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The Imperialist Design of Khartoum

Article by Muhsin Khalid

Part Four

The Clowning of Olivier

Lawrence Olivier's portrayal of the Mahdi is compromised by overacting. 
His facial register is obviously exaggerated. His features shiver as though afflicted
by an overdose of a drug. He yells at his fighters when they bring him Gordon's 
head with an almost comic theatrical movement:  
Take it away from me!  
His lower jaw is dropped like a camel fed up salt in order to sell it puffy and swollen.
This excessive portrayal of the Mahdi defeats the desired outcome of the scene.

Laurence Olivier
Olivier as Othello (1965)
There is too much that is grasped by camera which would have looked more effective on stage. 
The mixing of film technique with that of the theater, if not done with full awareness of the subject, yields outright foolishness from head to tail. A similar mistake to this I find in Peterson Wolfgang's perspective in his film Troy when he makes Achilles (Brad Pitt), who is out to fight Hector, shout hysterically from below the walls of the city, as though he is on stage in an epic Greek play. This theatrical portrayal of Achilles as an impulsive and emotional person does not match with what is known about him as a solid and fearless fighter who slew his opponents without being emotionally fussy.
Brad Pitt
Olivier's excessive acting sheds away from him the persona of the Mahdi. He becomes totally incompatible with the spirit of the beast that was enjoyingly showing us his museum of body parts.
It would have been good if they had put words on the Mahdi's mouth as they had earlier. Steadfast, natural and logical words that indirectly praise Gordon but are in line with the defiant spirit of the beast. Say, have him address Gordon: You were a mean enemy and a strong opponent. I admit this to you but I bid you goodbye, intruder!
With a slight hint of sympathy on his face!
Such utterance would have lent them artistic credibility, besides historical correctness, and would have given Gordon a few more folds of what they intended to give him through the clowning of Olivier.
Charlton Heston
Unlike Olivier's, Heston's performance is sober. Perfectly and accurately expressing every
bit and nuance without clowning or falling short. See one of the greatest scenes in the clip below which begins with a passionate melody that exhales the dimming of anguish.
One of the most beautiful musical moments in this film; a very sad beginning that envisions the delicate situation that Gordon and his men find themselves.
Then we watch Gordon testing his war machines for suitability and readiness. Note how appealingly wise the way Heston executes his moves and steps! He is the wisest of his army, the leader on whose steadfastness others depend when the contest gets tough!
Satisfy your eyes on how Heston physically executes this scene so you can observe a defect in his leg that makes him slightly stumble. These are 'additions' by Heston, who is able, as a great artist, to project his spirit through history to invent such a beautiful and intelligent faltering step.
Here, stumbles the history of the man who exterminated, as far as he was enabled, the Russians and the Chinese. The great English officer who dealt with the Siege of Sevastopol in Russia, stumbles in the siege of Khartoum!
In Sevastopol the English, I mean the heirs of
imperialism, had also extended their lies and slanders on history, but there is an uncountable number of historical accounts to this story. There is a book (Sevastopol Sketches) inspired by this siege written by Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian writer.
Here inspects Gordon (Left: his Statue in London) his cannons and then takes those slightly faltering steps into a scene that summons all references and metaphors to seeing 'a knight stepping over cannons'! 
Then a soldier shouts from the top of the garrison:
Sir, the river!
As Gordon turns to see where his attention has been called, we are admitted to the huge scene of boats, packed with brave warriors filling the Nile, headed to the military embankments in Omdurman. A greater scene than that of the boats entering Troy in Wolfgang's movie Troy. For besides the production time difference (Khartoum being quite an old movie) Wolfgang's scenes of the boats on Troy were computer-generated and or multiplied by animation. Here, these are hundred percent real scenes of hired boats packed with extras. Tirelessly planned along the side of the river and skillfully directed via wireless.
As Gordon turns to see where his attention has been called, the director uses the music to split the scene in two, as if by a sharp blade. One part for before the emergence of the boats and the other for after they arise. Suddenly the moment of sad music disappears and different ambitious notes take over!
The menacing music never seizes but it fades to give way to other sounds. The victorious
shouts of the Mahdi warriors which appear to explode from every element in the wilderness. This masterful use of music does not stop, but proceeds to change its skin to evoke the feeling of despair which grows like a huge serpent (Asalah in the Cushite culture) or python. 
This interchange, of waning tones of despair with sudden shouts of "Allahu Akber" and cheers from the Mahdi fighters that appear to flow from the bushes and prairies, never seizes.
No way, then.
Charlton Heston                                                                                                                                            
The Ghouls are coming, by sea and by land, from every crack and in a little while the skies will be filled with vultures seeking their prey.
In all this bitterness that drools from holes in the sky, Gordon utters his words:
"So, in real?"
What is in real?
Reference here is made to the Mahdi's threat to Gordon in their earlier dialogue that he would take Khartoum by force.
Here it is becoming a walking reality.
Gordon turns in another elegant move to straighten the botton in the suit of the soldier next to him. A signal to composture and descipline from a leader who could care for the slightest detail
in such a critical situation. Note the expression on Gordon's mouth.
A perfection of physical performance from Heston that is promptly followed by his voice lamenting not his personal loss but the loss of the city!
"All right then, gentlemen!" This is our own fate and we will face it as fighters and soldiers.
Heston's performance is really great. If I had Oscars, I would give him a dozen!
He has conquered a whole river swarmed with boats packed with 'men from hell' by his great
professional appearance. A full range that burst with horsemen, Darwishes and vessels without a limit! He manages to pull the events from the realm of pathos as described by Nietzsche in his "The Antichrist" i.e ( ..closing one's eyes to oneself once and for all, lest one suffer the sight of incurable falsehood.)
By his superb performance, Heston has cured the incurable and indefensible falsehood of imperialism. Skills have enabled him to transform the excesses and graveyards of colonialism into 'sorrow' for the city he wanted to help grow and prosper as presumed by the movie. While 
it's people want it to grow on their hands! The hideous brutality visually conveyed on the second meeting between Gordon and the Mahdi makes one ask: where have I seen something as interesting as this? 

For me, I have seen something similar in "The Gladiator" where they depict the Moroccan Amazigh in this same fasion they used with the Mahdi.
The battle in "The Gladiator" begins when a native drinks his alcohol in the skull of  a Roman Apostole. The Greek ruler "Marcus Aurelius" whose life they reconstructed for the movie was known as a philosopher. The movie explains that this ruler sent his messenger to 'negotiate' with what was believed were 'barbarians'! Rome had deemed any one living outside its walls barbarian which is synonymous with brutal or bestial.

This word 'barbarian' is common in the ugly conflict of civilizations (people should not use it).
But it has another synonym! Terrorist. A word that some people want stamped on every moslim or eastern, for that matter.

End of Part Four 



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