Basil Dearden: Behind Khartoum's Lenses
It’s a new year, and Quentin Tarantino has made something new with vintage materials: his self-described Agatha Christie Western The Hateful Eight, now in nationwide release. He and cinematographer Robert Richardson collaborated to photograph it in Ultra Panavision 70 utilizing uniquely wide photographic lenses last used 50 years ago, creating an extravagant 187-minute “70mm Roadshow Epic” Version playing on some 100+ screens, complete with a wide 2.76:1 Aspect Ratio as well as an Overture and Intermission that recall the sweeping, reserved-seat “event” moviegoing releases popular in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. The project on which the lenses were last used (by cinematographer Edward Scaife) was the historical epic Khartoum (1966), starring Charlton Heston as British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon and Laurence Olivier as the fanatical Muslim leader The Mahdi, who in the Sudan in 1883 were visionary and strong-willed antagonists in a confrontation between British imperialism and Arab tribalism in the region. Basil Dearden (1911-1971), born on New Year’s Day 105 years ago, directed Khartoum, which endures as a highlight in the career of this versatile and under-appreciated director whose credits include several gems of British cinema: portions of the seminal fantasy/horror omnibus Dead of Night (1945); the World War II POW drama The Captive Heart (1946) with Michael Redgrave; the thrilling police procedural The Blue Lamp (1950), which set young Dirk Bogarde’s career skyrocketing; the quirky comedy The Smallest Show on Earth (1958), starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna as a couple trying to operate a rundown movie theater staffed by Peter Sellers, Margaret Rutherford and Bernard Miles; the tension-packed heist thriller The League of Gentlemen (1960) starring Jack Hawkins, Roger Livesey and Richard Attenborough; and Victim (1961), reuniting with Bogarde on this controversial tale of homosexual blackmail.
Evaluating Khartoum for The New York Times, Bosley Crowther placed this Cinerama-exhibited rouser in the win column for the filmmaker. “The director, Basil Dearden, and his second-unit director, Yakima Canutt, have gathered some mighty handsome scenery and some roaring battle happenings on the screen,” he wrote. “The brick-red Egyptian desert, the flatness of the Nile, the masses of British-led soldiers clashing with white-robed Sudanese, river boats racing past shore forts, the killing of General Gordon with a spear – these are things that are beautifully and excitingly shown in this film.” Current Times film critic A.O. Scott did not have as positive a reaction to Tarantino’s eighth movie as his predecessor Crowther did to Dearden’s 35th feature, so it must take more than wide lenses to create a resonant cinematic experience. You can find out what these lenses and their users have wrought by checking out The Hateful Eight in 70mm at one of its Roadshow venues or Khartoum in 70mm at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on Thursday January 28. Or simplify your search by unleashing Khartoum on your own home screen via Twilight Time’s stunning hi-def Blu-ray.