The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Ghost and the Darkness

I'm pretty sure I walked by them more than a few times without giving a second glance.  Housed in the Field Museum in downtown Chicago, the Tsavo maneaters were two lions who terrorized a stretch of railroad construction in 1898 in Kenya.  The story of these two lions has translated well into the movies, including 1952's Bwana Devil and more recently 1996's The Ghost and the Darkness

Engineer Col. John Patterson (Val Kilmer) has been assigned to a build a bridge over the Tsavo River for the Kenya-Uganda Railway in Tsavo, a region of Kenya.  A man-eating lion kills several workers, but Patterson quickly dispatches it and the work continues.  Almost two months pass and the bridge is almost completed when once again a lion starts killing workers.  As he looks to kill this second animal, Patterson discovers it is not one, but two lions causing the terror.  And unlike most male lions who hunt alone, these two travel together.  With pressure from the railway company to complete the bridge on time, Patterson gets help from famous hunter Charles Remington (Michael Douglas).  But as the bodies mount, they begin to wonder; are these lions or some sort of evil spirit -- dubbed the ghost and the darkness -- sent to drive the railway away?

Based on the true story of the maneaters, this adventure only plays fast and loose with some of the facts, the big one being that a hunter like Remington -- a fictional character -- ever showed up in Tsavo to help Patterson.  In the actual story, Patterson kills both of the lions and then completes his bridge.  That's too easy though, isn't it?  Then we couldn't get the cool twist in the story of the old, grizzled veteran (Douglas) working together with the suave, sophisticated engineer (Kilmer) to take out a common goal.  Completely factual?  No way, but what movie is?  Based on the true story, but with some artistic license.

Director Stephen Hopkins faces the challenge any director filming a story like this must handle.  Steven Spielberg doesn't show Jaws until well over halfway into the movie.  Hopkins doesn't go that far, but starts off the movie just hinting at the presence of the lions as a shadow in the tall grass or a deep growl in the distance.  And even when the lions are shown in full view, they're no more terrifying than any other animal.  These aren't freakishly large specimens.  They look pretty typical although as the natives name them, there's a sense of something deeper, something darker at play.  Maybe they could be messengers of death, who knows.

Poor Val Kilmer, he's a very likable lead in this role and for most of the first hour he carries the story.  But once Michael Douglas shows up, it's over.  Douglas' Remington is a former Confederate soldier who lost everything in the war and became a world-renowned big game hunter.  He pulls off a slight accent well and maybe more importantly looks the part of a globe-trotting, experienced hunter.  This is Douglas at his best.  Just like Gordon Gecko, he's a little crazy and over the top, but it works.  He steals the movie even with Kilmer doing fine work alongside him.  The two definitely have a good chemistry going, including one campfire scene late in the movie after a successful hunt.

Deciding on where to make the story, Hopkins or the studio, whoever really, made a wise choice in settling on Kenya and Tsavo National Park where the story actually took place.  The locations are beyond breath-taking whether it be the rail camp and the mountains as the background or the two hunting trips that take the story away the camp.  Hopkins and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond film Africa as big as it really is with huge stretches of expansive land broken up by rolling hills, rocky buttes, and grassy savannas.  Certain scenes look like paintings that you could freeze frame and use as travel posters for African vacations.  Add a phenomenal score from composer Jerry Goldsmith (sample HERE) that has a beautiful African theme to it sung by a group called The Worldbeaters, and you get a sense of the culture and place the story is set in.

The back and forth attempts to catch and kill the lions provide the movie's more nerve-wracking scenes.  Patterson comes up with an ingenious plan (watch it HERE) to trap them only to see it epically fail.  Remington is able to trap them, but a jammed rifle fouls up the plan.  Even working together, a foolproof plan is developed (HERE) only to fail, all adding to the idea that these aren't any ordinary animals.  A really exciting, enjoyable movie that also features some good performances from Tom Wilkinson as the a-hole railway owner and John Kani as Samuel, a native supervisor on the railway. Definitely worth a watch.  The trailer below is a fan-made trailer because the actual one is awful with some funny sound effects.

The Ghost and the Darkness <----trailer (1996): *** 1/2 /****

No comments:

Post a Comment