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Vanity on the Nile
Khartoum (1966)

Khartoum [1]1,838 words

In the 1960s, there was a series of nostalgic, pro-colonial movies [2]. One of them is Khartoum (1966). Although produced and directed by different people, Khartoum is a prequel to an earlier pro-British Empire classic, The Four Feathers (1939). Ralph Richardson had a role in both movies, playing Prime Minister William E. Gladstone in Khartoum.

The British have a strange pride in their actions in the Sudan. A host of British heroes served there in some way: the famous Lord Kitchener (of Khartoum), Winston Churchill, and the founder of the Chindits, Orde Wingate, were all veterans of the place.

One wonders if lingering pride in the British involvement in the Sudan gave impetus to the virtue signaling that caused international recognition of the latest black-run failed state, South Sudan. No doubt the faddish concern over the Sudan’s Darfur province — peak fashion around 2008 — was also influenced by this nostalgia.

The story of Khartoum is about the last stand of Governor-General Charles “Chinese” Gordon (1833 to 1885), played by Charlton Heston.[1] The historical “Chinese” Gordon was an adventuring British officer who had served successfully in a terrible civil war in China and had been posted to the Sudan in the 1870s on behalf of the both the British and Egyptian governments.

After his first tour in Sudan was up, Gordon returned to England. After he left, trouble arose in the Sudan. An Arab tribal leader Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah proclaimed himself “the Mahdi” and started to gain followers and take over territory. In Islamic eschatology the Mahdi, a warrior-prophet, is supposed to arise in the last days of mankind, when he will establish Islamic justice on Earth.

In Khartoum, the Mahdi is portrayed in “brown face” by Laurence Olivier. He successfully defeats an Egyptian Army led by a British Officer named William Hicks. This defeat immediately plunges Prime Minister Gladstone into a political crisis. Egypt was a protectorate of the British Empire, which was expanding into the Sudan. However, the Sudan was not a money-making venture, and its occupation was risky. Gladstone wanted to stay out.

Gladstone’s problem was that the British voting public was fully supportive of expansion. Gladstone was stuck needing to “do something.” He decided to send “Chinese” Gordon to please the “churchmen” and “anti-slavery people” by evacuating the Egyptians and Europeans from Khartoum. Gordon, driven by a mix of vanity and religious fanaticism, stays behind in Khartoum, organizes a defense, and causes the Gladstone government a great deal of trouble. At the end of the siege, Gordon dies gloriously, a perfect example of Victorian values. In the movie Khartoum, Gordon’s death scene is glamorously treated. Gordon’s death in 1885 was avenged by a large British and Egyptian army at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 (excellently portrayed in the aforementioned 1939 movie, The Four Feathers).

Alt-Right themes aren’t as paramount in Khartoum as other pro-colonial movies such as The Sand Pebbles filmed at the same time, other than stating the obvious, that white rule is always better than non-white rule. And yet the movie has some ideas that can be explored within the Alt-Right framework.

The White Savior Narrative

Essentially, the movie is the standard white-savior narrative.[2] The white savior concept can be quite insidious, and not merely because it upsets alienated mulattoes in politically correct post-colonial studies departments, but because white governments can get wrapped up in Third World quagmires based on the wrong-headed idea that it is possible to turn the Third World into a First World civilization. Additionally, talented whites end up wasting resources in non-white uplift schemes.

In Khartoum, “Chinese” Gordon is the epitome of a white savior. He carries and comforts a young black girl during a barrage. His manservant is a Negro he personally freed from slavery in his first tour in the Sudan. Pasha Gordon is revered by these people, and the reverence is almost as syrupy as the blacks worshiping Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. This is tempered by the very realistically portrayed fear and moral collapse of the residents of Khartoum as the siege wears on.

In most movies the white savior’s enemies are other whites, and the negative consequences of the white savior’s actions are not explored. Happily, this is not the case in Khartoum. The enemy is the Islamic, non-white Mahdi. Additionally, “Chinese” Gordon’s original plan is to evacuate the Egyptians and Europeans from Khartoum and leave the place under the control of Zobeir Pasha, played excellently by Zia Mohiuddin. Zobeir makes it clear he would fight the Mahdi if the British government asked him to, but Gladstone’s policy is to not make a stand in Khartoum. It is Gordon’s idea to put Zobeir in charge, but the former slaver refuses to help because Gordon had executed Zobier’s son or sons for slave trading during his first tour in the Sudan.

The problem with white saviors is that their efforts are simply vanity projects, which enjoy limited success only if backed by the bayonets of white soldiers. When the soldiers leave, the Third World returns. As Khartoum’s narrator says, “A world with no room for the Gordons is a world that will return to the sand.” The real life “Chinese” Gordon only partially stopped slavery on his first tour in the Sudan. His native Egyptian and Arab bureaucracy undermined him throughout his tour. White saviors are only really successful in the movies or as status seekers giving reports to fellow believers in a church somewhere. The white Anglican bishops who fought against Apartheid in South Africa all fled to England after black rule started, and yet in England they are saints.

