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"Mountains of the Moon": Bob Rafelson's lost classic

Bob Rafelson is best known as one of the early architects of the so-called American New Wave, a movement towards personal, idiosyncratic filmmaking that flowered in the 1960s and '70s. He made his directorial debut in 1968 with the Monkees film "Head," written by a young actor named Jack Nicholson, who would go on to star in two of Rafelson's signature films, "Five Easy Pieces" and "The King of Marvin Gardens." Rafelson continued to work feverishly for decades after, directing, writing and producing projects that showcased his eccentric sensibility and love for subverting genres: "Stay Hungry," "Blood and Wine" and his 1981 version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" all testify to his restless, hard-edged, yet often unexpectedly romantic sensibility.

His dream project, though, is a seemingly odd footnote in his filmography: 1990's "Mountains of the Moon." Trailers and TV ads sold it as a Sir Richard Attenborough-styled costume drama with adventure film trappings, about explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke (Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen) trying to find the source of the Nile, and it is all that. But it's also an intimate, no-nonsense character study. It places its heroes in the sorts of Great White Man situations that many a costume epic has showcased, but matter-of-factly, so that you fixate not on the costumes, production design and terrain, but on the emotional fluctuations that define the relationship of Burton to Speke, and of Burton and Speke to Africa, and to their native England. 

Although "Mountains of the Moon" got some respectful reviews—and an ecstatic one from Roger Ebert—it sank commercially, for reasons discussed below. But Rafelson has never stopped trying to call people's attention to it, because it's one of the achievements he's most proud of: the fulfillment of a dream that began in childhood when he first became obsessed with Sir Richard Burton, the explorer, philosopher and sometime pornographer. 

When Rafelson learned that Turner Classic Movies intended to show it Oct. 17, he reached out to talk to me about it. Our conversation is below.—MZS

Matt Zoller Seitz: I rewatched "Mountains of the Moon" this week for the first time in a long time. It’s an absorbing film. But the thing that struck me most about it is that it's a very tight, direct movie, and it has what I’d call an "old movie" feel. I was a little surprised to learn, after researching it, that it didn’t get much attention, because it isn’t one of those “chew the scenery for three hours” sorts of movies. There’s lots going on in it. It’s often quite violent, and there’s a love story, and sex, in addition to all the historical details. And the relationship between the two explorers, Burton and Speke, makes it almost a buddy film at points.

BOB RAFELSON: It’s also a personal film. I mean, I don’t know what a impersonal film is, except maybe that someone reads the script and delivers the thing, and that's it. But I know this one is personal.  If you care about the movie you make, it becomes personal, and the choice to make the film at the outset is a personal choice. This one was very personal.

What it is in this particular story that is personal for you?  What attracted you to the story of Sir Richard Burton?

First of all, Richard Burton occurred in my life at a very young age. I was one of those kids who’d sneak off with a copy of the Kama Sutra and other books of its ilk, and they always bore the signature of Richard Burton, who himself was known for pornography near the end of his life. So I discovered Burton first as a kind of pornographic star. The Perfumed Garden was one of my favorite books growing up.  

Then after that, I studied anthropology, and I came across Burton as an anthropologist. He was literally the first anthropologist, because he invented the term "anthropologist," and was the president of the Anthropological Society in London. I was studying his works in that regard.  

Then I started to learn about his adventures as a discoverer. So by the time I got around to considering this material as the subject, I was already a gigantic student of Richard Burton. In fact I would say he was my personal hero.  

By the way, I’m not alone in this way. A lot of people in the '60s had this extraordinary regard, like they would for Mick Jagger, for Richard Burton. I mean, this wasn’t a unique discovery on my part. It might’ve been unique in the sense that I’m American, and I have a personal hero who's English. So that’s one aspect of why I was attracted to it.  

But there’s a much more important aspect, in that it is the story of two men, Burton and Speke, who are consumed with betrayal, infidelity, lack of loyalty. There's one who really respects the journey, and the other who is after the accomplishment. Burton was constantly criticized for being an idler. He was seen as someone who was just sitting around and not getting on with the task at hand, which in the eyes of a lot of people was to win a prize. And they were gigantic heroes of their time, in the same way that certain TV journalists are. These European men who were discovering the rest of the world in the 19th century wrote about it, and their journals became best-sellers. So they were incredibly well-known celebrities.

It took me nine, ten years to get this movie made, from the time I wrote it to the time I shot it. It's the only movie I ever went around talking about.

To get funding?

Yes. I kept thinking, when I was in India with damaged goods, after I’d fallen and hurt myself pretty bad, that maybe I would just run around talking about the "Mountains of the Moon" in some hopes that a Maharajah would say, “I like your film, here’s twenty million dollars!”  

