Resonance on the Nile (1/3)

Got into a funny mood Friday and decided to watch Khartoum. Wanted to see how Twelver doctrines would be managed by Hollywood in 1966. (A taste or two of scotch suggested this might be fun research.) Wonderful surprise: streams of Civil War associations flowing through most every Cineramic scene.

In the first place there is the Garnet Wolseley character. Wolseley was probably the highest ranking foreigner to extensively analyze the ACW. He was personal friends with Lee, whom he idolized, and he spent time with all of Lee's generals as well as McClellan. An intense admirer of Jacksonian dash, his relief of Khartoum was portrayed in the film as mixture of time-wasting over-preparation mixed with a professionalism that embraced the political treachery of his civilian superiors.

Next, there is the Prime Minister Gladstone character, portrayed as a blend of Lincolnian populism and Stantonish doubledealing. The real Gladstone we remember as a hawk favoring intervention in the ACW and author of the phrase, Jeff Davis had "made a nation." In the film, this Gladstone lives out the old charges that Lincoln held back McClellan by holding back the relief of Khartoum with politically expedient instructions to Wolseley.

At the center of the film is the Charles "Chinese" Gordon character (right), who made his name at the head of "The Ever Victorious Army." This Ever Victorious Army served the Manchus and was recruited, trained, fought, and it earned its name under the greatest American Civil War general who never was, Frederick Townsend Ward, killed leading an attack on September 22nd 1862. That Gordon could fill Ward's shoes "made him" in the publicity sense. (By the way, try matching the record of your favorit ACW division against that of the "Ever Victorious" for an eye opening experience.)

Gordon's Civil War connection was with William Wing Loring. Egypt had colonized the Sudan and Gordon served Egypt as governor there at the same time that Loring served Egypt as its chief general. Both men were caught up in the Ethiopian invasion of Egypt in 1875; Gordon, on a peace mission was imprisoned, resigning his post on release. Loring was sacked after a military disaster at the hands of the Ethiopians.

The film starts 10 years after the Loring/Gordon windup. The Gordon character is sent on an impossible mission with no resources and total responsibility. On screen he is given to less bombast than the real item. He drinks brandy, reads the Bible, drinks brandy, prays, drinks brandy, takes some extravagant risk, etc. It's a nice rythm that lasts until his head is placed on a stick. Speeches, Gordon has none. He does get into dueling monologues with the Hidden One.

The Mahdi character (right) is over the top, but Olivier somehow makes us accept him after a few scenes. He has to be compelling and viable in terms of viewer interest while being merciless, self-absorbed, prickly, unstable, and prone to rhetoric as fresh as today's Jihadi websites. A prescient portrayal, this is the one major character who has no connection with the ACW. His connection to pop history is worth a word, however.

In the 1950s and '60s accounts of the Mahdi's revolt, pop historians (as always) were obsessed about troubling readers with detail; they avoided their duty to explain how a Shi'ite Twelfth Imam or Hidden Imam revolt would break out in in Sunni Sudan, applying a misleading emphasis on the Mahdi's "dervish" props (e.g., patched cloaks). Applying a "dervish" label to the movement solves a literary problem as dervishes are exotics populating both sides of the Muslim divide.

I still don't know how a Twelver revolt started there, but at least Khartoum, the movie, strips away every vestige of this historians' expedient. That there are other liberties taken in the film - well, I'm willing to grant those in exchange for purging the word "dervish." The film simply presents the Mahdi character "as he is" - mysterious. Good enough.

This seems like the time to visit Wolseley's comments on the Civil War and match them against his Khartoum expedition leadership. Will post on that soon.