A throwback to bygone historical adventures, “The Ghost and the Darkness” is a classy, high-gloss yarn with sterling production values, fine performances and breathtaking vistas. It’s a literate and eerie true-life chiller that should grab moviegoers who’ve been hungering for adult entertainment. Connecting with mainstream auds, however, will be a greater challenge. While the picture has some stunning action set pieces, its ruminations on the nature of evil tend to be more cerebral than visceral. Pic is likely to be a solid commercial performer but fall short of large-scale success to equal its epic grandeur.
At the turn of the century, Great Britain, France and Germany were in a race to build a Pan-Africa railway and corner the lucrative ivory trade. The British interests hired an army engineer who had great success in setting down tracks in India. His task was to build a bridge over the Tsavo River near the end of the line, in eastern Africa. It was scheduled to take five months so it would be complete by the time rail work farther down the line reached that point.
In the almost slavishly accurate film version of the incidents, Col. John Patterson (Val Kilmer) arrives on the Dark Continent enthusiastic about realizing a lifelong dream of seeing Africa. But his elation with the land’s rugged beauty and unique flora and fauna ends when he reaches the construction site. The challenge of erecting a span is considerably more difficult than he imagined, and there’s constant strife among the work crew, composed of feuding Africans and Indians, Muslims and Hindus.
But the worst piece of luck is that his arrival coincides with the appearance of a “man eater” — a hungry lion who mauled a worker the previous evening. Patterson solves the dilemma very quickly: That evening he tethers a goat and perches in a tree with his rifle. Not only does he bag the beast, he does it with a single shot. The workers are jubilant and he assumes near-mythic stature. Only the American white hunter Remington (Michael Douglas) has a more awesome reputation.
Two months later, the assignment is ahead of schedule and morale is at an all-time high. Then the title characters arrive.
The Ghost and the Darkness are the names given two marauding lions who have terrorized the work gang, killing more than 130 people during the span of two months and bringing work on the railroad to a crashing halt. What was presumed to be the work of a single animal was in fact being done by the lethal duo. Defying all the known behavior patterns of the king of the jungle, they attacked together, often stalked victims in daylight, killed for sport rather than out of necessity, and showed no fear of fire or other natural or man-made dangers.
The natives refused to believe the two were lions. If they indeed resembled the creatures, it was only because some evil spirit had possessed their bodies. It didn’t help matters that Tsavo is Swahili for “place of slaughter.”
William Goldman’s script assiduously chronicles the creeping horror. Patterson, a man of science, simply does not consider the possibility of mystical forces at play. He employs logic and psychology to keep his workers in check long enough, he hopes, to set a trap or draw a deadly bead on the beasts.
But beneath his calm exterior, Patterson struggles with the question of evil. Does it exist in a pure form? Can it be manifest in a physical entity?
The near-impossible task for the filmmakers is to find a precise balance between actual incidents and the story’s ineffable elements. Something inexplicable occurred a century ago when industrial Europe encountered the more primitive forces of Africa. It caused, figuratively speaking, the leopard’s spots to change.
Director Stephen Hopkins is more assured with the material’s less speculative components. He’s adroit at building tension and creating a mood of danger. He appears to favor Remington, the flamboyant, garrulous hunter who, like most of his quarry, kills only in cases of need. Yet even his keen sense of the lion’s mortality is shaken by what he sees — particularly a lair with the bones of hundreds of victims.
Remington provides Douglas with the kind of role one might ordinarily associate with an actor like, well, Val Kilmer. But Douglas is an actor who’s always excelled in character parts, and this one allows him tremendous latitude opposite the taciturn Patterson.
Playing against type also works well for Kilmer, an actor whose range has rarely been so effectively tapped. A great part of the viewer’s enjoyment is in watching him slowly strip away his character’s many layers of reserve and embrace his raw emotions.
Also memorable in the cast is John Kani as a local go-between who straddles both cultures without losing his dignity, perspective or heritage.
Unquestionably one of the most handsome pictures of recent vintage, “The Ghost and the Darkness” provided some stellar tech talents with unique opportunities to work at the top end of their craft. Vilmos Zigmond’s photography is breathtaking without being obvious, and designer Stuart Wurtzel has seamlessly recreated a 19th-century Africa that feels vital. There’s also a powerful Jerry Goldsmith score that combines the spirit of epic films with indigenous music of the region.
In a curious way, pic resembles “Silence of the Lambs” rather than a land-locked “Jaws.” It is, after all, about the pursuit of a pair of serial killers. But the hunt is in many ways metaphor, and as a result, the picture’s conclusion doesn’t really provide catharsis. On an intellectual level, that’s perfect for this disquieting material. It won’t fly, though, for those in search of a movie movie.