Released in 1966 KHARTOUM was produced at a time when the genre of the historical war epic was in decline. It dealt with the war in the Sudan in the 19th Century and how the British were dragged reluctantly into a conflict that they were ill prepared for and neither needed or wanted. It focuses upon the involvement of General Gordon or Chinese Gordon and how he is despatched by the British government to the troubled region in the hope that his presence alone might avert a war or at least give the British time to prepare for one. The film has at its core the subsequent siege of Khartoum the fall of the city and the death of General Gordon. The movie which was filmed on location in Egypt and along the banks of the Nile is a superb piece of British imperialism that evokes the religious convictions of Gordon and his love of the Sudan and its people, it also further evokes a sense of pomp, pride and honour which are three things that are at times lacking in the modern world. The film starred Charlton Heston as Gordon and also Sir Laurence Olivier in the role of the Mahdi who was responsible for gathering an army of desert tribesman and instructed them to make holy war at first on Egypt and then on the world. The Egyptians employed a British professional soldier Colonel William Hicks to take an army of over ten thousand men into the Sudanese desert to find the Mahdi and bring his holy war to an end, unfortunately the Mahdi found Hicks first after leading him further and further into the blistering desert and massacred the entire force. The films cast also included Nigel Green, Ralph Richardson, Richard Johnson, Alexander Knox and Michael Hordern who all delivered believable and memorable performances.
The music was provided by British composer Frank Cordell, and his stirring and Elgarish sounding soundtrack is still today considered an iconic work. Cordell was a composer who was probably more readily associated with the area of light music, but saying this he did make some interesting and significant contributions to the world of movie music and after having success with scores for films such as THE REBEL, THE CAPTAINS TABLE etc he decided to leave EMI and concentrate more fully on writing for the cinema.
His score for KHARTOUM however was one of his most inspired and certainly his strongest work for film. Other movies on which the composer worked included, FLIGHT FROM ASHIYA, RING OF BRIGHT WATER,CROMWELL, HELL BOATS, MOSQUITO SQUADRON, TUNES OF GLORY and DEMON. The soundtrack for KHARTOUM was originally released on a United Artist’s long playing record, and at the time of its release there were a number of copies that made it into the retail outlets that were two disc one sided LP,s which were on white labels.
The score cried out for release onto compact disc but a legitimate edition was not forthcoming and in 2001 ARTEMIS records in the U.K. issued the soundtrack on a recording paired with a suite from the composer score to RING OF BRIGHT WATER which had previously seen a release in 1981 on vinyl. The recording which was a limited edition included all the music from the original LP release plus it also included the opening prologue narration from the movie by Leo Genn. Although this was looked upon as a bootleg or illegal pressing, it looked and sounded like an official one and for me it still remains the best version or edition of the score to be released. The sound quality was for the most part very good and in stereo. The first “official” release of the score was issued in 2004 by FSM the record label of the FILM SCORE MONTHLY publication. This included a straight track for track copy of the LP release with obviously marginally better sound quality, the compact disc also featured the composers score for MOSQUITO SQUADRON which was a watered down version of 633 Squadron, but omitted the narration that was present on the previous CD release, the prologue was included but just the score. At first glance it does look as if the FSM version has more tracks than the Artemis edition, but the cues are exactly the same, its just that the FSM recording is sectioned off into cues rather than them running into each other as on the Artemis recording, but in a way this does add to the listening experience in my opinion. Both are very good releases with the FSM CD having the edge in the art work department, but for sound and content it has to be Artemis for me. Cordell’s magnificent and stirring central theme opens the recording in a glorious and highly regal sounding Overture that includes a number of the scores core themes, the overture was played in cinemas with the curtains closed and gave audience a taster for the ceremonial pomp and circumstances that were to follow in the movie. KHARTOUM is one of those scores that you can listen to without reaching for the fast forward button, every track is a triumph and a delight in fact it is a score that is heaven sent for all quality film music aficionados.
There are no highlights because the entire work is one big shining highlight, from the opulent and grand opening of the OVERTURE to the intimate and slightly imperialistic and apprehensive GORDON MEETS GLADSTONE and the dramatic and powerful CATTLE RAID plus the searing and mysterious UP THE NILE this is a soundtrack that is classic and epic in every way. Not got it yet!!!! Then what are you waiting for?