Khartoum (1966)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Richard Johnson, Ralph Richardson
Extras: Trailer

"Khartoum" is one of those classic, sweeping historical epics from the waning days of Hollywood’s golden years. Likely an attempt to follow on the heels of 1962’s critically-acclaimed "Lawrence of Arabia, " "Khartoum" also features an exotic desert setting and a clash between colonial (in this case British) forces and local Muslim tribes.

Set in British-controlled Sudan, the film stars Charlton Heston as General Charles "Chinese" Gordon and Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi. Sent to the capital city of Khartoum, Gordon must protect the inhabitants from attack by the fanatic Muslim forces while at the same time attempting to come to terms with the mysterious Mahdi. While the two men do come to admire one another, there’s no stopping the inevitable clash between cultures and the bittersweet and violent ending is not one that either man had hoped for.

The film is based on actual events but it does take some liberties with the facts. General Gordon was a fervently religious and eccentric wisp of a man who bore little resemblance to the steely-jawed Charlton Heston and in real life he never once actually met face to face with the Mahdi. Nevertheless, the movie manages to offer an even-handed account of this little known Victorian-era confrontation. Issues such as religion, racism, and the politics of colonialism are all explored in great detail. While the film opens and closes with some rousing battle scenes, the bulk of the movie is much more deliberately paced and dialogue-oriented than one might at first expect.

The two leads manage to put on decent enough performances with Heston reigning in his usually over-the-top acting style and Olivier managing to imbue the Mahdi with no small amount of character even beneath all the makeup.

MGM’s new DVD preserves all the frills of the original theatrical showing with the 4-minute overture, 2-minute intermission and entr’acte, and 2 minutes of exit music preserved and presented with simple text on a black background.

"Khartoum" was billed upon its release as being a Cinerama film. While designed to be projected in Cinerama theaters with their giant curved screens, the film was shot using the Ultra Panavision 70mm procedure and not the better known 3-strip Cinerama process (you’ll not see the three vertical splice marks indicative of the original process). As such, it isn’t a true Cinerama film but it did feature a very <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio of 2.75:1. Later showings on regular theater screens reduced the size of the image down to 2.35:1 and this is the format found on the DVD release. Cinerama buffs will likely be disappointed but this is always a tricky issue and without knowing the details of what source materials were available for this transfer I don’t feel qualified to rail against MGM.

The transfer is <$16x9,anamorphic>ally enhanced and looks quite good on DVD. Colors are a bit washed out but this only adds to the dusty, desert look. Black levels aren’t quite able to handle the darker scenes but those are few and far between. There are some minor nicks and blemishes but the source elements appear to have been in fine shape. The overall image is soft and lacking fine detail in some scenes but thankfully there is no edge enhancement employed in an effort to artificially sharpen the picture. Stock footage is used to a great extent and sticks out like a sore thumb as it is in worse shape and is much grainier than the rest of the film. But, save for the quibbles over the proper aspect ratio, "Khartoum" looks grand on DVD.

Audio comes in English and Spanish <$DD,Dolby Digital> 3.0 Surround mixes. This is a nicely immersive soundtrack that makes full use of the surrounds for the score and sound effects while leaving the dialogue firmly anchored to the center speaker. Surprisingly, dynamic range is fairly good with clear, sharp highs and even some thumping bass which is especially apparent in the rousing musical score. An epic film deserves a lively soundtrack and "Khartoum" delivers on that front.

The only extra on the disc is the film’s theatrical trailer.

While "Khartoum" certainly doesn’t measure up to that other sweeping desert epic, "Lawrence of Arabia," it does offer an engaging story about a little-known historical event and will be of some interest to history buffs. It does drag at times and is much more a political drama than a war movie but the film still entertains and enlightens and somehow manages to make both sides in the conflict appear sympathetic.

MGM’s new DVD release offers up a wonderful cinematic experience with all the bells and whistles of the original Cinerama showing save for the extremely <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio. Video and audio quality are both surprisingly good and even a few minor complaints can’t detract from what is otherwise a splendid film offered in a solid DVD version and at an obscenely low price. "Khartoum" is most definitely recommended.