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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Khartoum (1966)
(Blu-Ray & DVD Dual Format)


Starring: Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Richard Johnson and Ralph Richardson
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £15.99 (Blu-Ray & DVD Dual Format)
Certificate: PG
Release Date: 03 December 2018

White actor in blackface. Pretty much sums up the Sisyphean marketing boulder Eureka has to push uphill toward public acceptance of its splendid HD remaster of the 1966 MGM epic Khartoum (Ultra Panavision 70, 2.76:1 – an aspect ratio the world will not again behold until Quentin Tarantino uses it for The Hateful Eight forty nine years later.) Enlisted to help the marketing push are five film historians who, in effect, explain why you, Dear Film Connoisseur, should do the heavy lifting of money out of your pocket to put this epic in your permanent home library. This is my case for why Khartoum is worth purchasing, indeed essential, for any 21st century film library.

Of course the technical credits are state of art, Eureka should be thanked for its industrial due diligence in producing a print more lucent than the original road show presentation viewers saw in theatres a half century ago - better than anything Charlton Heston saw in the MGM studio lot in Culver City with the best projection in the world. Image contrast is tasteful and elegant, shadows revealing soft variegation of shades within, vibrant reds, impelling thoughts of war and its by product of bloodshed. It couldn’t be more prismatic, supple and palpable. Cinematographer Edward Scaife, BSC (The Dirty Dozen, Night of Demon, Dark of the Sun, Hannie Caulder, 633 Squadron, Young Cassidy, The Liquidator, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, Storm Over the Nile, Tarzan the Magnificent, The List of Adrian Messenger, Carry on Constable, Sea Wife, The Corn is Green, Who Goes There?) is the hero artist to be heralded here. A film collection without Scaife is culturally deprived.

It can also be seen from Scaife’s jacket why he was the visualizer to go to Egypt with director Basil Dearden (who was nervous about composition in the panoramic format) and supreme action (2nd unit) director and stunt savant Yakima Canutt (Okay, this list is too long but I love Yakima Canutt. So sue me. Riders of the Whistling Skull, Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind, G-Men Never Forget, My Pal Trigger, Battling With Buffalo Bill, Angel and the Badman, Ben Hur, Spartacus, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Breakheart Pass, Rio Lobo, A Man Called Horse, Where Eagles Dare, Cat Ballou, Swiss Family Robinson, Old Yeller, Helen of Troy.)

Dearden was known for his sensitive little films (Dead of Night, Only When I Larf, Woman of Straw, Sapphire, The Smallest Show on Earth, Victim).

Heston had passed on the project several years earlier but a new script by Robert Ardrey won him over immediately and he elected to shoot without any major revisions, a singularity, he later said, in his whole career. Ardrey would go on to write two seminal studies in social anthropology, African Genesis and Territorial Imperative. Sam Peckinpaugh would call the latter work inspirational for his film Straw Dogs.

In the '60s Heston was essentially a shot-caller for movie packaging. He had got Orson Welles's approved to helm Touch of Evil in 1959 and in the next decade singlehandedly kept alive hip dystopian cinema in Hollywood by bench pressing packages for Planet of the Apes, Omega Man and the picture nobody wanted to make, Soylent Green.

Two words were common for young thinkers in that decade: relevant and relate. Heston was ever mindful of being relevant and relating to young adult baby boomers. Ardrey’s Khartoum seemed to him an ideal vehicle for the rising dread haunting everyone, especially the young: Viet Nam. Two terms came out of that military cancer metastasizing into American hearts and minds: the domino theory and escalation. Both these terms are integral to Khartoum. Laurence Olivier’s warlord declares he wants to worship in every mosque beyond Sudan: Dome of the Rock, Mecca, Istanbul. Allah has told him so. But first he must pray in Khartoum.

Heston’s character, Major General Charles George Gordon, a devout praying Christian, tells Olivier he will pray in Khartoum only over his (Gordon’s) dead body. As history shows us, this was arranged. The warlord’s domino declaration was countered in London by the political decision to send more troops, something Heston/Gordon didn’t ask for. Escalation will only encourage more dominos to fall.

Khartoum is Charlton Heston’s Viet Nam picture.

The sad thing is that the face to face dialogues between Gordon and Olivier’s Muhammad Ahmad never happened. They never met, never found mutual respect for each other over food and drink. Khartoum is an act of gross historical agit-prop, more false than Olivier’s black face, and that’s pretty false, I know.

Olivier was performing Othello to great response and his filmed version of the play was showing simultaneously with Khartoum’s run. The conceit of white actors donning colour to play colour is a time honoured schtick in Euro-American theatre and film. Whites see nothing wrong with it. People of colour have never liked it. Only post millennial political correctionists have put a stop to it. Sort of. The ludicrousness of Robert Downey’s blackface pretence in Tropic Thunder is called out on screen by a real black actor. The ultimate take down. But then there was Johnny Depp’s Tonto in the new Lone Ranger for which rebukes resounded around the world. Hollywood has never stood present to Tribal Sovereign rage.

Gordon’s death owes more to a hagiographic painting done in 1893 which shows him getting ready to walk down a staircase to meet his decapitation. The painting has assumed a patina of ethno-truth for know-nothing history buffoons ever since. Historian Sheldon Hall details this military wet dream quite thoroughly in an accompanying interview among the DVD’s lavish extras.

Why own this film?

It is an essential example of fictive history being created to serve a fictive cause, a cover story for another time, the '60s. Fifty years of perspective make its intention for its sitz im leben (setting in life) more discernible, its intention to be relevant and relate more obvious and therefore its purpose of influence more plain - and painful. But then, the truth hurts.

Khartoum is a must have artefact of agit-prop drama from the youth of a generation now pensioned in old age or already dead. Its seams and rivets of construction, an assemblage of political rationales, may be instructive as we try to deconstruct fake news and fake history of the facts and factoids we labour with today.


John Huff

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