Director: Stephen Hopkins
The Ghost and the Darkness is a true story, and an amazing one at that, one that has captured the rapt attention and morbid imagination of decade after decade. Once you watch the movie, read up on the story; they stick fairly close to true events and what really happened is pretty remarkable. The lions are on display today at the Field Museum in Chicago, and although the tale makes me feel sad for the animals, the daring struggle against them is still an impressive feat. Picking Val Kilmer to play John Henry Patterson was a risk (though at the time he was a big star) because he isn’t a very good actor, but he reaches way down for this one, and pulls out something unexpectedly great, leading to a film that may surprise.
In 1898 in Kenya, a British railway approached the Tsavo River, where engineers were called upon to build a bridge quickly, efficiently, and on schedule. An Irishman, Colonel John Henry Patterson, was named Chief Engineer of the project, and work began. But soon after his arrival, two unwelcome guests were also spotted at the camp; a pair of male lions who hunted and terrorized like no other animals that had been seen in the area before. They invaded the camps, hunted as a duo, dragged off live men, returned again & again, and seemed to be demons rather than animals, devils rather than beasts. Patterson, an expert hunter, thought he could handle the situation, but as the death toll mounted so did the pressure to finish the project, his own life & the lives of the workers be damned. What ensued was an epic battle between man & monster where the rules of nature seemed not to apply.
It’s hard to completely put the animal part aside; killing lions just to build a railway isn’t cool. Also, this is basically slave labor, British Empire bullshit, and corporate greed, so there’s not a lot to root for on the side of the humans in the story. BUT, watching it as a film, an adventure, a true tale that has history to show us, there is still a ton to enjoy. Maybe the most surprising among that list being Val Kilmer, who isn’t usually any good, but works perfectly here. He’s invested, he’s intense, he’s a good casting choice, and he works; I wish I could say the same for Michael Douglas. He headlines a name side cast (Tom Wilkinson, Bernard Hill, Emily Mortimer), but he is absolutely awful in his 15 minutes in this movie. His only saving grace, as I watched the film this time around, is that …maybe he’s not real? I don’t think he’s real in history, and part of me sees him as a side of Patterson, not an actual man, evidenced by a few key lines and moments that really make you pause and wonder. Doesn’t really matter though, his acting is terrible, when no one else’s is. The main cast holds its place well though, the music is phenomenal, the lions are terrifying; this is a great film in waiting, with a few key elements stopping it from fulfilling that promise fully.
My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