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In 1883, 10,000 untrained British troops in Sudan are lured into the desert and slaughtered by Arab tribesmen under the leadership of the Mahdi, a religious fanatic who believes he is the "expected one of Mohammed." As a result of the massacre, Britain's Prime Minister William Gladstone reluctantly sends one of England's great military men, Gen. Charles Gordon, to Khartoum with orders to evacuate troops and civilians. Gordon, a brandy and Bible loving soldier nicknamed "Chinese" because of the 6 years he spent in the East eliminating the centuries-old slave traffic, is told that his mission must remain unofficial and that he has no authority to act in the name of the Queen. Although Gordon is hailed in Khartoum as a savior, he and his only aide, Col. J. D. H. Stewart, are unable to negotiate with the Mahdi. Instead they are told that the streets will run with blood and every man, woman, and child will die. In England, Gladstone, informed of the increasing hopelessness of the situation, orders Gordon home; but, as fanatical in his own right as the Mahdi, Gordon refuses. Following the murder of Stewart, a final confrontation takes place between the two men, and both assert that they welcome death if dying brings about the destruction of their enemy. Soon, Gordon's small army faces the onslaught of 100,000 Arabs. Khartoum falls, and Gordon is slain by a dervish's spear. His head is mounted on a pole and brought before the Mahdi. Outraged, the Mahdi screams that he forbade such an action. Some months later, the British, under the command of Major Kitchener, retake the besieged city and Gordon is honored as a national hero.