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 Post subject: 'Recent' History Reviewed:'Khartoum' as a 'modern' Epic
PostPosted: Sun Sep 04, 2011 3:29 pm 
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Prince Judah
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Joined: Sun Jul 24, 2011 6:03 am
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History-scholars often argue that films based on historical subject matter, in general, 'simplify' history, indulge in inaccuracy and thus make a'bad' performance. By that standard Shakespeare's historical plays are to be dismissed, too!In fact, books can provide a wealth of information and detail that can and should demonstrate the complexity of history. Drama or film on the other hand is essentially a visual medium, and subject to the demands of dramatic/cinematic form and structure. The question should rather be, is it a good performance even making a 'simplification' of history? The Chorus from Shakespeare's "Henry V" actually provided the best justification for these historical epics;
"Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? ... O, pardon! Since a crooked figure may attest in little place a million; and let us ciphers to this great accompt, on your imaginary forces work, turning the accomplishment of many years into an hour glass..."

The best historical films, of which "Khartoum" is one, do just that, they fire the imagination, however condensed and simplified the history, and hopefully inspire the viewer to delve deeper into the subject.

The disaster that befell Col. William Hicks in 1884, in Sudan, and would set in motion the chain of events that would culminate in the confrontation between Mohammad Ahmed, called The Mahdi, (Laurence Olivier) and British General Charles George Gordon, called "Chinese Gordon", (Charlton Heston) are quickly detailed in a brief prologue featuring an uncredited voice-over by Leo Genn, and the first of several stunning battles staged by the great Yakima Canutt. Ardrey, the script-writer maintains the essential aura of mystery that surrounded these two fascinating enigmatic individuals. Gordon was really a very complex man. A solitary non-conformist who craved and despised public adulation, a devout Christian who drinks a lot and never allied himself to any church, a reluctant empire builder more often sympathetic to those he had to oppose. Suggesting complexity of character, however was not one of Charlton Heston's strong points and he cannot begin to suggest Gordon's contradictory traits. He is too solid, too commanding. But he does bring those qualities to the character, and he is an impressive physical presence, unlikely to get lost in the epic production of the film.

In the film, for filmic purposes, we are to see Gordon as jeopardizing his own life which some historio-political scholars consider impossible because he cares about the Sudanese and their (we assume) more-hopeful future under British rule than under that of a pseudo-religious murderous and highly-intelligent zealot. If we assume, as Robert Ardrey would have us believe, that the core truth about Gordon was that he cared about responsibility more than about playing Establishment politics, playing leader or staying alive, then the man is definitely worth making a film about, and worthy his place in history. After an interesting but leisurely exposition of the region and the background to the Nile, the Sudan and its peoples, replete with lovely scenes, we witness the destruction of an ill-officered British army by the forces of 'The Expected One', a dangerous Muslim rebel. Back in England, Horace Gladstone, Prime Minister and Machiavellian politician, is appalled. There seems to be no solution to his problem of what to do next, until someone suggests getting General "Chinese" Gordon to risk his life opposing the new fanatic. They believe he would have to be crazy to do so; they tell him so. He agrees to go. So with no plan and what he discovers is a pat hand dealt by Fate against him, he heads to Egypt. He tries to get the slaver whose son he killed and whose power he reduced to be governor of the Sudan; the man refuses, angrily. He finds the Mahdi making headway, but he is received by the British in Khartoum and the populace as a savior. "It's good to be home," he tells them. But in truth, he is in a hornet's nest. Eventually, he has to pack all the foreigners out, and then he must fortify the city on the Nile; wait out the flood season while its heights keeps the invaders away, and eventually also he must conduct a great raid 1. to deprive the Mahdi of supplies; and 2. to provision the city. Then there is a wait--as a relief army by a reluctant Gladstone is trained, and straggles up the Nile to relieve him--three days too late.

Laurence Olivier as The Mahdi is marvelously equipped as an actor to suggest the subtleties and nuance of his character. He makes every gesture, every vocal intonation, every flicker of his eye suggest layers of dramatic depth. He is both opportunist and idealist,( or may we say fundamentalist?) His scenes with Heston are among the best in the film. Heston wisely leaves the pyrotechnics to Olivier(for whom he had much respect)and skillfully sticks to his 'natural' acting, unlike 'Moses' or the 'Cid'. So when his big nocturnal moment finally arrives, it is all the more effective. The scholars will argue The Mahdi and Gordon never met face to face. That is true, but as one of Mohammad Ahmed's relatives told Producer Julian Baustein, "Ah, but they should have!" The same can be said of Heston's big scene with Ralph Richardson as Prime Minister William Gladstone, they never met face to face either. Both are examples of history being altered to suit the needs of drama and rightfully so for both provide for some high powered acting and make for a better film. Richardson brings to his part all the shrewd, ruthless, deviousness of a savvy political animal determined to survive. Richard Johnson as Col. J.D.H. Stewart, Gordon's reluctant adjutant and later admirer gives a stiff upper lip performance in the best tradition of John Mills, while Michael Hordern as Lord Granville, Nigel Green as General Wolseley and Alexander Knox as Sir Evelyn Baring all give very effective supporting performances.

In the light of recent world events, this classic confrontation between Western Imperialism and Eastern Islamic fundamentalism(where you cannot say 'this is absolutely right and that is wrong!') makes "Khartoum" more topical than ever.

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