Heroism, jihad on the shores of the Nile

1966 Heston-Olivier film leads naturally to reflections on the war in Iraq


May 30, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Some critics scoff at moviemakers who aim to be "timeless" and take refuge from contemporary chaos in fantasy and history. But writers and directors who train a piercing eye on the past often shed more light on today's news than filmmakers who tear their stories from the headlines. Take this scenario for a foreign misadventure movie:

Once hailed for liberating an Islamic country from tyranny, a Western commander learns that a messianic extremist and his army have massacred thousands of troops and laid waste to native towns. Our hero goes to an endangered city to achieve a temporary peace and evacuate the populace, but discovers that his enemy plans to devastate it and raise international jihad. A man of faith himself, this Christian soldier has underestimated his antagonist's spiritual and military strength. What's worse, his government hesitates to commit the troops he needs to withstand the Islamic holy warriors. When fresh soldiers do arrive by sea, they require weeks and months of training. The jihadists raze the city and slaughter its inhabitants. Relief arrives two days late.

It may sound like a rough draft of Dubya's War. But it's the tale of British military legend Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon and his doomed joust with the Mahdi ("the expected one") in 1884 and '85, as fictionalized in the 1966 feature Khartoum. (The movie looks spectacular on DVD.)

The differences are as striking as the similarities. Like Bush, Gordon was a Christian who looked for guidance from his faith. Unlike Bush, he was an actual military hero, idolized in China for defending the Emperor during the Taiping Rebellion (also fueled by mystical fanatics) and revered both in Africa and England for running slave traders out of the Sudan. Like Bush's generals, he fought the Mahdi army, currently the name of Moktada al-Sadr's militia attacking Westerners in Iraq. Unlike Bush, he prized negotiation. (In the film, he meets the Mahdi twice.)

Yet the clashes between their stories enrich rather than diminish Khartoum as a source of understanding for East-West conflicts in our new millennium. Movies like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Battle of Algiers (1965) boast more relevant images of desert and urban warfare (respectively) and of tribal clashes and emerging nationhood (also respectively). But their surface connection to current events compels viewers to accept analyses of imperial conquest and colonialism as explanations for America's invasion of Iraq, no matter how awkward the fit.

Heroism in earlier time

Khartoum isn't in the same cinematic league as those two productions, and it isn't as political or trenchant. But its philosophic distance allows a viewer to muse on historical parallels without coercion. Written by Robert Ardrey, author of The Territorial Imperative, and directed by the always solid, rarely inspired Basil Dearden, this film is a ruminative action movie about heroism. It stars two heroic actors: Charlton Heston as Gordon and Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi.

In the 1960s, Charlton Heston was a prominent civil rights activist, not the firebrand conservative that Michael Moore made him out to be in Bowling for Columbine. At the time, Olivier was more controversial for his black-face Othello -- and for the Mahdi, Olivier draws on the broad theatricality he mastered for that part. Both actors embraced Khartoum's underlying theme: the seductiveness and danger of a leader's pride.

The movie starts with a gorgeous visual essay on the Nile done by Time-Life photographer Eliot Elisofon. Ardrey's narration weaves in his notion of the territorial imperative, a primal impulse that drives animals to mark and defend a place. The vastness of the African desert and of the Nile, whose two branches meet at the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, are at the center of the story. But so are images of godlike kings who construct monuments to vanity like pyramids and Sphinxes.

Vastness and vanity are not political terms, but the moviemakers quickly demonstrate their political importance. Egypt sends an army of 10,000 under a British commander, William Hicks (Edward Underdown), to quash the rebellion in its Sudanese territory and to quell British fears about the Suez Canal's safety. Hicks exhausts his troops during the long pursuit southward, and the Mahdi's men, in classic guerrilla fashion, swoop down with swords, crude spears and firebombs to ambush well-armed soldiers.

Back in England, Prime Minister William Gladstone splutters in disbelief that primitive warriors have been able to annihilate a "modern" army. If the concepts of vastness and vanity don't sound alarms in contemporary psyches, surely this expression of Western hubris will.

Rescue, or die trying

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