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.

 

Our Man in Havana: Cuba Before Fall

DATELINE:  Greene for Thrills

ready for bed Guinness Doth Make Coward!

Would lightning strike twice? Throw in a Graham Greene novella, director Carol Reed, and a hotbed of political activity in the 1950s, and voila, you have an instant spy thriller, called Our Man in Havana.

The novella and screenplay were written by Greene himself, which may or may not be good, considering his lofty and singular opinion of what a good film should be. He respected Carol Reed enough to trust him again after The Third Man. And, with his lukewarm anti-American streak, the pre-Communist Castro lent his blessing to the project.

The result is a last-ditch look at the charm of old Havana before it underwent a lifetime of rot. To see it like this may sadden any self-respecting tourista.

Add in a delicious cast:  Alec Guinness as a would-be spy, Ernie Kovacs as a Cuban military leader, Maureen O’Hara as an officious colleague, Noel Coward as a Home Office Boy, with Ralph Richardson as his boss, and Burl Ives, hot off his Oscar, as a German expatriate, and something’s gotta give. The story concerns a British vacuum salesman who gives off airs of an obsequious secret agent who riles up the Cuban dictatorship before Castro. You mean there was no role for Errol Flynn who was there for the Cuban rebel girls?

At one point, Guinness notes that his daughter has an American accent for some reason. We suspect it has to do with the producer hiring his girlfriend, but we may be too harsh.

Burl Ives advises Guiness to take a job as a secret agent for Noel Coward and send it fake secret reports by fake secret agents. Alas, reality bites: everything he makes up is actually true.

The humor is so dry in this film that it almost seems arid. Greene rakes the James Bond ilk over the coals, with its bird-dropping invisible ink and codes taken out of a Dickensian book of Lamb to the slaughter sayings.

Kovacs and Guinness play a game of drinking checkers as a mental match.

Today’s audiences may be more befuddled by the intelligence of yore. Some of the actors are clearly in a straitjacket with not much ado. Yet, the overall effect is high-dudgeon Cold War spy thrills.

Our Man in Havana is simply amazing when not overwrought with super-suction.