R | | Adventure, Drama, Thriller, Creature-feature | 11 October 1996 (USA)
Direction: Stephen Hopkins | Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond | Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Script: William Goldman | Inspired by: The Man-eaters of Tsavo by John Henry Patterson
Starring: Val Kilmer, Michael Douglas, Tom Wilkinson, John Kani, Bernard Hill, Henry Cele, Brian McCardie, Om Puri
Summary: Tasked with overseeing the construction of a East African railway bridge for the British Empire in 1898, Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson (Val Kilmer) heads to Tsavo where his workers swiftly come under attack by two ferocious man-eating lions. Work slows and the men begin to believe that the animals are no mere lions, but rather, demons. Patterson enlists the aid of the famed hunter Remington (Michael Douglas), and together they set upon an arduous quest to end the maneater’s reign of terror.
In 1996 Roger Ebert gave The Ghost & The Darkness one-and-a-half star out of four and wrote, “‘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.” Suffice to say he hated the film (though Siskel appreciated it).
My assessment was (and remains) the complete opposite of Ebert’s, whose review I mention due his assertion that the film was unrealistic. In the serious consideration of any film which purports to be rigorously based off of, or loosely inspired by, real events (as The Ghost & The Darkness does) it is important to establish at the outset just how fantastical it really is (else one could reasonably cry foul and criticize the piece for false advertising). The Ghost & The Darkness falls decidedly into the ‘inspired by’ category, as it is certainly based on real events and yet plays fast and loose with several matters of historical record (chiefly in its inclusion of the character, Remington, who was created for the film and has no real-life antecedent in so far as I am aware). That being said, the maneaters of Tsavo did exist, they were lions and they killed around the same number of people in the film as in real life (more actually). John Henry Patterson also existed, was a engineer as well as a Lt. Col. and did indeed hunt the beasts of Tsavo in 1898 after they killed his men. There is nothing which occurs within the film which is impossible, and very few moments of extraordinary activity (that which stretches believability most is perhaps the assertion that the lions are hunting primarily for the pleasure of killing, though even this can be girded by noting that felines, like humans, sometimes kill, not for food, but for fun).
One of the fascinating aspects of the film which further instantiate the work in the realist genre is its depiction of various period firearms such as Remington’s hefty yet compact howdah pistol (side arm named after the howdah elephant mount, used for close combat against tigers and lions) and Patterson’s now-rare BSA Lee-Speed sporting rifle.
In relation to the narrative itself, the pacing is excellent (neither too swift, nor too fast), the music atmospheric, the performances decent (in the case of Wilkinson) to excellent (in the case of Kilmer), the tension palpable and the lions very plausibly rendered. Patterson’s creative contractions were one of my favorite parts of the film, specifically the fact that, though they initially failed (through no fault of his own), Remington congratulates him, noting that they were a good idea, regardless of whether or not they work, a subtle recommendation to exhaust all possible creative solutions in pressing situations, rather than being bound, slavelike, to the millstone of ‘common sense.’