Khartoum (1966)



Director:  Basil Dearden

Starring:  Charlton Heston (Gen. Charles 'Chinese' Gordon), Laurence Olivier (The Mahdi), Richard Johnson (Col. J.D.H. Stewart), Ralph Richardson (William Gladstone), Alexander Knox (Sir Evelyn Baring), Johnny Sekka (Khaleel), Michael Hordern (Lord Granville),  Zia Mohyeddin (Zobeir Pasha),  Marne Maitland (Sheikh Osman),  Nigel Green (Gen. Wolseley), Hugh Williams (Lord Hartington), Ralph Michael (Sir Charles Dilke),  Douglas Wilmer (Khalifa Abdullah),  Edward Underdown (Col. William Hicks),  Peter Arne (Maj. Kitchener).


The movie was good.  It deals with British General "Chinese" Gordon and his defeat by Arabs in 1885.  

I am definitely anti-imperialism, but the movie made me root for General Gordon.  (During the movie, I caught myself a couple of times with the question: "What am I doing rooting for the imperialist British?"   Maybe because the Mahdi was just not the right leader for an independence movement.  As presented in the movie, he had dreams of wielding power over not only Sudan, but all the way to Constantinople (modern Istanbul).  It was also upsetting to know that the Mahdi wanted to kill all the Egyptians in Khartoum and anyone else who helped the Egyptians. 

Sir Laurence Olivier was terrific as the Mahdi.  My wife did not guess that it was Olivier playing the role of the crazed Mahdi.  I was fooled for a while, but there were a couple of turns of phrases that sounded as if they would not be spoken by a real Arab.   They sounded strange.  So I figured it must be an Englishman, hence Olivier. 

Charlton Heston looks really tall and thin in the movie.  He does a good job, but not a great one.  In his own way, Gordon was a bit of a fanatic himself.  He faces almost certain death and yet never abandons Khartoum.  He is even happy to lose his life, if that will save his own reputation and hurt the Mahdi.  It was fanatic matched up against fanatic and that was an interesting angle for the movie.

The movie give a great deal of information about Gordon in the Sudan.  I enjoyed the historical detail. 


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


The Blue Nile and the White Nile meet in today's Sudan at its capital Khartoum (just south of its largest city, Omdurman). 


Historical Background:


1273  --  Persian Jalal al-Din founds the Mevlevi order, a Sufi order, in modern day Turkey.  Its followers were known as Whirling Dervishes because whirling was used as a form of meditation.

1820  --  Sudan came under the rule of Egypt. 

1872  --  the Prime Minister of Egypt negotiates with Gen. Charles George Gordon to serve under the khedive (governor) of Egypt.

1873  -- with the approval of the British government, Gordon accepted the khedive's offer.

1874  --  Gordon proceeds to Egypt where he is made a colonel in the Egyptian army.  The khedive asked Gordon to be the governor of a region of Sudan.  Gordon left for Sudan.  He did a lot to help suppress the slave trade there.

1875  -- Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli buys the bankrupt Khedive of Egypt's shares in the Suez Canal Company.  

1876  (October) --   clashes between the governor of Sudan and Gordon, led Gordon to leave Sudan.  He returned to London.   

1881  --  Colonel Arabi Pasha leads a Nationalist revolt against European domination.

1882  -- Egypt comes under British rule. 

1882 (Sept.)  --  British army destroys Pasha's forces at the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir.

The Dervishes of the Sudan led by the Mahdi (prophet), a Muslim fanatic, rise against the Egyptians and occupy most of the Sudan.  The British order the evacuation of the Sudan.

1883 (December)  --  the British order the Egyptians to abandon Sudan.  But getting all the Egyptians and Europeans out of Sudan was an immense task.  The British send General Gordon to organized the evacuation. 

1884 (January)   -- Gen. Gordon, accompanied by J.D.H. Stewart, sets out for Cairo (eventual destination Khartoum) in order to supervise the British withdrawal from Sudan.

1884 (February 18)  --  Gen. Gordon arrives in Khartoum.

1884 (March 18)  --  the British wanted to abandon Sudan, but Gordon had other plans; he began to organize the defense of Khartoum. Gordon calls on Prime Minister Gladstone for reinforcements, but Gladstone, not eager for a colonial war, delays.  Gordon sends the Europeans and some Egyptians down the Nile River to Egypt. 

1884 (April)  --  the British evacuate General Sir Gerald Graham and his troops from Sudan. 

1884 (May)  --  the garrison at Berber surrenders leaving Khartoum isolated. 

1884 (August)  --  Gen. Gordon repeatedly said he was not leaving Khartoum, so the government finally decided to send troops to Khartoum. 

1884 (early November)  --  the British relief force finally starts its rescue effort.

1884 (end of December)  --  the British relief force reaches Korti.

1885 (January 20)  --  the relief force reaches Metemma. They find four gunboats that Gordon had sent downstream.

1885 (January 24)  --  two gunboats sent ahead to Khartoum.

1885 (January 26)  --  Mahdi's Dervishes capture Khartoum, leaving Gen. Gordon dead on the steps of the governor's palace.

1885 (January 28)  --  the two gunboats reach Khartoum.

The British, needless to say, are mad as hell.  The Mahdi dies, but he is replaced by leader Khalifa.  

1896  -- British sanction the reconquest of  Sudan.

General Sir Herbert Kitchener is given the task of quelling the Sudan; he was Commander- in-Chief of an Egyptian army.  The men in the army detested the Dervishes.  

1898  --  Kitchener builds a railway to transport supplies and troops up along the Nile.

The Khalifa dispatches Emir Mahmoud and 16,000 warriors to harass the British; on 8 April Kitchener opens a brisk bombardment of the Dervishes, followed by an infantry attack that kills or wounds thousands, and takes 4,000 Dervishes as prisoners.

1898  --  With 25,000 men Kitchener marches on Omdurman.  A battle ensues on September 2. Among the Lancers is a 23-year-old subaltern named Winston Spencer Churchill. The Dervishes lose 11,000 dead and many more wounded.  British honor and position are restored.

Britain ran Sudan as two separate colonies, the south and the north, until 1956. 


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