The Truth About Islam

Khartoum starts with the narrator saying,

All the Nile’s recollections have several things in common. There’s always God for instance, or if you prefer, the gods. It seems to have been quite impossible to live beside this river and not to have visions of eternity. And there’s always mystery. You never quite know, you wind up with a few questions that no one can answer. One more thing. Why is it that everything was always so big, outsized — larger than life? Vanity? Perhaps — or visions. Vanity was always mixed up with vision, and that’s part of this story too.

Thus the movie clearly lays out the framework for the religious clash that occurred in 1885.

The narrator’s emphasis on religion could have misled the (then) young Baby Boomers to think this is the story of spiritually-driven individuals fighting out of idealistic motives. Today, with ISIS beheading videos available online, the nature of the Mahdi Army in the Sudan in 1885 is far clearer. They were brutes, and Islam was then, as today, merely rapine and plunder with a religious veneer. While “Chinese” Gordon was a vain white savior, he was indeed standing up against a vicious enemy. As the narrator says at the end of the film, “[F]or fifteen years the Sudanese paid the price with pestilence and famine, the British with shame and war.”

Khartoum also shows that the Mahdi’s first target was the established powers in the Islamic World. Much like the late Osama bin Laden, and the current ISIS terrorist group, Muslim terrorists often focus their efforts on “decent” fellow Muslims.

Muslims, even the sorry welfare mooches in the suburbs of France, are more dangerous today than the highly talented Mahdi and his army because modern Islamists are able to connect to a fantastic worldwide transportation network. During the British re-conquest of the Sudan in 1898, the lines of transportation and communication were so undeveloped that the British spent an enormous effort creating supply lines from Egypt to Khartoum.

Winston Churchill described the journey of a box of biscuits in his account of the campaign. After describing the different legs of the journey, by rail, riverboat, and camel, Churchill goes on to say “The road taken by this box of biscuits was followed by every ton of supplies required by 10,000 men in the field. The uninterrupted working of the long and varied chain was vital to the welfare of the army and the success of the war. It could only be maintained if every section was adequately supplied and none were either choked or starved. This problem had to be solved correctly every day by the transport offices, in spite of uncertain winds that retarded the boats, of camels that grew sick or died, and of engines that regularly broke down.”[3]

In other words, the Sudan was so isolated that the Mahdi Army could never jeopardize Cairo or London. The Mahdi Army, after taking Khartoum in 1885 became bottled up by its own isolation. The Mahdi insisting that he would wear a Chinese robe after the Emperor of China converted to Islam was a ridiculous conceit in in those days.

Today, the situation is considerably different. Improvements in transportation, explosives, and weapons  make a Muslim warrior-prophet a serious concern no matter where he is. Starting from Khartoum a person can travel to Europe in a few hours and across the world in a day. In Churchill’s day few Muslims lived in Europe. There were no Mahdi sympathizers in London to protest the British attack on the Sudan. Today Muslims live in large numbers in nearly every Western European country, and their “community organizers” can threaten Europe with riot and discord with little provocation.

Isolation is no longer a factor; the Mahdi army won the desert in 1885. Today they can win the world.

Khartoum shows the truth of Lothrop Stoddard’s warning about Muslims,

The World of Islam, mentally and spiritually quiescent for almost a thousand years, is once more astir, once more on the march.

Whither? We do not know. Who would be bold enough to prophesy the outcome of this vast ferment — political, economic, social, religious, and much more besides?”[4]

Indeed, the next Mahdi is already on the way. Like “Chinese” Gordon, we need to be ready for him.[5]


1. “Chinese” Gordon has a prestigious school named after him. http://www.gordons.surrey.sch.uk/ [3]

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_savior_narrative_in_film [4]

3. Winston Churchill, The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000), p. 181

4. Lothrop T. Stoddard, The New World of Islam, , (Washington D.C.: Ross and Perry), p.  355.

5. It seems that there is nothing new under the sun. When the news came that Ambassador Stevens and his comrades were killed by Islamic fanatics in Benghazi, the story of “Chinese” Gordon sprang to my mind. However, there is several critical differences. Ambassador Stevens was not disobeying orders in Libya. His government’s deliberate policy was one that turned Libya into the violent basket-case that turned on the American Ambassador and his aides.

“Chinese” Gordon was violating orders in organizing a defense of Sudan. His prime minister (rather wisely) did not wish to embroil Britain in a dubious adventure in the desert. The truth is, while the Mahdi’s extremist vision of Islam was bad for people in Khartoum, the people of Khartoum were irrelevant to the British people.

In both cases the politicians involved, Prime Minister William Gladstone and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suffered political harm due to the affair.