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Khartoum (film)

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Directed byBasil Dearden
Eliot Elisofon
(introductory scenes)
Written byRobert Ardrey
Produced byJulian Blaustein
StarringCharlton Heston
Laurence Olivier
Richard Johnson
Ralph Richardson
Narrated byLeo Genn
CinematographyEdward Scaife
Edited byFergus McDonell
Music byFrank Cordell
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release dates
  • 9 June 1966 (1966-06-09) (World premiere, London)
Running time
134 minutes
128 minutes (US)
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$6–8 million[1][2]
Box office$3 million (est. US/Canada rentals)[3]

Khartoum is a 1966 British epic war film written by Robert Ardrey and directed by Basil Dearden. It stars Charlton Heston as British General Charles "Chinese" Gordon and Laurence Olivier as Muhammad Ahmed (a Sudanese leader whose devotees proclaimed him the Mahdi), with a supporting cast that includes Richard Johnson and Ralph Richardson.[4] The film is based on historical accounts of Gordon's defence of the Sudanese city of Khartoum from the forces of the Mahdist army, during the 1884–1885 Siege of Khartoum.[5] The opening and closing scenes are narrated by Leo Genn.

Khartoum was filmed by cinematographer Edward Scaife in Technicolor[6] and Ultra Panavision 70, and was exhibited in 70 mm Cinerama in premiere engagements. A novelization of the film's screenplay was written by Alan Caillou.[7]

The film had its Royal World Premiere at the Casino Cinerama Theatre, in the West End of London, on 9 June 1966, in the presence of Princess Margaret and the Earl of Snowdon.[8][9]

Khartoum earned Robert Ardrey an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.[10][11] The film also earned Ralph Richardson a BAFTA Award nomination for Best British Actor.


In 1883, in the Sudan, a force of 10,000 poorly trained but well-armed Egyptian troops is lured into the desert. Commanding the force is former Bombay Army soldier Colonel William "Billy" Hicks (Edward Underdown), now a private individual paid by the Egyptian government. He is defeated by native tribesmen led by Muhammad Ahmed (Laurence Olivier), a Nubian religious leader of the Samaniyya order who has declared himself Mahdi. The Mahdi's forces kill the troops and capture the weapons.

British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (Ralph Richardson), does not wish to send any military forces to Khartoum but is under great pressure, mostly from the British press, to "avenge" the death of Hicks, a hero of previous colonial conflicts. He could send colonial military hero Major General Charles George Gordon (Charlton Heston) who has strong ties to Sudan, having tried to break the slave trade there, but Gladstone distrusts him. Gordon has a reputation for strong and eccentric religious beliefs, and following his own judgement regardless of his orders. Lord Granville (Michael Hordern), the Foreign Secretary, knows this; he tells Gladstone that by sending Gordon to Khartoum, the British government can ignore all public pressure to send an army there. Should Gordon ignore his orders, the government can absolve themselves of any responsibility over the area. Gladstone is mildly shocked at the suggestion, but as it is popular with the public and Queen Victoria, he adopts it for the sake of expediency.

Gordon is told that his mission, to evacuate troops and civilians, is unsanctioned by the British government, which will disavow all responsibility if he fails. He is given few resources and only a single aide, Colonel J. D. H. Stewart (Richard Johnson). After an attempt to recruit former slaver Zobeir Pasha (Zia Mohyeddin) fails, Gordon and Stewart travel to Khartoum, where Gordon is hailed as the city's savior upon his arrival in February 1884. He begins organising the defences and rallying the people, despite Stewart's protests that this is not what he was sent to do.

Gordon's first act is to visit the Mahdi in his insurgent camp, accompanied by only a single servant. He gains the Mahdi's respect and, in the verbal fencing at the parley, discovers that the Sudanese leader intends to make an example of Khartoum by taking the city and killing all its inhabitants. The River Nile city of Khartoum lies at the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile. A qualified military engineer, Gordon wastes no time upon his return in digging a ditch between the two to provide a protective moat.

In Britain, Gladstone, apprised of how desperate the situation has become, orders Gordon to leave, but, as he had feared, his command is ignored. Colonel Stewart is sent by Gordon to London to explain the situation in Khartoum. Over the next several months, a public outcry forces Gladstone to send a relief force, but he sees to it that there is no urgency, hoping to the last that Gordon will come to his senses and save himself.

Gordon, however, has other ideas. News arrives in Khartoum about a relief force led by General Wolseley being sent from Britain. When the waters recede in winter, drying up his moat, the small Egyptian army is finally overwhelmed by 100,000 native Mahdist tribesmen. On 26 January 1885, the city falls under a massive frontal assault. Gordon himself is slaughtered along with the entire foreign garrison and populace of some 30,000, although the Mahdi had forbidden killing Gordon. In the end, Gordon's head is cut off, stuck on top of a long pole, and paraded about the city in triumph, contrary to the Mahdi's injunctions.

