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The Lion Deposers

Michael Douglas & Val Kilmer
Frank Connor

Roll Out the Barrels: Michael Douglas (left) teaches Val Kilmer how to make the world safe for British railroads in "The Ghost and the Darkness."

Old-fashioned action cohabits with hindsight revisionism in 'The Ghost and the Darkness'

By Richard von Busack

'EVEN THE MOST impossible parts of the story really happened," assures the narrator of The Ghost and the Darkness. If movie audiences have become cynical, it's because of statements like this. The old-fashioned parts of the film do work. Hunters Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas stalking lions through the foggy recesses of a set echo the best of Val Lewton's atmospheric horror movies of the 1940s. At other points, the movie is indifferent. Douglas indulges in excessively broad strokes as Remington, a white hunter with quotation marks all around him, who helps put enough iron in the hero's blood to kill a pair of man-eaters.

The two male lions who terrorized the railway camp of Tsavo in East Africa in 1896 are said to have killed more than 100 humans; they were so wily that the locals considered them to be supernatural beings. A construction engineer, J.H. Patterson (Val Kilmer), finds his camp under siege by the seemingly unstoppable cats. The workers are on the verge of revolt when Remington shows up with a couple of dozen Masai warriors, and everyone sets out to beat the bush, looking for two very big and fearless lions.

It's a natural story for the movies and works well in a B-movie way. No romantic subplot burdens the action--a sure sign of integrity--and it benefits from a brisk finale, in which Patterson, rifle gone, is treed by one of the lions (one of those absolutely true moments that doesn't happen in nature). The Ghost and the Darkness has no theme beyond some mutterings about courage. Audiences, justly sentimental about lions, aren't easily led to appreciate the killing of them, but the action sequences are effective in proving that these particular lions ought to be shot. Still, director Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2) doesn't manage to fix the problem of attitude. The story shifts between a ripping adventure yarn and an exposé of colonial squalor.

You wouldn't want your life to depend on a rifle that misfired as often as the script does. Awkwardness mars the champagne-drinking sequence as the men celebrate the killing of the first lion--too prematurely, of course. Worse is the introduction of Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson) as the fire-breathing railroad boss. Still, the movie has clever touches, like the reading of the appropriate part of the Book of Daniel during the burying of the lion's first victims. And I was especially pleased by screenwriter William Goldman's decision to let Patterson keep his idealism. If the British Empire could be summed up (as George Orwell did) as a ring of bayonets protecting a shopkeeper, then the empire builders were not all Kurtzs or Aguirres. Some of them weren't alienated profoundly by the rift between their culture and the cultures they conquered, and many were no more angst-ridden than a member of today's Peace Corps. If I liked The Ghost and the Darkness, it may be because I saw it as a step in the right direction, as an attempt to search through history for stories on which to base movies that don't need that perjuring promise that everything you're going to see is true.


The Ghost and the Darkness (R; 105 min.), directed by Stephen Hopkins, written by William Goldman, photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond and starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer.

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From the October 10-16, 1996 issue of Metro

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