Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Ghost and the Darkness

When I’m working on certain stories, I like background sound to match. The most recent WIP was set in an Africa-esque land, so I borrowed The Ghost and The Darkness from the library. Maybe I should have gotten Zulu instead.

The story behind the film is fascinating. In 1898, construction workers on the Kenya-Uganda railway were repeatedly attacked by two man-eating lions, who were finally shot by the project supervisor, Colonel Patterson. Patterson claimed the lions had killed over 130 of the workers. Whether that’s true or not, what I found most chilling was that the lions ignored, got through or escaped nearly all of the traps and defenses set up for them. So I settled in to watch.

I’ll start with the pros. Robert Beaumont, the financier behind the railway, is delightfully nasty, though perhaps I enjoyed him more because Val Kilmer’s Colonel Patterson is a such a bland good guy. Some of the minor characters like Abdullah are fun too. The lions in the film were real and the scenery is beautiful.

What prevents this from being Jaws-in-the-savanna is that Patterson is no Quint or Brody. True, anyone would be taken aback by a lion which doesn’t just attack at night, but stalks into the camp by day—and as Patterson aims his gun, he hears a growl from above him, the first indication of the second lion. That’s all good.

But the film then leaps ahead to thirty men having been killed, which made me wonder what on earth Patterson was doing for all that time. It might have been better not to stick close to reality here. Patterson finally builds a trap where the entering lion will set off a tripwire which seals it into a double-compartmented cage. The second compartment contains three armed men who will shoot the lion through the bars.

They all go to sleep. When the lion trips the trap, none of them put the barrels of their rifles between the bars. Instead they just fire, bullets ricocheting every which way until one such shot actually frees the (completely unhurt) lion, which runs off while the Three Stooges knock over a lantern and nearly burn themselves alive. Something similar happened in real life, but honestly, being faithful to the incident didn’t do the film any favors. I just wondered why in the world Patterson didn’t get into the cage himself. Or throw the lion poisoned meat. Or turn some dogs loose on it—didn’t they have Rhodesian Ridgebacks at the time?

Or hell, just wait for it to die of old age. Anything would have been better than what they did.

Then Remington shows up. He’s a big-game hunter who has something like twenty armed and painted Maasai on his side, and those are experienced lion hunters. I eagerly watched the Maasai ceremony, complete with the drinking of a cow’s blood, to prepare everyone for the lion hunt the next day.

Patterson, the idiot, swaps guns with someone else, doesn’t test out the new weapon he’s unfamiliar with, gets a misfire when he tries to shoot a lion who looms up before him, and does not get et for the sole reason that he is Val Kilmer, star of the film. Then the Maasai go home. I’m not kidding; the twenty armed and painted warriors, who have done nothing other than show up and do a ritual dance, decide the lions are evil spirits, and that’s the last we see of them.

To cap it all, there’s then a scene where Kilmer’s—I mean Patterson’s wife and baby come to visit him. As he’s running towards them, the lion appears, and the wife doesn’t seem to see or hear the Africans fleeing, the lion leaping or her husband screaming. Yep, it’s a dream. Like anyone really thought they would kill off the hero’s wife and child.

The Ghost and The Darkness was atmospheric and I liked the soundtrack, but other than the farcial aspects of the plot, there isn’t much else to recommend this.

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