Khartoum (film)

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Khartoum (1966 movie poster).jpg
Original film poster by Frank McCarthy
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 dates
9 June 1966 (World Premiere, London)
Running time
134 min.
(USA: 128 min.)
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) and 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.

Khartoum was filmed by cinematographer Ted Scaife in Technicolor 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.

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.


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 adopted 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. 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. 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 relief column arrived two days too late.

The British withdrew from the Sudan shortly thereafter, and the Mahdi himself died six months later, but in the United Kingdom, public pressure and anger at the fate of Gordon finally forced the British to re-invade the Sudan 10 years later,where they recaptured Khartoum in 1898.


Historical notes[edit]

The film concerns the last months before the British lost their military position in the Sudan – in theory a subject territory of Egypt — in January 1885. Britain had invaded, but did not formally annex, Egypt in 1882. Egypt was technically a tributary part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. This is why Gordon, who is technically the "Egyptian" governor of the Sudan, wears a red Turkish fez and the fort and troops under his command display the red, fork-tailed Turkish flag.

The political origins of the Khartoum affair are unclear.

The film postulates a meeting between the Prime Minister, Mr. W. E. Gladstone (correctly shown wearing a finger-stall to cover a finger lost in a shooting accident as a young man), and other officials. Due to the questionable moral character of their decision – dumping Gordon into an impossible situation, to make him the scapegoat if things go wrong – Gladstone leaves declaring the meeting never occurred, thus protecting his deniability in the affair; but at the same time requesting the others contact him immediately at Balmoral to let him know if Gordon accepts. This is tolerable as storytelling technique and revelation of character, but there is no proof such a meeting happened or that, if it did, the dialogue depicted in the film was the substance. The film goes to some lengths to lampoon Gladstone's soft position on imperialism without exploring the valid reasons why he was reluctant to commit in the Sudan.

Although Gordon and the Mahdi did correspond by letter, the meetings between the two in the Mahdist camp, as portrayed in the film, are entirely fictitious. These councils may have been inspired by Gordon's earlier, similar meeting with Darfur rebels in 1878.

The final battle of Khartoum was an invention for the film. In fact, after a prolonged siege, the city fell by treachery as accomplices within opened a door for the Mahdist forces to enter by night, whereupon thousands were roused from their sleep only to be slaughtered.

George W. Joy's General Gordon's Last Stand

The final shot of Gordon descending a staircase before being speared to death is based on a famous painting by George W. Joy. Like the other scenes of the "fall of Khartoum", it must be regarded as a fabrication by the film-makers for dramatic effect. Gordon's descent of the staircase and murder by the Mahdi's forces is told in some detail, at the end of chapter 2, "The Fate of the Envoy", in Winston Churchill's The River War: an Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, published in 1899.

Incidentally, Charlton Heston, although highly similar in some aspects to the real Gordon, stood almost a foot taller as the general was a man of only 5' 5" in height.

Major Kitchener (Peter Arne), who played a role in Gen. Wolseley's (Nigel Green) relief expedition, was himself later a famous general and commanded the Anglo-Egyptian conquest of the Sudan in 1898. He was known thereafter as Baron Kitchener of Khartoum. Much admired in England, Kitchener went on to be the British second-in-command in the Second Boer War and War Minister in World War I.

Award nominations[edit]

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


  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

External links[edit]