- For God and Country: Khartoum (1966) as History and as "Object Lesson" for Global Policemen
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 9, Number 1, February 1979
- pp. 1-15
- View Citation
- Additional Information
FOR GOD AND COUNTRY: KHARTOUM (1966) AS HISTORY AND AS "OBJECT LESSON" FORGLOBAL POLICEMEN By Gerald Herman In the film Khartoum, Robert Ardrey's scripting and Basil Deardon's direction combined to produce one of the most thoughtful and incisive accounts of an historical event to appear on the screen and it has enjoyed a wide reputation for this. Less well noticed, however, are the sometimes subtle ways in which the film oversimplifies complex historical issues and misrepresents the motives and methods of its historical protagonists . The film is also interesting as a comment on the time in which it was made. By slightly manipulating facts and underlying interpretation , Khartoum contains a message for the United States in the midst of its involvement in the Vietnam War, a message which has been overlooked by those looking for reflections of the war in the American cinema of the 1960s.1 This article shall look at the ways in which filmic portrayal intersects with history and with present-mi ndedness in the movie Khartoum. The central event in the film is, of course, the conquest of the Sudan by the forces of Muhammed Ahmed (known as the Mahdi) specifically the defeat by them of the Egyptian Khedival forces (under the command of the British subject General Charles "Chinese" Gordon) who were defending the city of Khartoum, and the resulting death of Gordon himself. To facilitate analysis it is necessary to detail the film's complicated plot. After the defeat in the Sudan of an Egyptian army led by British Colonel "Billy" Hicks by a "fanatical Arab religious leader known as the Mahdi" (Laurence Olivier), the British Liberal government of William Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) decides that some gesture must be made to rescue Genald Henman teachet, Hlòtony at Nontheaitenn UnlveuiXy. He hoA published pn.evlout>ly In Film S HÁAtony. 1 the Europeans and Egyptians still there. Though Gladstone refuses to send an army, he agrees to send General "Chinese" Gordon (Charlton Heston ) to the Sudan to mollify English public opinion. Gordon was already a national hero to the English for his solo exploits in Asia and Africa and might just succeed in evacuating Khartoum. Should he fail, the government could still say it did what it could. For mysterious reasons Gordon accepts the mission, but Gladstone is not sure that Gordon can be trusted not to "grandstand" in order to force a military intervention. So he orders Colonel J. D. H. Stewart (Richard Johnson), a regular army officer recently returned from the Sudan with anti-interventionist views, to accompany Gordon and report to London on any action he might take that violates his orders. The two men proceed to Cairo and, after unsuccessfully trying to enlist the aid of Zobeir Pasha (Zia Meyeddin), a former slaver in the Sudan before Gordon had ended the trade, begin their journey down river to Khartoum. In doing so, Gordon accepts a limited appointment from the Egyptian Khedive as Governor-General of the Sudan. He also rejects the advice given them by Britain's representative in Cairo, Sir Evelyn Baring (Alexander Knox) that their mission would be futile. On their way they stop at Berber and are warmly welcomed by Gordon's old friends, the Sheikhs of the area. Shortly thereafter they get their first glimpse of dervish warriors, much farther downstream than they had been reported to be. Stewart asks Gordon to reconsider his decision to proceed to Khartoum in light of this new evidence. But Gordon angrily refuses and the steamer completes its journey to Khartoum. Gordon's entry into the city is tumultuous, but instead of enjoying the warmth and pomp of the welcoming ball, he and his servant Khaleel (Johnny Sekka) ride out to visit the camp of the Mahdi. There he discovers the determination of the Mahdi to enter Khartoum and massacre the unbelievers as an "object lesson" to the rest of Islam. He returns to the city to discover that the telegraph lines have been cut and the town of Berber conquered. Gordon orders the city provisioned for a siege, while in London the government is pressed by public opinion to do something more. A Major Kitchener (Peter...