Khartoum (film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Khartoum (1966 movie poster).jpg
Directed by Basil Dearden
Eliot Elisofon
(introductory scenes)
Produced by Julian Blaustein
Written by Robert Ardrey
Starring Charlton Heston
Laurence Olivier
Richard Johnson
Ralph Richardson
Narrated by Leo Genn
Music by Frank Cordell
Cinematography Edward Scaife
Edited by Fergus McDonell
Distributed by United Artists
Release date
9 June 1966 (World premiere, London)
Running time
134 minutes
128 minutes (US)
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $6 million[1]
Box office $3 million (est. US/ Canada rentals)[2]

Khartoum is a 1966 film written by Robert Ardrey and directed by Basil Dearden. It stars Charlton Heston as British Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon and Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi (Muhammad Ahmed), with a supporting cast that includes Richard Johnson and Ralph Richardson.[3] 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 Siege of Khartoum.[4] The opening and closing are narrated by Leo Genn.

Khartoum was filmed by cinematographer Ted Scaife in Technicolor[5] 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.[6]

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 H.R.H. Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, and the Earl of Snowdon.[7][8]

Khartoum earned Robert Ardrey an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay.[9][10] 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 Egyptians under the command of British Col. William "Billy" Hicks (Edward Underdown) is lured into the desert and slaughtered by Muslim zealots led by Muhammad Ahmad (Laurence Olivier), a fanatic Sudanese Arab who believes he is the Mahdi, the prophesied "expected one of Mohammed." The British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (Ralph Richardson), who does not wish to send more military forces to Khartoum, is under great pressure to send military hero Major General Charles George Gordon (Charlton Heston) there to salvage the situation and restore British prestige. Gordon has strong ties to Sudan, having broken the slave trade there in the past, but Gladstone distrusts him. Gordon has a reputation for strong, if eccentric, religious beliefs and following his own judgement, regardless of his orders. Granville Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl Granville, the British foreign secretary (Michael Hordern), knowing this, tells Gladstone that by sending Gordon to Khartoum, the British government can ignore all public pressure to send an army there, and absolve themselves of any responsibility over the area if Gordon ignores his orders. 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 rebel 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 arrive in Karthoum about a relief force lead by General Wolseley being sent from England. When the waters recede in winter, drying up his moat, the small Egyptian army is finally overwhelmed by 100,000 Mahdist tribesmen. On 26 January 1885, the city falls under a massive frontal assault. Gordon himself is killed along with the entire 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 film ends with another narration by Leo Genn explaining the aftermath. The relief column arrived two days too late.[11]

The British withdrew from the Sudan shortly thereafter, and the Mahdi himself died six months later. In the United Kingdom, public pressure and anger at the fate of Gordon finally forced the British to re-invade the Sudan ten years later, where they recaptured Khartoum in 1898.


Roger Delgado, George Pastell and Jerome Willis also had parts.[12][13] They all later played a villain in Doctor Who.


The film took a number of years to obtain financing. It was originally meant to be made with Laurence Olivier, Burt Lancaster and director Lewis Gilbert but Paramount could not find the money. Gilbert made Alfie instead.[14]

Initially Burt Lancaster was to play General Gordon before the role was accepted by Charlton Heston. In July 1965, it was announced that Ralph Richardson and Richard Johnson would join the cast as Prime Minister Gladstone and Colonel Stewart respectively.[15]

"Everybody was interested and nobody doubted the subject," said writer Robert Ardrey. "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."[9]

Filming took place in Egypt, Pinewood Studios and London.[4][13]

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


Reviews for Khartoum were generally positive. Sight and Sound described the film as being "beautifully photographed, lavishly mounted, intelligently acted, but ultimately dull."[16] The Times praised the film for the screenplay.[17]

However The Daily Telegraph and the New Statesman criticized the film for its historical inaccuracies.[18]


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. ^ Film Producer Lists Trials in Egypt By VINCENT CANBY. New York Times (1923–Current file) [New York, N.Y] 11 January 1966: 19
  2. ^ "Big Rental Pictures of 1966", Variety, 4 January 1967 p 8
  3. ^ "Actor Richard Johnson dies at 87". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 October 2015. 
  4. ^ a b Duiker and Spielvogel, 2015, p. 621
  5. ^ Santas and others, 2014, p. 307
  6. ^ Alan Caillou (2000). Khartoum. iUniverse. Retrieved 4 November 2015. 
  7. ^ Burton and O'Sullivan, 2009, p. 300
  8. ^ "CINEMA 9". The Spectator. 9 June 1966. p. 18. Retrieved 28 October 2015. 
  9. ^ a b BRITAIN'S SCREEN SCENE By STEPHEN WATTS LONDON. New York Times (1923–Current file) [New York, N.Y] 15 Nov 1964: X13.
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ Niemi, 2006, p. 35-6
  12. ^ Silva, 2015, p.43
  13. ^ a b Reid, 2006, p. 124
  14. ^
  15. ^ Burton, 2009, p. 299
  16. ^ Walker (2004). Halliwell's Film Video and DVD Guide 2004. p. 458. 
  17. ^ Burton, Cinema of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph, p. 300
  18. ^ Burton, Cinema of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph, p. 305


  • Burton, Alan and O'Sullivan, Tim. (2009). The Cinema of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph. Edinburgh University Press
  • Duiker, William and Spielvogel, Jackson. (2015). World History, Volume II: Since 1500. Cengage Learning
  • Niemi, Robert. (2006). History in the Media. ABC Clio
  • Santas, Constantine and others. (2014). The Encyclopaedia of Epic Films. Scarecrow Press
  • Reid, John Howard. (2006). Cinemascope 3: Hollywood Takes the Plunge.
  • George Batista Da Silva. (2015). Os Filmes De Charlton Heston. Clube de Autores
  • Walker, John. (ed). (2004). Halliwell's Film Video & DVD Guide 2004. HarperCollins Entertainment. 19th edition

External links[edit]