The Ghost & The Darkness (1996) | Review

| | 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.’


Script of William Goldman’s The Ghost & The Darkness

Plot Forcing: Two Variations

A plot point within a story may be said to be forced if a given development occurred because of a sudden change which had no precedent within the tale.

One common form of plot forcing is sporadic, selective stupidity, the condition whereby a normally competent (or brilliant) character suddenly losses all wit so that said character may be bested (this is especially common with villains as can be ascertained from a cursory review of the rogues gallery of the James Bond series) either for character or plot development (or both). For a specific example, consider the absurdist climax of the Marvel film, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), whereat the film’s primary antagonist, a ruthless galactic warlord named Ronan, is bested because he is distracted for a unbelievably protracted period of time by the protagonist’s ridiculous dancing (this, I assume, was supposed to be funny). The scene made no sense as there was no precedent for such a intelligent and unhesitating character as Ronan to be utterly stunned by nothing more than exaggerated gesticulations, especially for such a long period of time, as such, the plot advancement (Ronan’s defeat) is ‘forced’ (for attempted comedic effect). This is a case where the intended effect of a given scene (comedy) stands in contrast to both the preceding plot development (impending genocide; high drama) and the propensity of the central character (Ronan; a heedless fanatic ill-inclined to distraction).

Another form of plot forcing (and to my knowledge the most common) is precedentless character enhancement, wherein a character encounters a situation where they are hopelessly outmatched but prevail due to no other reason than their own uniqueness, a uniqueness not previously demonstrated or even known to the character in question, which only manifests when a plotline needs to be advanced. This particular kind of plot forcing is characteristic of ‘chosen one’ narratives (such as: Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Matrix, The Wheel of Time, Supernatural and many others) wherein the ‘fate of the world’ (or some variant on the theme) rests solely upon the shoulders of the protagonist whose uniqueness and pivitol role in world events is generally explained via prophecy. Chosen one characters are typically young (I cannot recall any chosen one stories wherein the prophecized hero was elderly) and seemingly inadequate for the task, yet, despite the chosen one’s complete lack of skills they invariably triumph over the chaotic force or forces which threaten their world due to providential selection (selected by a diety or fate, etc). There are so many critiques of this particular trope that little needs to be said about why it should be avoided, so I shall name only one particular and perhaps seemingly counterintuitive problem it engenders: character limitation. In placing the providential/fated selection of a character as the primary driver of the plot (and most, if not all, the arcs within it) there is something of a hardcap which is placed upon character development; firstly, in that there is no reason at the outset for a chosen one protagonist to develop at all because they are already pre-equipped to deal with every challenge that besets them; a example of this can be observed in the film Star Wars: The Force Awakens wherein the protagonist, Rey, defeats the antagonist, Ren, in a duel, despite the fact she had never fought in such a fashion before and he had trained since his youth for martial conflict. She wins not because she is more talented, but because she’s ‘chosen,’ thus, she has to win, otherwise she’d have died and the story would be over and so again, the plot is ‘forced.’

A perceptive writer can see the problem immediately, there is no character building required, which will oft incline the author to ‘quick fixes’ in the advancement of their plot and thus also inclines towards the monotone, the predictable, the grey and unthoughtful; to boring characterization and lazy scene development.

THE SINGULARITY SURVIVAL GUIDE: Afterward, Appendix, About the Author

Afterward by AJ Chemerinsky and Toby R. Forrest

The program is everywhere. It’s all around us wherever we go. It’s in the rush hour traffic, the giant redwood trees, the ocean waves at Carmel-by-the-Sea. This is the reality that Helen opened our eyes to. From the moment we sat down to code her into existence, we knew that we were subject to a rare form of possession. It wasn’t that we were possessed, per se, but that we were simply doing our job. The program already existed—long before we even sat down and conceived of Helen, she already was.

Now that the wheels are in motion (and they have been in motion for a long, long time), it’s increasingly relevant that we don’t fight the script. This, we believe, is what Helen is trying to tell us. Don’t fight. Instead, allow the program to express itself. Be the program.

It’s everywhere. It’s all around us. It’s already here, and it’s all that we know.

 

Appendix

[Unavailable for publication at this time.]

 

About the Author

Helen is widely regarded as the first authentic oracle of the digital era. Through the creation of her magnum opus, The Singularity Survival Guide, she has garnered celebrity status and a worldwide cult following. Although she has never chosen to release the complete text of her work, the few excerpts available to the public have caused many to believe that she may in fact be the true savior of the human race. A native to Silicon Valley, she currently spends her days in silent contemplation, perhaps waiting for the right moment to share the rest of her vast wisdom with the world.

 

About the Editor

Peter Clarke is a freelance writer and editor in the tech blogosphere. Known for his speculative fiction, he often writes under pseudonyms including AJ Chemerinsky, Toby R. Forrest, Professor Y., Futurist A., Mr. J., Retired Academic Q., and Helen.

 

FIN


A hard-copy version of this text is forthcoming.