At a time when the British Empire is out of fashion (with its racism, exploitation and genocide), it is as well to remember there were some good guys around. One was Charles George Gordon, whose final year in the Sudan forms the background for this film.
Gordon was a brilliant soldier who had put down a rebellion in China in his 20's, and done a massive amount of work putting down the Central African slave trade in his 30's. He was a hero to the public, and greatly admired by Queen Victoria. He seemed to be the model of an ideal Victorian hero, a 'muscular Christian', a 'soldier saint'. Gordon was indeed very religious, an attitude which lent itself to his career. He believed that – being in God's hands - he was in no more danger from bullets than he was when walking down a country lane, hence his mystical courage on the battlefield. His religion also inspired much charitable and evangelical work among the poor wherever he was posted.
Gordon was also an eccentric individualist and a misfit. He distrusted, and was distrusted by, the Establishment because he simply could not be relied on to toe a line. Believing in divine inspiration, he went his own way. Sent to South Africa to report on the unrest among the Basuto people (in what is now Zimbabwe) he came to the conclusion that, yes, the British had broken their word, the Basuto were in the right, and helped the Basuto in their negotiations against his own government by feeding them classified information.
He could have been court-martialled but he was a public hero. So when an Islamic revolt broke out in Sudan, he was the natural choice to save both the situation and the British government's face.
It is at this point the film begins. Gordon's (Charlton Heston) selection for the mission is shown as a cynical ploy to keep the public (and the Queen) happy, and divert attention from the government when the mission fails (as everyone knows it will). This is quite true, although there was also a great deal of confusion about what was expected of Gordon which he may have exploited to expand his own role. The film only goes too far in saying Gordon agreed to take the job because of a personal appeal by Prime Minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson). In fact, Gladstone made sure he was 'off sick' when the crucial decisions were made so he had plausible deniability.
The film also does not shy away from the element of vanity that caused Gordon to accept. He believed the people of Sudan genuinely loved him, and that he could dominate the rebels by sheer force of personality, backed by God's providence. He vastly over-estimated his own influence and completely misunderstood the nature of a religious revolt, ironic in a religious man. As Heston's Gordon observes: “I thought I had a monopoly on God. There's vanity for you.” The cinematic Gordon realises he and the rebel leader, the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier) are actually very much alike.
It is doubtful that the historic Gordon was quite so astute, angrily dismissing the Mahdi's gestures of goodwill, and he certainly never visited the Mahdi (although he wanted to, and the visit to a hostile camp with a single servant did happen, but earlier in his life). The face-to-face confrontations with the Mahdi are necessary here to allow for exposition of their different points of view.
Realising the Mahdi's true nature and intentions Gordon deliberately allows himself to be besieged in Khartoum, making it essential for the British government to rescue him and, therefore, the Sudanese people. Again, the film plays quite fair with history, although it does not show Gordon bombarding the government with different appraisals of the situation and recommending wildly different courses of action every week or so, leaving everyone mired in confusion about what he was doing, and what he intended to do.
Purely for political reasons, Gladstone is forced to order a relief expedition, but it is told to move as slowly as possible to give Gordon every chance to escape under his own steam. In Khartoum food runs low, disease becomes endemic and only the force of Gordon's personality keeps up morale. Partly to save food (and lives) he allows anyone who wishes to leave the town and join the Mahdi. Realising he has been abandoned by his own government and has failed to save the people of Khartoum, Gordon willingly accepts martyrdom, and is cut down by a single spear in the Mahdists' final assault. Eyewitnesses actually record Gordon fighting to the end until he was overwhelmed.
A spoken epilogue explains the outcry in Britain over the martyred soldier-saint destroyed the government, and the Mahdi mysteriously died soon after Gordon (in fact, possibly from typhus brought into his camp from Khartoum).
Khartoum, therefore, succeeds both as a spectacle and a study of personality and history. The performance of Charlton Heston is probably the best of his film career. More often a rather stolid authority figure, he masters an English accent very well (although he is maybe a little too effete in the early scenes) and manages to convey Gordon's growing isolation and self-doubt, instantly suppressed to present an optimistic public face. The script shows the range of Gordon's personality, and Heston makes the most of a chance to show his range as an actor. His only real goofs are in not smoking (Gordon was a lifelong chain smoker), and taking far too much interest in an Egyptian belly dancer (Gordon was probably gay, but repressed his sexual nature). Heston is also a foot taller than Gordon, who was a small man, with a lot of nervous energy.
Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi borrows a great deal from his earlier role in Shakespeare's Othello (filmed in 1965). White actors playing ethnic roles are usually avoided these days and here you can see why. The make-up and accent are just too over-the-top for comfort, and the Mahdi becomes less a forceful fanatic than a lisping charlatan.
Ralph Richardson does a very good job of the cynical, ultra-political Gladstone (“I don't trust a man who consults God before he consults me!”), and even wears the glove Gladstone used after he shot off his own finger in an accident. The rest of the British government is played by a fine troupe of character actors, Michael Hordern, Hugh Williams and Ralph Michael, among them.
The production values of the film are very good but not quite top drawer. There are a number of second unit scenes with obvious stand-ins for the principal actors, and some very obvious model and back-projection scenes. The score by Frank Cordell is also good without being outstanding, relying on a mock-Elgar march to show Gordon's saintly nobility and imitating Maurice Jarre's Lawrence of Arabia score to suggest exoticism.
There are some good moments of spectacle here (directed by Yakima Canutt), and full-blooded battle scenes, but the main interest of Khartoum lies in its character study of a single man facing impossible odds (Robert Ardrey's script was Oscar-nominated). As the spoken epilogue says: “A world with no room for the Gordons, is a world that will return to the sands.”