The Ghost and the Darkness, by Albert W. Vogt III

If you lived in the Tampa Bay area in the late 1990s like I did, then Busch Gardens Tampa was the place to be. The first time I went was for a high school field trip. Our physics teacher expected us to ride the roller coasters and record the effects of g-forces, acceleration, and other things about which physicists care. I recall doing none of the experiments, but I had a good time. I was been kind of a nerd. Correction: I have always been a full on nerd. Thus, aside from the thrills the park had to offer, I also dug the African vibe the place attempts to give off. Each part of the park is supposed to represent a different region of Africa. The spot that I liked the most was the Serengeti Overlook Restaurant. I did not think much about it at the time, but it was once called the Crown Colony Restaurant had a distinctly imperial to feel to it, which I now see as a bit problematic. There is even a railroad nearby. I bring these reminisces up because when I could not be at Busch Gardens, the next best thing for me in my late teenage years was watching The Ghost and the Darkness (1996).

Perhaps one day I will actually visit Africa. I would like to do so. That enthusiasm for traveling to that faraway locale is shared by Colonel John Henry Patterson (Val Kilmer) in The Ghost and the Darkness. He is summoned by railroad financier Robert Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson) for a commission to build a bridge in East Africa for his line. Beaumont initially is pleasant, but then reveals that he is a hard man to work for and that Patterson will end up hating him. Undeterred by this revelation, and determined to complete the project in time for the birth of his first child, he eagerly accepts the commission. Upon his arrival, he is met by the project’s chaplain, Angus Starling (Brian McCardie), who attempts to give Patterson a lay of the land during their train ride to the camp. However, Patterson seems to know every animal and feature along their route, such is his excitement for being in a place which he had longed to see. Once at Tsavo, the site of the future bridge, he soon learns that there had been a lion attack. Thus, on his first night, he sets up a trap for the predator, which he fells with one shot. This act endears him to the legion of workers of all colors, who are mostly either Indian or native African. Work proceeds swimmingly until there is another mauling by a lion. This time, though, it is two lions and they hunt not simply because they are hungry meat eaters, but because they seem to enjoy killing. Patterson remains unfazed, confident that since he had been successful bagging one big cat, what would be difficult about two more? None of his tactics to stop their predations. Work stalls and the laborers begin to get spooked, thinking the devil had come to Tsavo. When Beaumont visits, he is infuriated. Instead of firing Patterson, Beaumont calls in famed American hunter Charles Remington (Michael Douglas). Remington arrives with the same assumptions about the lions, but even he is astonished by the amount of deaths that occurred. Together, Remington and Patterson manage to kill one of the lions, but then its fellow predator manages to take down Remington. This leaves Patterson to have a final showdown with the last lion. Once he is triumphant, the workers return and he is able to complete the bridge and meet his new family.

I could talk about the historical accuracy of The Ghost and the Darkness, but . . . nah. The one thing I will say on that subject is that this movie is loosely based on a true story. The two lions can be viewed today. They are on display in the best city in the world and the best museum of natural history in the world, which are of course Chicago and the Field Museum, respectively. Also, everyone is a little too chummy for the nineteenth century and the British Empire, at least at the build site in Tsavo. Beaumont voices the attitude of many English imperialists when he says that one of the goals of the railroad is to “save Africa from the Africans.” So, there you go. Another supposed goal of the British Empire was to “civilize” the world, which really meant that they were trying to make it English. Part of English civilization was Christianity, and hence missionaries went out to far flung places like Tsavo to convert native peoples. If you look at the numbers of Christian Africans today, you will see that this part of the goal of empire was achieved to a great degree. Yet in the film, Starling’s character is almost an afterthought. He means well, but various lines of dialog indicate that he has not made many converts. They regard him as a funny curiosity, and then he is eaten by one of the lions. That is about as polite about Christianity as you are going to get from Hollywood. They also cover all their Christian bases in Patterson’s character, making him Irish with one parent being Catholic and the other Protestant. None of the characters are particularly reverent, though Patterson does quote from the Book of Daniel as he holds the dead Starling in this arms. Still, I believe this is more of a thematic touch because it is the part of that book where Daniel is in the lion’s den. Okay, so I said a little more about historical accuracy than originally intended, but I swear that was not the intention.

I think The Ghost and the Darkness gets its R rating from the fact that it is quite bloody. Lots of people and animals are depicted as being torn to shreds. Regardless, it is not too gory, and I have seen other films (unfortunately) where that aspect has been ratcheted up a few more notches. Tonally speaking, I am not sure what to make of this film. I would not say it is an action film, but it plays more like a horror. Typically I do not recommend horror films because they are far too violent or bloody. I do not see anything particularly wrong with this one. It is not the best movie, and it certainly lost some of its luster since my late teenage years stomping around Busch Gardens. But at least the landscapes are still pretty?


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