And actually, when Carolco put up the money for the movie, they really had no idea of what kind of movie it was.  They said, “We desperately need you to make a movie, we have nothing in our pipeline,” and I left the next day to start making it before they could change their minds. I called my producer and said, “For gods sake, they approved a budget. I’m leaving tomorrow, make this legal!”  

He did, and I began shooting four months later. 

I wonder if maybe the casting might have been one of the reasons it didn't take off? Iain Glen, Patrick Bergin, Fiona Shaw. Three strong actors in lead roles. But none of them were big stars. 

Totally!  But that has been true of almost every movie I’ve made, you know, if you just think about it. Jack Nicholson was out of the business when I made "Five Easy Pieces" with him. He had, in fact, given up acting. By the time we made the next one after that, "The King of Marvin Gardens," Jack had accrued enough credentials to be a star, but you know, I've been a gateway for a lot of actors. I made Arnold Schwarzenegger’s [breakthrough] movie, Sally Field’s, Jennifer Lopez’s, Jessica Lange’s. 

You know, Jessica's name just came up recently because that picture, "The Postman Always Rings Twice," was just released on DVD. She came into Bob Rafelson’s office as a joke and left as a star. She’d been in "King Kong," and had quit movies after that, actually!  

Patrick Bergin hadn’t done a movie, I think, before "Mountains."  In fact, when I was testing him, we were in a little office and I had a tiny video camera, and I said, “Patrick, this is a screen test, so try to keep your face in the general direction of the camera,” and he said, “Now where would that be?” “This, Patrick. This is a camera.”  

He was very naïve, very ingenuous, and very much in many ways like Burton. He was married to a black woman, he lived part of his life in Africa, he was Irish as they could be, he was a kind of a vagabond who’d never put much attachment to his career. 

He’s a working class guy.  He was a teacher for a while, wasn’t he?

I think so!  He’s a very interesting man.  I like him very much.   

He has what I’d call a '70s movie energy to him.  He doesn’t seem to have any self-regard in this role. There’s a kind of wild-eyed intensity to him, but at the same time, it’s sort of all coiled up and controlled, in a way that's likable.

Fiona Shaw, I also thought, was extraordinary, too.  She had been in a movie, but I’d known her from the theatre, and she’s still queen of the English stage. And I also liked Iain Glen very much as an actor.  And Richard E. Grant, I think, who plays the manipulator, is outstanding. It was a wonderful cast, and a pleasure to work with.  

I don’t often say this: I have pleasure making a movie, but to me it’s about hard work and misgivings and doubt. I rarely sleep when I shoot. But in this particular case, it was a thrilling adventure.  

I just got a letter from Roger Deakins, the cinematographer on this film. The reason he got the job was, apart from the fact that I loved his earlier work, is that he’d just been fired off a movie by someone who fired me off a movie! And that’s true! I was fired off of "Brubaker" by Robert Redford, and he'd been fired [off it, too], and so we had that in common, and we could laugh about it. He was on his way home and I asked if we could stop in New York, but we talked, and he loved Africa, and he said that of all the movies he’s made, this is the one that he that feels he experienced the most, and he treasures it for that reason.

Speaking of experiences, can we talk about the physical, logistical experience of shooting the film?  Where, specifically, was it shot, and what were the conditions like?

Well, everyone had warned me that we would not be able to do anything in Africa without suffering consequences. 

What kind of consequences?

Well, they told us that the camera supplies would never get there; the crew would malfunction and defect; that everybody was irresponsible; that movies in Africa were all out of control.  

The strange thing was that was a very good characterization of what England!  In Africa, everything went as smooth as it could possibly have gone, and I loved working with the crew!  I loved the guys who shot it in England as well, but there’s always 30, 40 guys in the transportation parts, the assistant costumer and whatnot.  

You know, the production had many, many Africans involved in it, from all over the place: from South Africa, Kenya, etc.  I shot the movie mostly in Kenya, a little bit in Tanzania.  

We were on the Somali border, and we were fired upon.

Fired upon? By whom?

At the time, the two countries weren’t getting along, and here were 100 guys crossing in these kinds of bizarre costumes—you know what I mean? Costumes from the 19th century!  I'm sure it looked strange to them. And so these guys were taking potshots down on us from a hill. And they didn’t hurt anybody. They nicked one guy, but they didn’t hurt anybody. It was kind of bizarre!  

But a lot of the other things happened, come to think of it. Luckily, I had been to every location [we used], so when I wrote the final version of the script, it was written for locations that I knew I could make work.

I was going to ask about that. Apparently you’re a very well-traveled person. You did like a 1,000 mile walk through West Africa, and you’ve been to Kashmir. You seem to get a kick out of traveling.

Yeah, I do. That’s why I made the movie, for one thing, and it’s also what I learned from Burton: how to travel.  

