularly thought-provoking; it never falls, as an alternative, into the traditional jingoistic simple-mindedness. An online article claimed that Khartoum was imperialistic, but there is no evidence to prove this, as a conspicuous absence of any reference to the superiority of England, moral or otherwise, can be noted. It might, however, be argued that any film on the end of General Gordon is bound to be pro-English because of its topic. Perhaps, but several opportunities were missed to make it more patriotic. Gordon lacks both depth and charisma to convey a particular ideology; British parliamentarism is exposed as an inefficient system of government dominated by personality conflicts and the ever-present desire to acquire and retain power. The film treats the natives respectfully, and even the Mahdi, for a while, might even appear to be sympathetic until very close to the end, when his ruthlessness is ascertained through gruesome actions. Perhaps what the critics who have claimed that the film was essentially imperialistic would have liked to watch something similar to Tony Richardson's The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), which offered an out-and-out negative view of the British military and of the high-ranking peers who controlled it. Khartoum is mostly a film without any political message whatsoever. However, its apparent apathy for its subject does not indicate an absence of pretentiousness. It seems as though any film on the end of General Gordon is entitled to a certain Prestige regardless of the handling; thus is explained the presence of a musical overture (a concept which died at about the same time as "road show" presentations), and a pathetically pedantic introduction discussing the mystery of the Nile in a voice-over narration. Not surprisingly, the conclusion is done in the same style immediately after Gordon's death. Khartoum would have been more effective if it had dealt with the long-term consequences of the events in the film, but it was predictable that the film would fail to enumerate the political consequences of the death of Gordon. The public outcry that followed, spearheaded by Queen Victoria herself, rightly denounced Gladstone for his procrastination. Indeed, it was Gladstone who delayed action in the Sudan to reassert his leadership in his own party. A few months later, Gladstone's government was forced to resign due to the defeat of the budget in the House of Commons, and although he would be back as Prime Minister in 1886 advocating Home Rule for Ireland, his reputation never returned to its pre-Gordon level, and he was defeated in the general election of 1886. As an octogenarian, he would return as Prime Minister between 1892 and 1894, and would die four years later.
Khartoum invites comparison with Lawrence of Arabia because of the similarity of their settings and of their emphasis on an idealistic central character forced to deal with the duplicity of the English government. However, Khartoum lacks the dramatic sweep and the depth of characterization of the 1962 classic. This is not to mean, however, that Khartoum is without merit. Although Heston may not be the ideal choice to play Gordon, he is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, with the exception of a Stepin Fetchit black servant (played by Johnny Sekka); worthy of mention are Richard Johnson as Colonel Stewart and Ralph Richardson as Gladstone. Olivier, not exactly an actor one would visualize as an Islamic fanatic, plays the Mahdi with obvious relish. While Robert Ardrey's screenplay is occasionally pretentious, and while Frank Cordell's score often reminds one of a feeble attempt to imitate Sir Edward Elgar, Basil Dearden's direction and Heston's performance appear sincere enough. However, those wishing to learn more about the origins of Islamic fanaticism will be disappointed, as we learn nothing about what life was under the Mahdi. Those merely looking for an epic spectacle are likely not to obtain satisfaction from it either, as the film, in spite of its aspirations, fails to move us with the fate of its central character, which is at the same time well-known and shoddily presented. There is no way a film can be poignant if the audience is aware of the ending and not encouraged to sympathize with the hero of the film. In Khartoum's case, we are not encouraged to feel anything for Gordon, not because of any repulsion intrinsic to the character, but because his personality remains bland even in the most climactic scenes. While Lawrence of Arabia has become a classic instance of cinematic excellence, all that Khartoum manages is competence, no more.The British historian G.M. Trevelyan once defined social history as "history with the politics left out". The same approach was applied to "Khartoum", but in this case it was a major mistake, as the events as depicted in the film are in fact political history with the politics left out. What remains is a string of historical events lacking the glue of politics to hold them together, but it is still interesting enough to recommend it.
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originally posted: 07/03/02 03:11:34