After declaring a holy war to rid the Sudan of Anglo-Egyptian rule in the 1880s, the fanatical Sudanese leader Muhammad Ahmad (Laurence Olivier) massacres a British-led force of 8,000 and marches on the strategic city of Khartoum at the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The British government of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) then sends one of its greatest generals, Charles George Gordon (Charlton Heston), to Khartoum to make peace and save the city. Gordon had previously served with distinction in the Crimea, China, India and South Africa. Most important, he had also served as governor of the Sudan in the late 1870s at the request of the khedive of Egypt, instituting administrative reforms, reducing the slave trade and bolstering the economy. However, before Gordon reaches Khartoum with his aide, many of his former Sudanese friends defect to the Mahdi. Nevertheless, Gordon receives a rousing reception when he arrives in the city in February 1884. Heartened, he meets in the desert with the Mahdi to try to forge a peace agreement, but the Arab leader tells Gordon he is bent on taking Khartoum. What's more, he means to conquer other cities -- Cairo, Mecca, Baghdad and Constantinople -- to establish a vast empire under his leadership. Convinced that more war is inevitable, Gordon and the loyal Egyptian troops under his command prepare for battle. Meanwhile, in London, the Gladstone government is reluctant to dispatch troops to support the outnumbered Khartoum forces because colonial meddling has become bad politics. To forestall disaster, Gordon diverts the Nile to create a moat around Khartoum and leads a foray in which he steals cattle from the Mahdi's herd to supply the besieged city with food. But when the Nile recedes, the stage is set for the final battle that will decide the fate of Khartoum.
by Mike Cummings synopsis