Where Titans First Met 50 Years Ago
Fifty years ago tonight marked the London world premiere of the on-screen confluence of Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, stirring geopolitical history and Cinerama exhibition wrapped up in an exotic one-word title: Khartoum (1966). Filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 (by Edward "Ted" Scaife) as a roadshow attraction, it relied on size, spectacle and ravishing Egyptian locales while covering events and personages very familiar to its largely British creative team and hoped that the respective skills of its two key American personnel, star Heston and screenwriter Robert Ardrey, would burnish its appeal to U.S. audiences. Much on view is straight history. In 1883, Egypt and the Sudan were – by government invitation – occupied by British forces in order to bring stability against regional revolts. Declaring a jihad against the foreign forces as well as the Egyptian government, the fanatical leader known as the Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad (Olivier) ordered his Arab tribesmen faithful to wage a campaign of slaughter, first manifested in the desert by the defeat of 10,000 unsuspecting British troops. That disastrous encounter prompts British Prime Minister William Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) to send military hero Gen. Charles “Chinese” Gordon (Heston) to the strategically critical port of Khartoum to evacuate the citizenry. As the deployment of more forces is deemed not only unfeasible but would also magnify anticolonial sentiment, Gladstone pronounces Gordon’s mission “unofficial.” Despite Gordon’s attempts to negotiate with the Mahdi, the madman resolutely sticks to his vow that “the streets [of Khartoum] will run with blood and every man, woman and child will die.” In his resolve to defend the city, Gordon proves just as fanatical as his formidable opposite. Producer Julian Blaustein, director Basil Dearden and Ardrey were equally resolute in trying to make this “thinking man’s epic” reverberate. So set were they on securing Olivier’s services that they had to agree to the actor’s terms: his Mahdi scenes were filmed at Pinewood Studios in England, as other commitments mitigated against his making it to Egypt. Heston as the inscrutable Gordon joined Olivier there for two riveting – but in fact, untrue – scenes of the two opponents meeting. In reality, Gordon and the Mahdi never met – but in the volley between dueling titans Heston and Olivier, you certainly believe they did. In Newsweek’s estimation, “The giant [Cinerama] has finally grown a brain. It is a pleasure to find thoughts, not merely words, coming out of the cavernous mouths on that vast, curving screen. Khartoum is viable dramatically and its spectacle nothing less than superb.” Ardrey’s screenplay earned a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award® nomination. In Movie Roadshows, historian Kim R. Holston noted that following Khartoum’s June 23 Los Angeles, Heston logged in his journal, “I really think we may have one of my best films here.” Featuring Richard Johnson, Alexander Knox, Johnny Sekka, Michael Hordern, Nigel Green and Douglas Wilmer, Khartoum can be thunderously experienced on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.