I’ve been addicted to travel by the time I was eight, usually to fairly remote places, oftentimes hazardous places. It’s not that I seek danger—I don’t want to say that—but I find sometimes that if you make a left turn and it’s ill-advised, or that or when you're lost and you go off the beaten track, that's when you’re most rewarded.   

I’ve traveled extensively in the Amazon, for months and months, alone. I've traveled alone in Africa, picking up people as I went along to be my travel companions, people who knew more about the terrain than I did. So yeah, I’ve traveled a lot. And as the English soldier says in the early part of the movie when he’s looking to go hunting, he says, “There’s only one person inland, named Richard Burton, and he’s a travel writer.”  He says it like “he’s a film critic.”

You certainly give the impression, through your direction of this story, that you don't necessarily see surroundings that Europeans often describe as "exotic" as really being all that exotic.

No, they’re hard and they’re difficult!  And I take great pains to show that. I mean, we’d shoot in 132 degrees near the equator!  The scene where Burton hurts his leg and falls down…god, it was a terribly difficult place to shoot!

I taught Iain and Patrick how to do their own makeup and their own wardrobe. Roger, the script boy with the clapper, and I shot a number of scenes as if we were making a hundred thousand-dollar movie. But that way, we were able to do this movie. That's how we were able to get to certain places that you can’t take 150 people on a crew with trucks into.

The whole movie cost something like 15 or 20 million dollars.  It’s shot on two continents, and we moved it very, very quickly, and you can see that it’s a troubled landscape. Getting from one place to the other, without the extraordinary cooperation that helped from the support of the people I worked with? I could never have done that! But they loved doing it that way. I guess what they knew about Hollywood was, take away the trailers! I didn’t have a trailer! We had one common room on wheels where the guys could do makeup, and if someone got sick they could rest. But otherwise we slept in the fields. 

It’s a long story, but it was an arduous movie to make and great fun to make. If there’s a film I can say I had fun on, this is the only one. 

That’s high praise for the experience!

It is, and it’s really quite sincere.

Can we talk about the historical/political aspects of the movie? One of the things that jumped out at me is that you’ve got this story that is, in its essence, a very romantic, 19th century conception of heroism and exploration: this idea of, "We’re going to find the source of the Nile, and go where no white man has gone before." And yet it’s set in Africa, there’s a lot of African characters, and we’re aware the entire time that these are a bunch of white folks doing the exploring in lands where people live. It’s the only movie I can think of about explorers where, when you’re back in England, it feels like England is the foreign country somehow.

Forgive me, but there is another, and that’s "Lawrence of Arabia." I felt that way about that movie, and I think Lawrence and Burton felt that way [about England]. 

All Burton wanted to do was be out and explore, for his entire life. He had no interest in the politics of it, no interest in the fame of it, although he was arrogant to the extent that he knew his skills, and he spoke 26 languages, authored a book on the saber, and was expert swordsman.   

If there’s another political statement in the movie, it’s the kind of anti-colonialist attitude that "Lawrence" and this movie share. Its heroes stand more in favor of the people who occupy the terrain, who live in it, and are being conquered, obtained, made treaty partners, engulfed, enveloped.

They almost seem to be, at many points in the movie, not so much explorers as trespassers.  I’m talking specifically about the way people in these lands react when they see these guys. 

Yes, I think that’s true, but I think Burton knew that more than anybody else. He says, I think, early on in the movie when…Speke has been out in the field hunting, he says that he saw three tribesmen and they followed him. Burton questions him and says, “What were their markings? What did they look like? How tall were they?” and Speke doesn’t even see the importance of that.  

But Burton knew the importance of that, and could speak their dialects. He spoke 11 different African dialects. So he was a student of the culture, and he was able to disappear in it much more easily. Long before any of this took place, he was not the first but the second white man ever to go to Mecca, a forbidden city. He disguised himself as an Arab: he put on a kind of makeup, and wore the appropriate clothing, and he kissed the kaballah. He’s of this desperate need to understand other cultures, and thereby come to grips with who he was.

Can we take a detour here and talk about the music?

I would love to.

The score for this film is by Michael Small

An extraordinary composer. He died a few years ago.

I cannot tell you how much I love that man's music.  I love Michael Small’s music so much that a few years ago, when I came across, while walking through Central Park, a memorial bench dedicated to Michael Small, I took a picture of it. I'd be happy to send it to you if you want it.

I would love that.

He’s a great, strangely unsung composer.

Yes! And remember, he did a number of my movies, not just this one.  

You know, whenever I finished a script, unlike the prototypical way of getting feedback—you know, giving it to your producer, to your star, to a studio—I always sent my scripts to Michael Small. We were very close friends. I loved working with him, and learned enormous amounts from him. He was a lovely, wonderful man. He was just one of those good friends who I was also lucky enough to collaborate with. 

I should say here that I didn’t discover Michael Small! Before we started working together, he wrote extraordinary music for "Klute" and a number of other films.

