“The Ghost and the Darkness” is an African adventure that makes
the Tarzan movies look subtle and realistic. It lacks even the usual charm of
being so bad it's funny. It's just bad. Not funny. No, wait . . . there is one
funny moment. A bridge-builder takes leave of his pregnant wife to go to Africa
to build a bridge, and she solemnly observes, “You must go where the rivers
are.” The bridge man, named Patterson, is played by Val Kilmer in a trim modern
haircut that never grows an inch during his weeks in the bush. He soon is
joined by a great white hunter named Remington (Michael Douglas), whose
appearance is that of a homeless man who somehow got his hands on a rifle. If
this were a comic strip, there would be flies buzzing around his head.
men meet up in Uganda, where a big push is on to complete a railroad faster
than the Germans or the French. The owner of the rail company is a gruff tycoon
who boasts, “I'm a monster. My only pleasure is tormenting those people who
work for me.” He is too modest. He also torments those who watch this movie.
on the railroad bridge is interrupted by a lion attack. Patterson spends the night
in a tree and kills a lion. There is much rejoicing. Then another lion attacks.
Eventually it becomes clear that two lions are still on the prowl. They are
devilishly clever, dragging men from their cots and even invading a hospital to
chew on malaria patients. “Maneaters are always old, and alone, but not these
two,” Remington intones solemnly.
rest of the movie consists of Patterson and Remington sitting up all night
trying to shoot the lions, while the lions continue their attacks. At the end we
learn that these two lions killed 135 victims in nine months. The movie only
makes it seem like there were more, over a longer period.
scenes are so inept as to beggar description. Some of the lion attacks seem to
have been staged by telling the actors to scream while a lion rug was waved in
front of the camera. Patterson eventually builds a flimsy platform in a
clearing, tethers a goat at its base, and waits for the lions. Balanced on a
wooden beam, he looks this way. Then that way. Then this. Then that. A
competent editor would have known that all this shifting back and forth would
become distracting. Then a big bird flies at him and knocks him off the beam,
and right into a lion's path. Lesson No. 1 in lion hunting: Don't let a big
bird knock you into the path of a lion.
narrator at the beginning of the film has informed us, “This is a story of
death and mystery.” The mystery is why these particular lions behaved as they
did. I don't see why it's a mystery. They had reasons anyone can identify with:
They found something they were good at, and grew to enjoy it. The only mystery
is why the screenwriter, William Goldman, has them kill off the two most
interesting characters so quickly. (They are Angus, the chatty man on the spot,
and an African with a magnificently chiseled and stern face.) In the old days
this movie would have starred Stewart Granger and Trevor Howard, and they would
have known it was bad but they would have seemed at home in it, cleaning their
rifles and chugging their gin like seasoned bwanas.
Kilmer and Michael Douglas never for a second look like anything other than
thoroughly unhappy movie stars stuck in a humid climate and a doomed
hope someone made a documentary about the making of “The Ghost and the
Darkness.” Now that would be a movie worth seeing.