There is a neglected epic about the British defense of its fortification along the Nile in Sudan. Khartoum (1966) stars Charlton Heston as the mastermind of the ill-fated clash of cultures, while  Laurence Olivier plays the cunning leader of the Arab attackers. In a military disaster similar to that of Zulu Dawn. The Brits lose the battle. See also The Four Feathers (1939).

Khartoum  (1966)

This film begins splendidly with a rhapsody on millennia of history on the Nile, and sets the scene for the 19th century action in the Sudan.  The opening sequence shows a British army of 10,000 men marching through the desolate Sudanese desert in search of a rebel force.  They are ambushed and slaughtered.  Back at the home office, the Prime Minister (Ralph Richardson) is exasperated by the apparent dilemma of the situation.  It is decided that the only man who can help them is the legendary “Chinese” Gordon (Charlton Heston), famous for reckless courage, great vanity, and divine inspiration.  The Arab leader of the uprising, called the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier – doing his Othello turn), is equally inspired and declares himself Allah’s representative on Earth.  Gordon had been successful in the past with a campaign in China (earning him his nickname), and in eliminating the slave trade from the Sudan.  He returns to this place in triumph, and is joyfully welcomed by the people.  He rides across the desert, with no army, to speak with the Mahdi (this part is fiction).  He wishes to evacuate the Anglo-Egyptian forces from Khartoum, but the Mahdi will not allow it.  He is waging a holy war, and requires that all Islam will recognize him as the “expected one.”  The film wants to make a correlation between vanity and religious conviction (Solomon).  Gordon fortifies the city, and forces Britain to belatedly send an army to support him.  The situation in Khartoum becomes more desperate, but the British move slowly in hopes of forcing Gordon to come down river.  We see the army encamped at Abu Simbel (before the dam).  It is 1883, almost twenty years before the end of Victoria’s reign. The Mahdi summons Heston to his tent across the river for one last dialogue.  The Muslim Messiah wants Gordon to leave – “You are not my enemy.”  Gordon replies, “Oh, but I am.”  He says they are alike; they will both face death unafraid, but neither can accept failure.  They are creatures of vanity and faith and many will die in their shadows.  When the attack comes, it is fierce and massive.  Gordon faces his inevitable death with British resolve.  The Arabs bring his head to the Mahdi, who is repulsed.  He has won but he has lost.  Gordon will be remembered and he will be forgotten (perhaps this is only the British view).  The narration says that the rebel leader died not long after, and that “A world with no room for the Gordons is a world that will return to the sands.”  This is a film about the folly of Empire, and the ambitiousness of religion.  It is a forerunner to Lawrence of Arabia (see also Zulu – 1964) and a very well written film (by Robert Ardrey), with deep reflections on the tragedy of colonialism.  Maltin dislikes the film.  Though he appreciates the work of the two stars, Heston and Olivier, he feels it is “too talky for a spectacle.”  Maltin, in my opinion, is wrong.

 At the opposite end of the lower tier of North African countries is Mali, better known to the modern imagination for its capital city of Timbuktu. It is poorly represented in the movies with a Victor Mature misfire called Timbuktu (1940), and a Sophia Loren / John Wayne vehicle called Legend of the Lost (1957). It’s not easy to swagger in a sea of sand.

Morocco has done more to fire the modern imagination for romance and mystery in these countries than any other place. Casablanca (1942) is the classic, although it has far more to say about French occupation and world politics than it does about Moroccan culture. The source of Morocco’s deeper allure comes from its position at the western edge of the Sahara, making for often hostile encounters with Berber, Bedouin and Tuareg tribes. Debra Winger is captured and taken deep into the desert on a camel caravan in The Sheltering Sky (1990).  Rudolph Valentino’s “Sheik” movies aside (set in Algeria), the best-known desert captive in the movies is Candice Bergen in The Wind and the Lion (1975).

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