Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Devil Has Come To Tsavo

Some links before I get started today. Yesterday was Sunday, so we had a Snippet Sunday post at our joint blog. Cheryl had pics from an air show in her area. Parsnip had a video clip at her page and a look at a number of pics. Hilary has her birthday today. And the Whisk has a pair of troublemakers at her blog. Also, keep an eye on my photoblog by clicking at the right, as I've got Remembrance Day material for today and tomorrow.

Now then, today I have another movie review.

“I’m a monster. My only pleasure is in tormenting those who work for me.” ~ Robert Beaumont

“Darling, you know how God invented liquor so the Irish wouldn’t rule the world. Well I think he may have invented being stubborn so we can be the best at something.” ~ John Patterson

“Oh, you’re right. The devil has come to Tsavo. Look at me! I am the devil.” ~ Charles Remington

In 1898, a bridge construction over the river Tsavo in Africa was interrupted by a pair of lions, hunting and killing railway workers in the dozens, over a hundred by some counts. The lions were hunted down and killed by the project engineer, a British colonel named John Patterson, and their story has baffled people ever since. The man eaters can be found to this day in the Field Museum in Chicago, where they have been preserved and are on display. The story inspired screen writer William Goldman (The Princess Bride) to adapt it for the big screen, fictionalizing some aspects, but telling a story of murderous danger in the African high grasses, set against the backdrop of European colonial expansion at the end of the 19th century. Director Stephen Hopkins (Blown Away) came on board to helm the film, a historical adventure in a changing Africa.

We meet Colonel Patterson (Val Kilmer), an Irishman in the British military with a reputation for doing good work as an engineer in challenging locations. He’s hired by Robert Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson), a tyrant of a financier, who’s trying to have a railroad built in Africa in order to win the race against other European colonial powers, to save Africa from the Africans, and secure his knighthood. Whichever is his priority is another matter, but Beaumont admits he’s a monster, and promises Patterson that he’ll hate him. Patterson is off to Africa after saying goodbye to his wife Helena (Emily Mortimer), who is expecting their first child.

Patterson’s quite happy to come to Africa, a place he’s dreamed of seeing, meeting his right hand man Angus Starling (Brian McCardie), the camp foreman Samuel (John Kani), and the doctor, David Hawthorne (Bernard Hill). There’s tension in the camp, between the local African workers and those who have come from India for the work. The two sides don’t like each other, Samuel explains, and the Indians don’t like other Indians- the religious differences between Muslim and Hindu rising to the surface. There’s also the problem of a lion attack before Patterson’s arrival. Patterson doesn't realize that the lions in the area will soon become a much bigger problem, in the form of two males that hunt together, seeming to kill just for the pleasure of killing. The workers take to calling them the Ghost and the Darkness.

Goldman’s script fictionalizes certain aspects of the story, including bringing in an American big game hunter, Charles Remington, played by Michael Douglas, who finally appears in a dramatic way halfway through the film. The story also ignores the fact that the lions of the Tsavo region tend to lack manes; in fact, the pair of lions still on display in Chicago have no manes. However, these are mere trifles. The story is one of suspense and dread, and for me, that’s how it’s always worked. It’s an action thriller that drives up the tension, because we don’t understand why these lions are behaving this way. More than one character points out that lions don’t act like this, they don’t kill just for the sport, and yet these lions do. The story makes us look at the long grass in a completely different way; when Patterson is first travelling and seeing wildlife, we’re struck by the beauty of the land, but we quickly start looking at those grasslands and ask ourselves what’s hiding in that long grass. It leaves the audience feeling a sense of dread; the film does for the African savanna what Jaws did for the ocean.

Goldman also allows for humour and characterization as he goes along. He frames the story with a narrator, using Samuel to recount the events. This is an unusual touch compared to what a film of fifty or sixty years ago might have gone with, as it features an African voice to tell the story, and Goldman gives his narrator depth. Characterization tends to show itself in smaller ways and in quiet moments, such as when we learn Remington’s sad past, or see Patterson’s longing to see his wife again play itself out in letters home. The film refrains from glossing over the racial issues, as tensions among the workers keep cropping up, one of them even acidly remarking to Patterson, “you’re white, you can do anything.” The humour on the other hand plays out in dialogue between characters, mostly at night around campfires, such as Samuel teasing Remington: “I don’t believe you had a mother.”

Hopkins has a good visual style for the story; his work on Blown Away with its themes of Irish terrorism and revenge showed that, and he handled the direction for this well, sometimes giving us the lion’s point of view in how a scene was shot, sometimes using the light of fires as the only lighting for a scene, giving it a more dangerous, uncertain quality. There’s a sequence where one of the lions gets caught in a trap where a group of handpicked riflemen are waiting; the way he films the sequence has a nightmarish feel where you can almost feel as if the lion’s a supernatural being; not one round hits the beast, and the roars of the animal are deafening.

Much of the filming was done on location in South Africa, and the film definitely has an African feel in the look of the terrain. Real lions were used in the filming, albeit ones that have worked with humans extensively and were trained. I recall a documentary on the filming, which showed that the attacks were filmed in three stages: first on sound stages with the lions just being lions, pouncing upon an invisible prey against a green screen. The camera movements of that shot were memorized by computer and replicated with a second shot featuring whichever victim might be falling next, and the third shot used the exterior footage, all blending together seamlessly. Almost everything we see are real lions, though with a couple of exceptions, and in fact the real lions themselves, from a zoo in Ontario, were not quite sure of themselves in the open, having had lived their lives among people instead of zebras and antelopes.

