Another Perspective

Enjoying a Little Unrectified History

Khartoum, before we knew Ridley Scott.

By 1.26.04

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Recently, my brother e-mailed me a link to a story in the London Sunday Telegraph about a new movie Kingdom of Heaven now under production. The movie, directed by Ridley Scott of Gladiator and Blackhawk Down fame, tells the story of the events leading up to the battle of Hattin in 1187 where Saladin defeated the Christian forces under King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem -- resulting in the eventual loss of the Holy Land to the forces of Islam. The film purports to be "a fascinating history lesson." Unfortunately (though not surprisingly), the "fascinating history lesson" is a false one, and one that defames the Knights Templar and the West, while portraying Saladin as a hero.

The Telegraph article quotes Britain's leading authority on the Crusades, Jonathan Riley-Smith, as saying of the film, "It's Osama bin Laden's version of history. It will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists." He goes on further saying, "It's rubbish. It's not historically accurate at all. They refer to [Sir Walter Scott's] 'The Talisman,' which depicts the Muslims as sophisticated and civilized, and the Crusaders are all brutes and barbarians. It has nothing to do with reality." Even the French historian Amin Maalouf, author of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, comments: "It does not do any good to distort history, even if you believe you are distorting it in a good way. Cruelty was not on one side, but on all."

Indeed. Though Saladin, the hero of Ridley Scott's story, was widely celebrated, even in the West, for his examples of magnanimity, he could also be as cruel and barbaric as anyone else, even to fellow Muslims, as when he crucified opponents to his rule in Cairo. And though the Crusaders were often poorly led and often committed brutal actions, it is usually forgotten that the Crusades were a short-lived counter-offensive in a long (and usually brutal) history of Islamic military expansion (which continued into the 17th century when Islamic armies were finally defeated at the gates of Vienna).

A spokesman for Ridley Scott, however, counters that they are "trying to be fair, and we hope that the Muslim world sees the rectification of history."

INTERESTINGLY, JUST HOURS BEFORE I OPENED this e-mail, I was listening to the outstanding, but sadly under-appreciated score of another movie that dealt with a real-life conflict between the West and the Muslim world -- the 1966 British classic Khartoum. The brilliantly rousing and evocative score by Frank Cordell is, in fact, better than the movie. I obtained my current copy of the score by finding an original LP on E-bay a couple years ago (to my knowledge it has, unfortunately, never been recorded on any other medium for commercial distribution). The film itself is marred by some really bad painted backdrops and the film critic Leonard Maltin is somewhat justified in calling it "too talky," but it is a great story.

For those of you not familiar with the story of the siege of Khartoum of 1884-85, shame on you. But at least you are reading the right column.

In the early 1880s, a Muslim fanatic who took the title of the Mahdi, thinking himself to be a prophesied Messiah, led a revolt against Egyptian authority in the Sudan, and in 1883 routed an Egyptian force led by a British officer sent to deal with him. British Prime Minister William Gladstone, having just intervened militarily to put down a coup in Egypt that had threatened British interests there, was not keen on getting Britain involved in the Sudan (in which he saw no British interests). He, nonetheless, dispatched a famed war hero, General Charles Gordon, to Khartoum, Sudan's capital, to organize the evacuation of the Europeans living there as well as the Egyptian garrison.

Gordon was widely celebrated in England as a devout, though quirky, evangelical Christian (though when posted to positions of authority in Muslim countries, he always respected Muslim traditions and encouraged the people to practice their religion, never trying to convert them). He became known as "Chinese" Gordon after successfully leading the "Ever Victorious Army" on behalf of the Emperor of China during the Taiping Rebellion. But Gordon was also no stranger to the Sudan. At the behest of the Khedive of Egypt, he had earlier served as governor of one of its provinces, Equatoria, and as Governor-General of the Sudan, itself. In these posts he distinguished himself as an incorruptible administrator and a shrewd military tactician, and he successfully suppressed the slave trade run by powerful Arab Muslims. Gordon's displays of courage, devout manner, and his "flashing eyes" even caused some Sudanese to think that Gordon was the new Prophet the Mahdi claimed to be. Gordon's return to Khartoum in early 1884 was, therefore, celebrated by the locals.

Gordon dutifully evacuated thousands of the city's women and children. But he had no intention of leaving Khartoum and the rest of the Sudan to the mercy of the Mahdi (who did not have Saladin's reputation for magnanimity) and he made clear to the British government the he, and the Egyptian garrison, would stay to defend the city. He immediately started work on the city's defenses, relying heavily on the rising waters of the Nile (Khartoum is situated at the confluence of the White and Blue Niles) which provided a natural barrier, at least through November or so when the waters would start to recede. By April, the Mahdi's forces had surrounded Khartoum and cut the telegraph lines linking the city to the outside world.

Gladstone was, of course, furious. Nonetheless, he was eventually compelled by political pressure to send a relief expedition to save the famous hero. On January 17, 1885 the relief force, headed by General Garnet Wolseley, defeated a Mahdist army and two days later the advance column reached the Nile at El-Metemmah with orders from Wolseley to commandeer anything that could float and to make haste for Khartoum. As it happened, Gordon had previously dispatched four steamers to El-Metemmah with the hopes that they would find the rumored relief force. Inexplicably, the advance force waited three days before sailing. On January 28th the vanguard of Wolseley's army finally arrived in sight of Khartoum. Unfortunately, in the pre-dawn hours of January 26th -- just two days before -- the Mahdi's forces crossed the fallen Nile, breached the city's defenses, and slaughtered the woefully outnumbered Egyptian garrison, as well as many of the residents who had remained defiant of the Mahdi.

HOW GENERAL GORDON MET HIS FATE is not exactly known. The most dramatic version, and hence the one used in the film, has Gordon stepping out of the Governor-General's palace as the Mahdist forces break into the palace compound. As he makes himself seen at the top of the stairs above the palace's courtyard, the Mahdist swarm temporarily halts, in awe of the Great Man, until one warrior throws a spear into Gordon's chest.

Like almost any dramatization, Khartoum is not without historical inaccuracies, though its are minor transgressions and are solely for dramatic purposes rather than to promote a PC agenda. For instance, the film portrays the Mahdi (Sir Laurence Olivier) as respecting Gordon (Charlton Heston) and regretting Gordon's death. In actuality, the Mahdi had Gordon's decapitated head stuck on a pole where his men threw rocks at it until its features were cut away. Gordon's body was thrown down a well.

Though the Mahdi died of typhus just five months later, his rebellion was not put down until 1898 when Lord Kitchener defeated his followers at the battle of Omdurman just outside of Khartoum.

If you have not seen this movie, I recommend that you go to your local video store right now to try to find it. I should warn you, however, that in Khartoum Gordon is unashamedly portrayed as the hero. So if you think George Bush has blood on his hands for taking out the Butcher of Baghdad, you may find this film morally confusing. And if you, like senator Patty Murray, think Islamic militants are motivated to kill infidels because of a lack of Western provided health clinics and day care facilities and can be mollified with a little self-flagellation, you will probably prefer Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven.

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About the Author
Brandon Crocker is the chief financial officer of a commercial real estate development and management company in San Diego.