Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Khartoum

Khartoum (Basil Dearden, Eliot Elisofon, 1966) The Middle East has long been a daunting prospect, like the desert terrain that makes up so much of it. If the world's problems stem from an innate tribalism, the most embedded, ancient forms of it come from there for the longest time. And, hey, if they've lasted that long with it, how bad can it be? 

Pretty bad. Tribalism, in all its forms, be they religious, political, affillial or other origin, comes from the innate need to no longer be alone and gain strength through numbers, while simultaneously separating ourselves into camps or sects, creating that bond of community and distancing ourselves from that "other." "I am this, and 'they' are that." And if "they" are "that" then they are not me. Tribalism simultaneously bonds and divides, whether you're a Muslim (Sunni or Shia) or a Jew (Orthodox or Reform), Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Liberal, Communist, Socialist, "John Bircher" or "Tea Party", Union, Confederate, Army, Navy, Freudian or Jungian, Creationist or Evolutionist, Freemason or Elk, Black Lives Matter and IUPA. "Liberté, égalité, fraternité?" One of these things don't belong with the other. But, seemingly, the world starts to look a bit less complicated when it's "us" versus "them." It makes it a lot easier to not think for ourselves and submit to the dictates of mob rule. How bad can it be?


For myself, I subscribe to the Marxist philosophy (Groucho): "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as its member."

Khartoum was written by Robert Ardrey, the author of "African Genesis" and "The Territorial Imperative" and is a somewhat Hollywood-ized version of the Siege of Khartoum in the mid-1880's. At the time Egypt controlled Sudan and the British Empire claimed Egypt as "a protectorate." Muslim extremists, jihadists, followers of Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed Mahdi and "redeemer" of the Muslim nation, were determined to wrest Sudan from Egyptian rule and set himself up as leader of Sudan and of all the Muslim nations (he eventually did take over Sudan, imposing Shariah law, and eventually dying of typhus six months into his rule*). 
When the film starts (in 1883) England is reacting to the killing of 10,000 Egyptian troops by Ahmad's supporters, who are on track to take on the capital of Khartoum. The Prime Minister, William Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) is reluctant to send "boots on the ground," and at an impasse as to how to proceed, not commit and still appease the Queen and the British public. The British foreign secretary (Michael Hordern) suggests an alternative: send in one particular man, Major General Charles George "Chinese" Gordon (Charlton Heston), the former governor of Sudan, whose popularity in Britain is widespread. He is given one task—evacuate the civilians and troops from Khartoum and that is all. He is told that he is going in by himself, without the sanction of the British government, who will deny any knowledge of his efforts if he fails. Gordon, who suffers from hubris, has an impatience with authority other than his own, and a paternalistic leaning toward the people of Sudan based on his past work, agrees to the assignment.
The British politico's know that, Gordon being Gordon, he will overstep his mission, and they want to see what will come of that, without risking British lives and without direct accountability. Gordon, confident, travels to the Sudan.
He is greeted in the Sudan as a hero, and immediately begins organizing the Egyptian forces for defending the city. His is reminded by his aide, Col. John Stewart (Richard Johnson) that he is already overstepping his bounds. But, Gordon pays no heed. He will not "cut and run," he's going to go to the root of the conflict.
The movie-Gordon decides that he must pay a visit to Ahmad (Laurence Olivier) himself. This never happened, and is probably as ludicrous as going to talk to Usama bin Laden over tea. But, it does afford Heston the opportunity to do a couple of scenes with Olivier, who is heavily swathed in a make-up merely a few shades lighter than his "Othello" was, and employs an accent that is high-ly "rimi-NI-scint" of Leo McKern's Clang from Help!**

That aside, the scenes between Heston and Olivier are the highlights of the film, besides the battles that play out impressively in the Ultra-Panavision format (the film was released in Cinerama) and if the two directors can't be said to be especially "impressive" in how they put the film together (Dearden directed the least effective parts of the Ealing horror anthology Dead of Night), at least they fill the screen with detail to take advantage of the widescreen format.
When Ahmad makes it clear to Gordon that he will not stop his jihad until he has prayed in every mosqueall the way through to Constantinople, overrunning cities if he has to, in an effort to solidify his position as the appointed instrument of Mohammad on Earth among the Islamic people. If Gordon has any doubts as to his intentions, he shows Gordon the heads and hands of English (including the war correspondent of The Times) and French who have been slain in his battles. Gordon leaves, alarmed, but not before assuring the self-described Mahdi that, as a religious man, he sees the battle as one between competing Gods.
"Is it not your own ring?"
Gordon, rather than evacuating Khartoum, begins to set up defenses, digging deep trenches between the Mahdi's forces and the city, allowing the Nile itself to fill the trench and create a discouraging moat for the jihadists. At the same time, he arms the city and trains forces in the hopes that he can stay the Sudanese until reinforcements are sent from England, something Gladstone is reluctant to do.
Inevitably, time works against Gordon and when the Nile recedes, his moat dries up and the city is overwhelmed by 100,000 jihadists in an assault from the front and from the Nile. Accounts vary, but Gordon was killed in the attack—the movie's version of it has Gordon dying as a martyr as was presented in the painting by George W. Joy—the first of quite a few spears that Charlton Heston would take throughout the rest of his career.
The film was relatively successful and earned Ardrey an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay. Heston, who had hoped for better known British directors—like Lewis Gilbert, Guy Hamilton, or Guy Green—to oversee the project, was only relatively satisfied with the results.

What Khartoum does do, no matter the results of the film, is to provide a bit of historical perspective in light of recent events in history. There is nothing new under the sun, even the one that beats down on the desert. These conflicts will arise as long as humans insist on creating borders, imaginary or otherwise, to emphasize what divides us, rather than what unites us. You'd think in a desert, one of Nature's harshest environments, there'd be more of a collective effort to conquer it, rather than each other. 

إن الله لا يغير ما بقوم حتى يغيروا ما بأنفسهم

On the technical side, it is interesting to note that Khartoum was the last film photographed in "Ultra-Panavision 70" until Quentin Tarantino made The Hateful Eight 49 years later. So, Khartoum still holds the title of being the last good film photographed in Ultra-Panavision and making the format worth it.
Frank McCarthy's key art for Khartoum featuring one version with Olivier and the other without.


* Or did he? Sounds like we've got another bogus Bill O' Reilly book in the making.
**

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