The score is by Jerry Goldsmith, and it’s my favourite personal work by him. It blends together Irish and English sounds with a rich African influence into a single score, making liberal use of choral voices. It’s a blend of adventurous themes and malevolent, dangerous motifs that just drive up the tension all that much more.

Tom Wilkinson is only in the film briefly, on a couple of occasions, and this was the first film I ever saw featuring him. He makes a huge impression though. His Beaumont is an arrogant man, totally contemptuous of those around him. He says he’s a monster, and he certainly proves it, treating the deaths of dozens of workers with disdain, not giving a damn about anything but his own ambitions. By contrast, Emily Mortimer, who turns up here and there mostly in letters (and a nightmare sequence) is a loving and supportive wife, eager to see her husband again, to present him with their first born, and proud of him. Their relationship seems grounded, and she’s secure enough in herself to let him go off on a trip he’s wanted to make his entire life.

Bernard Hill, who would go on to appear in Titanic as Captain Smith and The Lord Of The Rings films as Theoden, plays Hawthorne as a drunken hard edged cynic who sees the railway as a sham, but admits that no one else would hire him. Cynic though he might be, he still acts to protect and care for his patients. Brian McCardie plays Angus as an idealistic man, quite out of his element, but relentlessly cheerful. Aside from his practical work, he also thinks of himself as a missionary doing the good work of the Lord in Africa. He’s given to talking a lot, and informs Patterson and Samuel that he has taken on a great task even more difficult than the salvation of Africa: he will not rest until both of them are safely in the fold. 

John Kani is a South African actor and playwright, and he gets to play the pivotal role of Samuel, the only man in the camp that everyone trusts. He plays the role with conviction and gravity, so the audience can believe him as a foreman, and as a man who’s good at mediating disputes. There’s a great warmth to the performance, a character we get to like very much. Patterson certainly gets along with him right from the beginning, and we learn he’s been friends with Remington for years. We also learn more about the man himself- he has several wives (he doesn’t like any of them, mind you), and he admits that he’s afraid of lions. Fear or not, he still acts without hesitation in the face of danger.

Michael Douglas was one of the producers on the film, and took the fictional role of Remington for himself. He comes into the story in a big, sudden way in the midst of a lot of tension in a crowd, and certainly makes an impression. Remington, we learn, is a man who does not like hunting, a strange thing in a man who makes that his profession, and only does it because he happens to be good at it. He hunts all over the world, but never returns to America; it turns out he lost everything in the Civil War when his family died. He mourns that loss years later, but doesn’t go too much into it, so we’re left to wonder at the tragedy. He makes for a good mentor for Patterson, and the two get along well with each other. Douglas conveys all of these aspects of the character with gravity and depth. He also moves like a hunter, with precision, speed when needed, care and slowness when needed as well.

Kilmer is a good protagonist for the film, taking on the role of Patterson and playing it in what feels just the right way. He might be a military officer, but as an Irishman, he’s always going to be an outsider among English officers, and that attribute does come across. He’s hired, not accepted, by the English financier, and he knows it. Kilmer gives him the competent, efficient sensibility that you’d expect out of an engineer, mixing that with qualities of a devoted husband and a man happy to get out to a place he’s dreamed of for years. Patterson is a man who genuinely gets along with the people who work for him, a stark contrast to his employers, and he shows concern for the well being of those around him. He forms friendships with the locals, particularly Samuel, in a way that another British officer would never think of, so it’s a measure of his personal integrity and decent nature.

The Ghost And The Darkness is one of my personal favourite action thrillers, an adventure set in an Africa undergoing great change. It takes full advantage of the beautiful surroundings before driving the audience into a tense, uneasy state at the sign of long savanna grasses… and what beasts might lurk within. 


  1. I love this movie..but I can't bear to watch the scene with the baboon. I met one of the lion stars (he was huge) and worked with one of his sons.
    Jane x

  2. It's been a long time--I need to see this again!

  3. Where have I been? I've never heard of this movie.

    Hugs and chocolate!

  4. Even your review is exciting! I may have seen this ages ago but now I want to see it again.

  5. William, your reviews make me want to see pictures I would have otherwise passed on!

    I'll have to look for this one on Netflix or Amazon!

  6. @Jane and Chris: oh, yes, that scene is unbearably tense.

    @Norma: you should!

    @Shelly: check it out!

    @Eve: you must!

    @Kelly: something else for you to keep in mind should you be in the mood for such a movie.

    @Cheryl: a pleasure to point it out.

  7. I've heard of this story but somehow had no idea it was made into a film. Looks really good!

  8. I love action thrillers but I've never heard of this one! Would love to see it!

  9. You said "Jaws." I guess I won't be renting this one! But the story's an intriguing one.

  10. Love the comparison with JAWS William :)so right,the tension build up is exactly the same.. is one of my favourite 'on the edge of my seat' movies also! Excellent review.

  11. I've never heard of this movie. Kinda cool they used real lions.


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