The Ghost and the Darkness
Screenplay : William Goldman
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Michael Douglas (Remington), Val Kilmer (John Patterson), Tom Wilkinson (Beaumont), John Kani (Samuel), Bernard Hill (Dr. Hawthorne), Brian McCardie (Starling)
There has been a recent stagnation in action/adventure movies. It seems that the only way Hollywood can make our blood pound is with overblown cop, martial arts or spy movies. They all have dull, urban locations and pit man against man with car chases, gunfights and things exploding.
Although "The Ghost and the Darkness" is not the best film to come out this year, it does have the distinction of digging out some movie conventions that have been sorely missed for quite a while. The film is a celebration of male machismo at its rawest, and it will appeal to every hunter or anybody who every thought he wanted to be one. You have to ignore any posturing the film tries to do and enjoy it for what it is: man vs. nature in its truest sense, pitting two hunters against two man-eating lions in the dark heart of Africa. No helicopters. No fancy computer gadgets. No cars or trucks or tanks or F-16 fighter jets. And no aliens or pretentious tornadoes.
Just two animals and two men.
The film feels very much like "Jaws," but it is based a frightening bit of unexplained history that resulted in 130 human deaths. Screenwriter William Goldman moves the script along a narrative structure similar to Jaws, by mounting scene after scene of terror as the animal(s)-gone-beserk attack people, until no one is willing to take them on anymore except the wily hunters. In "Jaws," the hunter was Quint, played to delightful extremes by Robert Shaw. In "The Ghost and the Darkness," the hunter is Remington, played by Michael Douglas. He arrives half-way through the film with long gray hair and a full beard, but he never seems to truly inhabit the role. Instead, he looks like Michael Douglas playing dress-up.
The first half of the movie belongs to Val Kilmer, who flashes some of the biggest, whitest smiles in film history and has the standard Hollywood on-again, off-again Irish accent. He is Lt. Col. John Patterson, a bridge-builder who is commissioned by the British government to go to Tsavo in East Africa to build a bridge so the British can continue to build their railroad and and dominate the continent.
The locations (actually filmed on a reserve in South Africa) are nothing less than stunning. Veteran cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond captures the vast intensity of the landscape, proving that no scenic location in the world can compete with the glorious splendor of Africa. It's easy to see why the British were so enthralled with it.
Most of the action takes place in the area where the British have hired a multitude of African and Indian workers to lay railroad tracks. The trusty local (played by South African stage actor John Kani) stands by Kilmer even when the other locals begin to revolt out of fear when the lions (nicknamed "The Ghost" and "The Darkness")begin taking people one by one.
Of course, anyone who knows anything about lions knows they don't hunt in pairs, they don't particularly like human flesh, and the males rarely do any killing. But, that's what makes them so much more frightening. These lions are not supernatural or possessed, they are merely wild animals acting out their natural instinctive patterns. Instead of killing for food, they kill for the enjoyment. This absolves them of any "Lion King"-inspired sympathy that they are just doing what comes naturally.
The film jumps between scenes of lion mayhem and the two hunters tracking them down. Director Stephen Hopkins ("Predator 2," "Blown Away") never gets a firm grasp on what he's doing, and the films wavers between melodrama (as when Kilmer has to leave his wife, all dressed in white, at the train station to go to Africa) and horrifying violence (as when the lions ransack a make-shift hospital and tear at least fifty people limb from limb).
Like "Jaws," "The The Ghost and the Darkness" does a superior job of building up the idea of the lions by not showing them all at once. Instead, you just get glimpses of them stalking through the tall grasses that surround the camp. I never thought wavering grass could be made to look so ominous, but every time the camera fixed on the slowly swaying reeds, and I caught a glimpse of what might be a tail, I knew someone was in trouble.
Reprinted with permission The Baylor Lariat