The holidays are over, and we’re back with this hamtastic historical epic. It’s about the 1885 Siege of Khartoum, in which a Mahdist army laid siege to and eventually captured Egyptian-held Khartoum, killing the British officer, Charles Gordon, who was supposed to be evacuating the city but instead was effectively commanding its defense. Cue fourteen more years of war and a lot of heroic portrayals of Gordon, including this one.
And hoo boy is Gordon heroic. That’s what you’re aiming for when you cast Charlton Heston to play someone, and Chuck delivers, portraying Gordon’s doomedness as a form of messianic self-sacrifice but still making him charming and human.
And of course, every hero needs a villain, and what better villain than … er … Laurence Olivier in dodgy brownface with a ridiculous accent?
It was a different age, I get that, but I’m not saying that they should have looked at Olivier’s performance and thought the brownface was inappropriate, I’m saying they should have looked at Olivier’s performance and seen that it was ass.
I have to admit, I have only known a few Sudanese people, and of course regional accents do vary, but I am almost certain that no one from anywhere, let alone Sudan, has ever sounded like Olivier going “my belivvereds, I am the Machdi, forrretold by the priffir Mehurrmerd.” And there are some bits where he’s quite good and clever in his tent showdowns with Gordon, but everything about his ridiculous part is working against him.
Anyway, there are fights, camels, unconvincing effects, and some really splendid uniforms. It has an overture, which is always nice, and it’s on UK Netflix at the moment. It’s weird in a fascinating way, or maybe fascinating in a weird way.
I would say that I liked its portrayal of British imperial policy as a mess of contradictions and compromises rather than a noble crusade or a diabolical plot, but since that is essentially the whole story of what Gordon was even doing in Khartoum in the first place, it would have to have that or totally fail as a story.