Khartoum: Muslim Conundrum

DATELINE:  Not Much Has Changed Since 1880 or 1966

Stars Apart

Be warned: this movie starts its streaming with a four-minute overture over black screen, as if to prove its pedigree as an epic.

Then, it contains a four minute entr’acte from the old Cinerama days when they had reserved seat showings of the feature—and needed a popcorn break to make more money from the viewers.

Laurence Olivier in 1966 darkened his face and played the Mahdi, the Muslim leader who nearly conquered Europe. He took on General Charles Gordon, as his match, along the banks of the Nile, much to his doomsday fate.

His nemesis in this film is Charlton Heston, playing a stalwart hero with barely a sign of being British. The film was a Cinerama extravaganza called Khartoum, about a British version of the Alamo.

Or, perhaps Lawrence of Arabia: several scenes of camels riding in the desert are echoes of the greater film of 1962.

You might wonder how the greatest English actor wound up playing a leader relying on the Koran for inspiration and how an American wound up playing a British general. So do we.

They could have switched roles. Both the Mahdi and Gordon were religious fanatics: they never met, but in this movie there is one scene in which the stars spend a few moments in banter.

The film has another question: do you portray the Muslim warriors as fanatics and proto-typical terrorists?

Olivier is utterly overwhelming in black/brown face. It was the second role in which he smeared greasepaint on his pale skin. Today this activity wins him condemnation, for tackling roles like Othello and the Mahdi as a white man playing color. His accent is nearly as over-the-top as Heston’s chopped Brit accent.

We were also puzzled as to whose mellifluous tones served as narrator. It sounded like Sir Cedric Hardwicke, but rather, un-billed, the voice turns out to be Leo Genn, another of those Brits in Hollywood.

Ralph Richardson is Gladstone in several scenes, and he practically steals the movie with his wry and comic snide turn.

The film hints that the Mahdi would have preferred that Gordon escape and that death to a world-hero of myth was an unfortunate emblem of doom. He was right, and the movie is overblown at making the point.