The Ghost and the Darkness (review)

A Continent of His Own

What a great film! The Ghost and the Darkness (starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas) has to be one of the most underappreciated movies of last year. It’s much scarier and much classier than that dinosaur movie of a few years ago (without the cool computer-generated creatures, I’ll grant you). With all those huge lions leaping out of the tall savannah grasses and leisurely pans of gorgeous African vistas, The Ghost and the Darkness is one movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen. I’m sorry I waited for the video this time.
Val Kilmer plays an Irish engineer sent to the small town of Tsavo in southern Africa in 1898 to build a railroad bridge. He brings bad luck with him — or so the workmen think — when two man-eating lions begin stalking and killing the men in the work camp. The attacks come only at night at first, and they’re terrifying enough, but then the big cats dare to pounce during the day. The workmen refuse to work, believing the lions to be the embodiment of the devil and unkillable.

Kilmer’s engineer has not only a river to span but the gulfs between cultures — his workers are African and Indian, Muslim and Hindu. He has a naive Scottish missionary and a jaded English doctor to handle, as well as the enigmatic game hunter (Douglas) brought in to take down the lions. And thankfully, there’s not a stereotype among these diverse characters — they’re all nuanced, real people.

The Ghost and the Darkness belongs to that genre of thoughtful (and usually true) adventure movies in which the male protagonist uses travel to an exotic place as a means of self-exploration. It’s keeping company with Lawrence of Arabia and the new Seven Years in Tibet, among many others. Recast Kilmer’s engineer or T.E. Lawrence or Brad Pitt’s Nazi as women — and ask yourself how many people would find that notion ridiculous.

Men explore; women tend the home fires. Kilmer’s engineer can tame Africa and still count on going back to a nice home — he left his young pregnant wife holding the fort back in England while he adventures. Some very telling imagery in The Ghost and the Darkness explains it all. Kilmer’s trip to Africa happens in one dissolve — one moment he’s standing on a train platform in England in a British military uniform; the next he’s debarking an African train in khakis and safari hat. He leaves his own culture and immerses himself in another. The wife makes a brief appearance later in Africa, but she’s there strictly as a representative of home — she is in full European dress, no accommodations to the climate or terrain at all.

With apologies to Virginia Woolf, sometimes a woman needs a little more than a room of her own — just like men do.

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