No matter the length or depth of one's devotion, it is impossible to know about, let alone see, all the films created since the invention of the motion-picture camera in the 1880s. I have been watching and learning about movies for over 40 years, less than a third of the medium's history, and yet I was still surprised I hadn't heard about 'Khartoum' before its release by Twilight Time.
It is an epic film shot on 70 mm, but I have no memory of it screening during the many series devoted to that format over the years. It stars two extremely popular actors, Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier, and not only have I never seen it playing on television or cable, but I don't even remember seeing clips of it or hearing other people write or talk about either. After watching it, I now know why, as it is a bit of a bore as far as epics go, coming across like a poor imitation of 'Lawrence of Arabia'.
'Khartoum' is named after the Sudanese city that was the focus of a rebellion led by Muhammad Ahmad (Olivier made up in dark Arab face) against British and Egyptian forces in the mid-1880s. After Colonel William "Billy" Hicks (Edward Underdown) loses a great battle and number of men to Ahmad's forces, Prime Minister William Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) and other politicians meet to determine if they can win, or leave without losing face.
General Charles Gordon (Heston) is recommended because of his previous ties to the area, which include his stopping the slave trade. Gladstone is concerned because of Gordon's religious beliefs and headstrong nature, making him difficult to control, but another politician sees that as an opportunity to make Gordon the scapegoat if the mission to evacuate the city's inhabitants fails. Although told the government would publicly disavow his assignment, Gordon took it on any way, but then decides Khartoum should not be given up.
The film is at its best during the battle sequences, which were shot under the guidance of second unit director Yakima Canutt. Two occur in the open desert, during the day and at night (although the day-for-night shooting doesn't make for the best visuals); one takes place on a river with fighting on water and land; and one occurs within the walled city of Khartoum. The shots are well composed, as they made the most of the expanded frame, filling it with many extras and much activity. That's why it's a shame the rest of the film is forgettable.
As the first battle commences, the audience has been given no one to connect with, so the outcome is meaningless. Maybe in '66, the British were given the presumption of being the good guys in the right, but that automatic designation is not granted nowadays. Gordon's desire to save the city seems based on little more than stubbornness. It seems reasonable for the Sudanese wanting to reclaim their land from the British and Egyptians, but Ahmad suggesting he will kill anyone who doesn’t acknowledge he is the prophesized one known as the Mahdi and that he wants to take over the world loses all sympathy for his plight. If neither party is an appealing victor, the conflict loses all interest. Heston and Olivier have their best moments together in part because the characters see similarities in one another, but it rarely happens.
'Khartoum' shows potential as it gets the epic parts right, but it falls short in the more important elements of story and characters that make a film succeed.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Khartoum' is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a blue ecocase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a six-page booklet containing notes by film historian Julie Kirgo.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 2.76:1. The colors come through in bold hues. The soldiers wear dark red fezzes and their uniforms are accurate whites. Black levels are strong. During the opening travelogue-type shots, the green vegetation alongside the river contrast well with the tan sands. Also in these scenes, fine details can be seen in components of the wicker baskets as well as the textures in the aged columns that bare intricate carving designs.
Film grain is apparent. When seen against the sky, it is very noticeable. It is close to becoming too busy, but stops short of being distracting. The image looks very good throughout, but a few flaws pop up on occasion. At 9:25, there's a flicker as the camera approached a large land mass. At 10 minutes, there's an odd discoloration, almost like spots of light, briefly streaming down far right side of the frame. I also noticed a white speck once. No major digital artifacts were seen.
I should also mention, through no fault of the transfer, the night battle looks poor because of the filters used to create day for night. Clarity and depth are greatly diminished during this sequence and the rear projection is rather obvious.
The audio is available in English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The film opens with a majestic Overture that fills the speakers and the orchestra reveals strong dynamics and there's great clarity in the instruments. The track sounds clean and free of defect. Voices are properly positioned in the fronts.
The effects come up a little short. During a battle, when trying to create space, effects attempting to sound as if in the distance come across flat. The explosions are not as powerful as expected, needing more bass and loudness.
Available in a limited edition of 3,000 copies, this Twilight Time release should satisfy 'Khartoum' fans with the Blu-ray's high-def specs. Unfortunately the failings of the script don't outweigh the action, causing me to hesitate recommending the film outright. This is best for fans.