The British relief column arrives two days too late.[12] The British withdraw from the Sudan shortly thereafter, and the Mahdi himself dies six months later. In the United Kingdom, public pressure, and anger at the fate of Gordon, eventually forces the British and their Egyptian allies to re-invade the Sudan ten years later, and they recaptured and colonised Khartoum in 1898.


Roger Delgado, George Pastell and Jerome Willis also had parts.[13][14][a]



Robert Ardrey wrote the script at the encouragement of producer Julian Blaustein. Ardrey says it took him three years "on and off" to complete the script, and then sold it for $150,000.[15] In May 1962, MGM announced they were producing the film from Ardrey's script, with the intention to be an adventure film similar to 55 Days at Peking (1963) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).[16]

In October 1963, Ardrey began scouting filming locations in Africa with Blaustein.[17] Over a year later, in November 1964, Ardey told The New York Times: "Everybody was interested and nobody doubted the subject ... But there was strong feeling against the big picture which might gross $12,000,000 but cost $25,000,000. Frankly Khartoum is a proposition that could bust a studio if handled the wrong way."[10]

In April 1964, Blaustein announced United Artists was producing the film, with Burt Lancaster slated to star as Gordon.[18] The following month, Laurence Olivier agreed to play the Mahdi and Lewis Gilbert signed to direct.[19] However, filming was delayed, and Lancaster, Olivier and Gilbert pulled out. In April 1965, Charlton Heston agreed to play Gordon.[20] By June, Olivier was back on the film with Basil Dearden to direct.[21] In July 1965, Ralph Richardson and Richard Johnson had joined the cast as Prime Minister Gladstone and Colonel Stewart, respectively.[22]


Principal photography began at Pinewood Studios on August 9, 1965. Meanwhile, second-unit filming was placed under Yakima Canutt.[15][23] A month later, filming relocated to Cairo.[5][14] By December, location shooting had finished and the production went on hiatus to give Olivier time to be available for interior scenes.[24]

It was the last movie filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 until The Hateful Eight, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino forty-nine years later.[25]


Arthur D. Murphy of Variety wrote the film "is an action-filled entertainment pic which contrasts personal nobility with political expediency. The colorful Julian Blaustein production builds in spectacular display, enhanced by Cinerama presentation, while Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier propel toward inevitable tragedy, the drama of two sincere opponents."[26] Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times praised the film, writing it "is one of the ablest pictures of its kind I've ever seen. It is a truly great spectacle, not one synthesized mainly for the sake of a wide screen in this case Cinerama. It is also exceptional in that its man-to-man confrontations in themselves have drama."[27] Bosley Crowther of The New York Times felt the film suffered from "the efforts of everyone connected with the picture to cram too much historical detail, too much geographical display, too many incidental characters, too many battles, too much mystery into a picture that was evidently inspired by the box-office success of Lawrence of Arabia."[28]

Clifford Terry of the Chicago Tribune unfavorably compared the film to Lawrence of Arabia, writing "Khartoum is nothing more than a routine desert drama, full of sand and fury, signifying very little." He blamed Dearden and Ardey, criticizing his script for failing "to grasp that however complex an individual, he nevertheless has a core, and covers up the character shallowness and story inconsistencies with grandiose gab."[29] Sight and Sound described the film as being "beautifully photographed, lavishly mounted, intelligently acted, but ultimately dull."[30] The Times praised the film for the screenplay.[31] Patrick Gibbs of The Daily Telegraph criticized the film for its historical inaccuracies and felt neither Olivier or Heston convey "the personal magnetism attributed" to their characters.[32] The British publication New Statesman also criticized the film's historical inaccuracies (for example the Mahdi did not want to kill everyone in the capital and called for killing only soldiers).[33]

On the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, 100% of 10 critics gave the film a positive review, with an average rating of 7/10.[34] In the 21st century, historian Alex von Tunzelmann criticized the film for "factual inaccuracies" and Olivier's "unrealistic accent" and blackface makeup.[35] Literature professor Edward Said criticized Khartoum for what he described as a pro-colonial propagandistic portrayal of good versus evil by clashing "despotically violent Arab masculinity against a noble, rational Western one."[36] Conversely, editor Dennis Schwartz described the film as "a visually stunning historical epic, smartly acted and lavishly produced, that gives one a good look at that period’s political intrigues but does little to tell us about the two religious zealots–Gordon and the Mahdi."[37]

In a 1978 article for Film Comment, Martin Scorsese wrote Khartoum was one of his guilty pleasures: "Charlton Heston... is marvelous; and Laurence Olivier has a lot of fun as the Mahdi, with a space between his front teeth. It isn't very good filmmaking, but it has a mystical quality about it. This was a holy war. At the end – when Mahdi killed Gordon, and then six months later he died himself – it was as if the two of them canceled each other out, religiously and historically. It's a story I want to be told, over and over again, like a fairy tale."[38]


Award Category Nominee Result
Academy Award Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen Robert Ardrey Nominated
BAFTA Award Best British Actor Ralph Richardson Nominated
BAFTA Award Best British Art Direction (Colour) John Howell Nominated



  1. ^ Each later played a villain in various episodes of Doctor Who. Delgado and Willis appeared in Jon Pertwee serial(s) and Pastell appeared in The Tomb of the Cybermen.


