Ghost and the Darkness, The


Tsavo Terror

Main Cast: Val Kilmer, Michael Douglas, John Kani

Director: Stephen Hopkins

Awhile back, we took our kids to the Field Museum in Chicago.  It had been some time since we had last taken them, so to their now teenaged selves it was all pretty new.  The high point for my daughter (aside from Sue the T-Rex, of course) was the exhibit of the Tsavo Man-Eater Lions.  The exhibit was pretty bare bones (so to speak – or maybe bare taxidermy is more appropriate), so we decided to have a fictionalized look at the incident and rented the 1996 movie The Ghost and the Darkness.

Val Kilmer stars as Colonel John Patterson, an engineer hired to build a bridge across the Tsavo River in East Africa in 1898.  Patterson has a stellar reputation for getting things done on time, even in remote areas of the world.  He didn’t count on his project becoming the feeding ground for a pair of lions.  The first attack comes the day he arrives and he dispatches that lion with a single bullet, gaining the trust and respect of his crew.  Weeks later more attacks begin, this time the lions are not so easily killed.  As the death toll rises, help arrives in the form of hunter Charles Remington (Michael Douglas) and the two men, along with Samuel (John Kani), the project liaison, begin the arduous task of trying to understand and remove the man-eaters of Tsavo.

The Ghost and the Darkness is based on factual events.  The two lions are actually displayed at the Field Museum – that they ate at least 35 people and wreaked havoc on the bridge project as Tsavo is not in dispute, nor is the fact that they were both killed by Colonel John Patterson.  The film takes the already amazing events, adds a few fictional characters (like Remington) and situations to make it all more film-friendly and it becomes a pretty exciting adventure.

Director Stephen Hopkins’ greatest strength is in his ability to create atmosphere.  The heat of the day while the men

Tsave Lions Field Museum Exhibit

Actual Tsavo lions at the Field Museum. They are maneless males.

work, the beauty of the land, the softly whispering menace of the wind slicing through a dun-colored field of tall grass, perfect for hiding a stalking lion.  One particular scene during which the three men hunt the lions in the dark is gorgeous and scary – an otherworldly landscape covered with fog, punctuated by the sounds of the African night and the frightened baboon being used as bait.  Only the large scale action scenes in which the lions attack feel a little clumsy, but the movie is almost 20 years old and we’ve become accustomed to such visual sophistication that one can hardly criticize the filmmakers for not having available to tools to make it all feel perfectly real.

The biggest flaw in the film is undoubtedly the human performances, particularly those of Kilmer and Douglas.  While Douglas does fairly well, chewing the scenery with glee as he brings his swaggering, wild-eyed hunter to life, Kilmer mostly just looks good.  He isn’t actively awful, but he doesn’t have a lot of presence or exude a lot of emotion.  He’s also forced into an awkward (though not altogether atrocious) Irish accent.  There are plenty of edge-of-your-seat moments in the film, but they’re almost all attributable to cinematography and atmosphere rather than acting.

Overall, The Ghost and the Darkness captures the terror of the Tsavo lion attacks pretty well.  Including the mythos surrounding the man-eaters among the workers as well as the natives is a good choice, showing that these were not considered to be just any lions, but actual embodiments of evil, killing for sport and pleasure.  The desperation of Patterson to rid his project of the menace tokes on epic proportions when seen through the eyes of those who view it as more than expedient, rather an epic battle to rid the world of a pair of demons.  3 ½ stars out of 5 and recommended for anyone with an interest in time period or the incident that inspired the film.

To own your own copy of The Ghost and the Darkness, click below to go straight to it on Amazon.

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