A painless and entertaining bout with history in the desert that reminds one of the superior Lawrence of Arabia, which reached greater heights in its character study and had more memorable moments. Robert Ardrey is the writer, who keeps it filled with detailed political intrigue (though it inaccurately presents a few face-to-face meetings that never happened with its hero–one with the British Prime Minister and the other with the Islamic jihadist).
Producer Julian Blaustein makes sure everything from the costumes to the weaponry are historically correct for this 19th century story. Basil Dearden’s (“Sapphire”/”Victim”/”Woman of Straw”) lush direction is backed up by the exciting battle scenes that were choreographed by noted Western stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt. American Charlton Heston is very good playing the famous heroic figure of British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, while Laurence Olivier darkens his skin and wears a white burnoose to get over playing the Mahdi, ‘The Expected One,’ a fanatical jihadist in the Sudan with visions of becoming the dominant leader in the Islamic world. The interiors were filmed at Pinewood Studios in England, but the actual location shots were in Egypt.
The scene is set in 1885 in Khartoum, Sudan. The Mahdi (Laurence Olivier) is the self-ordained Messianic leader of the Moslems in the Sudan, who promises his people miracles and delivers when his army of a few thousand using spears and swords annihilates a 10,000 men well-equipped, with rifles and canons, Egyptian army that were led in the desert fray by British Col. William Hicks. The sly British Prime Minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) has no intention of embarrassing his government in another failure in the Sudan and schemes to show the government is protecting the Egyptians–who are valued allies because they protect the Suez Canal–without really doing much. Gladstone sends on an unofficial mission the idealistic, mystical, Bible-spouting, hard drinking, vain and glory-seeking English hero General Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon and with him a dutiful aide, Colonel J.D.H. Stewart (Richard Johnson), without an army or any official power, as they try to get the Mahdi to refrain from attacking Khartoum. Gordon is world famous for having ended slavery in the Sudan and being the hero of the opium wars, the reason for his nickname of Chinese. After Gordon meets with the Mahdi, he learns that he can’t be talked out of his ambitions to slaughter those who oppose him as the leader of the Moslem world and to attack Khartoum. Gladstone refuses to send soldiers to Khartoum, but Gordon takes a fanatical stand not to leave as ordered but to remain alone in Khartoum during the attack by the Mahdi. As public opinion in England swings against Gladstone, he’s forced to send relief. But General Wolseley (Nigel Green) arrives two days too late, and the Mahdi’s army of 100,000 overrun Khartoum and kill Gordon with a spear, whose head is mounted on a pole and brought before the displeased Mahdi (having a vision this is not a good omen). A few months later the Mahdi would mysteriously die, and the British, under the command of Major Kitchener, would retake Khartoum.
It’s a visually stunning historical epic, smartly acted and lavishly produced, that gives one a good look at that period’s political intrigues but does little to tell us about the two religious zealots–Gordon and the Mahdi.