"Klute" was directed by Alan J. Pakula, who also did "The Parallax View." That one's a masterpiece—I mean, not just the film, which is perfect, but the score, which is also perfect.

Absolutely. I love the music he did for this movie. It's an expansive, orchestral, almost…you know, it’s almost like a concerto, from the very beginning.  And he brought into that his extraordinary knowledge of African music, particularly of its rhythms—and the use of drums, which Michael wrote, by the way, and also played.  

I think we recorded the score someplace cheap, like with the Bavarian National Orchestra, or something like that. He was sensational.   

There’s something interesting happening thematically in the score too, in that, as you say, there’s this sweeping romantic quality to it, which I associate with the European classical tradition that so much film music is written in. But then these African colorations, woodwinds and drums, come in, and sort of disrupt that. It's as if Africa is resisting and disrupting the European domination, musically. It’s almost like the movie is providing the subtext for you, in a way, though I think it stops short of that. 

That's interesting, because I rarely hear critical voices go out of their way to comment on the composers, and because you're talking about that, I want to tell you how Michael worked. The first person to read the script for "Mountains of the Moon" was Michael Small, the first person who really went with it was Michael Small. And he would always say very abstract things to me after he read my movies.  It’s hard to make them make sense to another person.  

What sorts of things did he say to you?

Well, for example, I remember when I sent him this movie I made called "Black Widow," he said, “it’s a movie about the elements.” And I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “I just sense that it’s earth and fire and sky.”  

I kind of remember…I’m doing him a great disservice, I'm sure, and it wasn’t because he was an abstract thinker that he said that kind of thing, nor was it because he was trying to impress you intellectually. Michael was just the kind of person who could tell you, in a very fundamental way, what your movie was about, in ways that you hadn’t thought of.

You know, I wanted to talk to you about this movie because it's sort of my neglected movie and, from my point of view, it's a bit like how, when you have a neglected child, you want to see it get nurtured, and grow up, and be seen.  

I'm intrigued by that description, because as you know, you're associated with a particular type of film, one that represents what you might call '70s values even if it wasn't produced during the 1970s. I mean something intimate and a little raw, and probably set in the present, or maybe a period film that has a present-day view of the past. And that is not necessarily "Mountains of the Moon." The subject matter of this film is something that, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, you might think of as being more in the David Lean wheelhouse.  

I remember seeing the trailer for it in 1990, when I was a film student. I knew who you were by that point, and I was surprised to see your name under the "directed by" credit, because I had been conditioned to think of you as the "Five Easy Pieces" or "The King of Marvin Gardens" or maybe "The Postman Always Rings Twice" guy—which is to say, somebody who you wouldn't think would go and do a film like this one.

I think you’re probably right. I suspect that audiences have some kind of expectation of my films, at least the ones who are familiar with my work. But to be point blank with you, I think the problem with the film's reception had much more about the way it was released, rather than whether it was a common or uncommon Bob Rafelson film. 

And the story of this film's release is one of those insane, tragic stories of a company going bankrupt. The company was known for making movies like the Rambo films.

You're talking about Carolco Pictures, the company founded by Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar. They did pretty well for themselves in the 1980s and '90s with action pictures that starred people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

Right. Well, you know the guys who ran that company both had been in jail, and one of them got started in the movie business selling wigs in Hong Kong!  And then they got involved with the Rambo movies. By the time this picture came along, they had no intention of making it, they didn’t know why they were making it. They desperately needed a profit, and they had very little belief in it. 

They financed it, you made it.

Then it was sold to a distributor.

Tri-Star, which distributed the movies that Carolco financed.

Yes. And unfortunately, that distributor had its own costume film coming out that year.

Which costume film was that?

"Glory." It’s not a bad movie, but Tri-Star owned that movie, and they did not own my movie. So of course they were going to put all their money on their picture that they had ownership in, and that they had a long history with, whereas mine just kind of came to them through the mail.  

Do you think there’s any possibility that we’re going to see this film rereleased to theaters, or rediscovered at film festivals, or maybe put on Blu-ray at some point?

I don't know. The people who made the film went bankrupt, and sold the rights to—Oh, it’s so complicated!—to people who just don’t care. I have been trying to get the picture; I mean, the main reason you and I are talking is because it’s going to be on TV for the first time! At least, I’ve never seen it on TV. And it’s going to be on Turner Classic Movies. So I’m very excited that it will get any kind of an audience. 

But to answer your question, I have been trying for a long, long time to get it seen. It has played in festivals, because I can tell you that when people ask me, “If you were to come to our country and we will give you some kind of an homage, what movie would you want to show?” and I always say, “Top of the list is 'Mountains of the Moon.'”

"Mountains of the Moon" plays this weekend on TCM.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of, TV critic for New York Magazine and, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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