John Tuttle is a journalist and critic who has a passion for truth and beauty. He has written for Interstellar Flight Magazine, Culture Wars Magazine, Movie Babble, Digital Fox, Filmoria, Tea with Tolkien, The Millions, and Voyage Comics’ blog, Excelsior. He is also the founder of the publication Of Intellect and Interest. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Lt. Colonel John H. Patterson
“ … we were suddenly startled out of this feeling of security. One dark night the familiar terror-stricken cries and screams awoke the camps, and we knew that the ‘demons’ had returned and had commenced a new list of victims.”
In 1996’s The Ghost and the Darkness, an ancient dread becomes all too real for bridge-builders in the Tsavo region of Africa. It is that fight (often associated with Colosseum performances) between the man-eaters and their human victims. A pair of male lions seems to be interested in a singular type of prey — namely people. Stuck amid the desolate African wilderness, many of the native workers steadily leave the construction site out of fear for their lives.
There is an uncanniness in the lions’ behavior — the way they hunt, the way they consume, the way in which their persistence remains relentlessness and their choice in prey. What is perhaps most alarming — the discovery that these big cats are not merely killing out of necessity but sheer sport. The true events on which this movie is based are recounted in John Patterson’s The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907).
Director Stephen Hopkins’ cinematic take on the story of the Tsavo Man-Eaters offers a glimpse into Patterson’s work and the psychology of a man whose dream of African adventure has seemingly become a reality. However, as fear grips his men, he becomes disheartened, bewildered and annoyed when the dream abruptly evolves into a nightmare.
In fact, The Ghost and the Darkness even employs one of the oldest, most cliché sequences known to film: the nightmare sequence. It’s a storytelling device that has seen effective use in countless other films such as Ride ‘Em Cowboy (1942), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and even Jurassic Park III (2001). (Recall the raptor sitting on the plane and talking to Dr. Grant?) Here, Patterson’s nightmare manifests in a vivid imagining of his wife and newborn son’s deaths in the jaws of the two ferocious felines.
The movie has compiled a fantastic cast to generate the full atmosphere of the story. Val Kilmer (Tombstone) portrays Patterson. Emily Mortimer (Mary Poppins Returns) plays a lovely Mrs. Patterson. Michael Douglas (Ant-Man) plays Remington, an experienced hunter called in to attempt to take out the pair of brutes. John Kani (Black Panther) plays Samuel, Patterson’s right-hand man in the movie, who often stands in as mediator / translator between the English overseer and the local laborers.
Bernard Hill (Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy) plays the delightfully negative, ever-observant Dr. David Hawthorne. Tom Wilkinson, who has brilliantly handled similar characters in productions such as The Patriot, plays the egotistical and praise-hungry Robert Beaumont, who enjoys being dictator over a project he hardly understands.
Accompanying the scenery and stellar casts a terrific score by Jerry Goldsmith, the popular composer of classics such as Planet of the Apes (1968), Alien (1979), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and many more. Goldsmith’s experience in scoring prior thrillers and horror flicks certainly prepared him for working on the intense and melodramatic sequences of The Ghost and the Darkness. More than that, the soundtrack features pieces of music to fit the slower, more exotic and evocative moments of the film. The entire soundtrack is masterfully executed and frequently includes beautiful African vocals.
The story is heavily concentrated on answering the question: “Who are the real hunters here?” Throughout the film, the audience gets to observe the preconceived tactics of man and the predatory cunning of the animal kingdom. However, due to the unnatural, ravenous desire of the lions, some of the people of the camp believe the creatures to be things of evil — perhaps spirits of deceased medicine men.
Patterson and Remington, both experienced hunters, meet with failure after failure. As they play off one another’s strengths, we often find each of them quoting something the other one said previously, and seeing those words maintain, or even gain, relevance. This serves as a means of encouragement. At first, however, there seems to be a conflict between the two — at least in regard to whose methods should be used in removing the predators. However, only together can the duo discover the lions’ preoccupation with hunting people down for sport and further seek a way to bring about the lions’ demise.
Upon examining Kilmer’s portrayal of Patterson, the viewer can easily fall into a genuine sympathy for him as we witness the driving forces in the man’s life — a love of his spouse, the allure of intrigue behind the natural beauties of the African countryside and its people, and a desire to see a job done well. Unlike Beaumont, Patterson does not seek out personal glory. He is a simple and brave man, good at what he does and intent on finishing his work in Tsavo. But the bloodthirsty pair of lions puts him a bit on edge, filling his head with terrors he could not possibly face and even making him anxiously forgetful when it comes to simple necessities of hunting. It’s an awful game of cat and mouse in which the lions, at least in the film, display another emotionally spiked behavior — vengeance.
But for a few short scenes closer to the film’s opening, the natural grandeur of Africa feels a bit downplayed in the overall cinematography. The story is one of man’s bold endeavors to build up civilization. Meanwhile, the “Ghost” and the “Darkness” are just as bold in their attacks on the camp. In a baffling case of man versus beast, two lions singlehandedly stall the so-called progress of such civilization.
Of course, the movie itself has been based on a Hollywood-ized script, which was subsequently based on the “genuine” facts as laid down by Patterson. Thus, like any book-to-screen adaptation, the story and its characters are presented differently from their original representations.
At its core, The Ghost and the Darkness shares an element that was far from rare in films of the ’90s — the sense of man becoming hunted by what he would deem inferior to himself. The 1991 adaptation of White Fang (1991) and the first two installments of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park series (1993, 1997) also highlight this poetic turn of the tables.
But The Ghost and the Darkness relates something different from these other films. It’s not about dinosaurs brought back from extinction or a wolf from a naturalist, fictional novel. Instead, it is a movie whose story is rooted in a historical event. That, along with the film’s vivid execution, makes The Ghost and the Darkness as dark of a movie as it is. However, it undoubtedly achieves a simultaneous beauty through the symbolism of the recurring imagery and the emotion of its story.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2019
Pop Skull – Richard Propes