The film had an Oscar nominated script and a stellar cast which pitted Charleton Heston as famous British General Charles "Chinese" Gordon against Muhammad Ahmed who had proclaimed himself to be the "Mahdi, " and the plot involved the survival of Khartoum.
Ahmed was an ascetic Muslim Sudanese smitten with messianic needs. He preached Islam along lines suggesting a kinship with Wahhabism, and he fell totally in love with himself, to the point that he declared himself to be the "Mahdi," meaning "the expected one." He was to be the Muslim version of the returning Jesus, and he envisioned himself second only to Muhammad. Unlike Muhammad who died before the era of Muslim conquest could get underway fully and then peak, Ahmed saw himself as coming to rule all of Islamia. His goal was to purify laggard Muslims and to purge the land of infidels. Sound familiar?
Gordon, who had rid the Sudan of slave trading in the 1870s, was sent by the British government, Prime Minister Gladstone, to evacuate the Egyptians from Khartoum along with himself, and leave the city to its fate. Gordon was given no army of any size and had no support from the British government. He worked with what he had. Despite holding out ten months against the seige from Ahmed, militarily unsupported Khartoum was overrun in January 1885, and Gordon was murdered. Two days later, a johnny-come-lately British army which had been purposely dallying in Egypt for months arrived in Khartoum to save Gordon and the city. It was too late.
That story is worth telling by itself. The modern parallels are striking. Obviously, politicians took no lessons from the seige of Khartoum.
More striking however is the script for this movie. Gordon and Ahmed are drawn boldly as polar opposites contestants. One represents Western civilization and its values, and the other represents the full meaning and expression of Islam. The lesson is timeless: You cannot win against a committed enemy unless you have the will and the means to win.
The script has the men meeting twice. In fact, they never met, but that is factually immaterial to the art. As Westerners, we can imagine Gordon quite clearly as a powerful military leader upholding Western values. As Westerners, we do not so clearly imagine Muhammad Ahmed, aka the Mahdi. This is the great value of art because it reduces the Mahdi to perceptual form which we grasp immediately and fully as a concrete.
Laurence Olivier portrayed the Mahdi and did a superlative job. He voiced megalomaniacal Islam in its full, bloodthirsty form. He showed the type of thought disorder so common to this type of self-appointed Islamic leader who fuses his persona or self with Islam to become the selfless embodiment of the full meaning of Islam, thereby himself living in delusions of grandeur. Like every other megalomaniac, his thirst for blood and conquest became even more insatiable with every success. Like Muhammad, he personalized physical features to be stigmata of his destiny--he proclaimed that he was the Mahdi because of a mole on his cheek and a gap between his teeth. That suggests mental aberration close to, if not into, the psychotic level.
Mahdi insisted on killing the thousands of Egyptians in Khartoum so that the Nile would run red for a hundred miles. Why? He said they were not believers in him being the Mahdi. Muhammad was guiding him as were the sacred texts.
I suspect that Olivier's portrayal closely suggests what the original Muhammad may have been like in his Medina phase, the final and blood-thirsty stage of his career as despot.
Could this movie be made today, in 2005? Perhaps that can be answered by asking who in the film industry still has "cashews." The film industry has been cowed by the effects of postmodernism percolating into the culture the poison of political correctness and multiculturalism. The film industry of today, in general, now crawls.
"Khartoum" is film history and is available for viewing. It was made before political correctness and multiculturalism had become as prevalent as they are today. However, the effect of these was becoming felt as illustrated by the statement from film introducer on Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne. Mr. Osborne said that the film producer apologized to the Mahdi's grandson because the movie fictionalized meetings between Gordon and Ahmed. The grandson, we are told, said that the two men should have met. No apology of any kind was needed, and I apologize for writing that--it should not be necessary, but this is 2005.