  1. ^ Canby, Vincent (11 January 1966). "Film Producer Lists Trials in Egypt". The New York Times. p. 19.
  2. ^ Wright, Ian (26 December 1965). "'Khartoum,' a Smallish Epic, Has Heston, Olivier, Camels". The Washington Post. p. G3.
  3. ^ "Big Rental Pictures of 1966". Variety. 4 January 1967. p. 8 – via Internet Archive.
  4. ^ "Actor Richard Johnson dies at 87". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 October 2015.
  5. ^ a b Duiker & Spielvogel 2015, p. 621.
  6. ^ Santas et al. 2014, p. 307.
  7. ^ Alan Caillou (2000). Khartoum. iUniverse. ISBN 978-0-595-09145-4. Retrieved 4 November 2015.
  8. ^ Burton and O'Sullivan, 2009, p. 300
  9. ^ "CINEMA 9". The Spectator. 9 June 1966. p. 18. Retrieved 28 October 2015.
  10. ^ a b Watts, Stephen (15 November 1964). "Britain's Screen Scene". The New York Times. p. X13.
  11. ^ Alex von Tunzelmann (12 November 2009). "Khartoum: blackface Olivier scrapes the bottom of some macabre barrels". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 July 2016. Incredibly this screenplay was nominated for an Oscar.
  12. ^ Niemi 2006, pp. 35–36.
  13. ^ Da Silva 2015, p. 43.
  14. ^ a b Reid 2006, p. 124.
  15. ^ a b Wright, Ian (28 October 1965). "Khartoum: The anatomy of a blockbuster". The Guardian. p. 9 – via Newspapers.com. Open access icon
  16. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (14 May 1962). "Van Heflin Sending; Davis 'Golden Boy': Oil Exec Goes Hollywood; MGM to Film 'Khartoum'". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 13 – via Newspapers.com. Open access icon
  17. ^ "Edd Sets European Projects". Los Angeles Times. 9 October 1963. Part V, p. 12 – via Newspapers.com.
  18. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (6 April 1964). "Siege of Khartoum Recruits Lancaster". Los Angeles Times. Part V, p. 23 – via Newspapers.com.
  19. ^ "Olivier Will Portray Mahdi In United Artists 'Khartoum'". The New York Times. 25 May 1964. p. 42.
  20. ^ Martin, Betty (19 April 1965). "Movie Call Sheet: Burton and Taylor to Produce Film". Los Angeles Times. Part V, p. 18 – via Newspapers.com.
  21. ^ "Olivier Joins 'Khartoum,' Film". The New York Times. 11 June 1965. p. 19.
  22. ^ Burton & O'Sullivan 2009, p. 299.
  23. ^ Canutt & Drake 1979, pp. 206–207.
  24. ^ Martin, Betty (2 December 1965). "Movie Call Sheet: Deb Star in Featured Role". Los Angeles Times. Part V, p. 21 – via Newspapers.com.
  25. ^ Giardina, Carolyn (7 January 2016). "How 'The Hateful Eight' Cinematographer Revived Lenses From the 1960s". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 20 February 2024.
  26. ^ Murphy, Arthur D. (15 June 1966). "Film Reviews: Khartoum". Variety. p. 6. Retrieved 20 February 2024 – via Internet Archive.
  27. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (19 June 1966). "'Khartoum' Exceptional Film Fare". Los Angeles Times. Calendar, pp. 1, 5. Retrieved 20 February 2024 – via Newspapers.com. Open access icon
  28. ^ Crowther, Bosley (14 July 1966). "Screen: 'Khartoum' Opens". The New York Times. p. 28. Retrieved 20 February 2024.
  29. ^ Terry, Clifford (23 June 1966). "'Khartoum' Makes Arid Film". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 7. Retrieved 20 February 2024 – via Newspapers.com. Open access icon
  30. ^ Walker 2003, p. 458.
  31. ^ Burton & O'Sullivan 2009, p. 300.
  32. ^ Gibbs, Patrick (10 June 1966). "No Relief for Gen. Gordon". The Daily Telegraph. p. 14. Retrieved 20 February 2024 – via Newspapers.com.
  33. ^ Burton & O'Sullivan 2009, p. 305.
  34. ^ "Khartoum (1966)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 20 February 2024.
  35. ^ von Tunzelmann, Alex (12 November 2009). "Khartoum: blackface Olivier scrapes the bottom of some macabre barrels". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  36. ^ Saffari et al. 2017, p. 135.
  37. ^ Dennis Schwartz (5 August 2019). "KHARTOUM - Dennis Schwartz Reviews". Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews. Retrieved 15 August 2022.
  38. ^ Scorsese, Martin (September–October 1978). "Martin Scorsese's Guilty Pleasures". Film Comment. Vol. 14, no. 5. pp. 63–66.


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