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Movies to Remember – The Ghost and the Darkness

Inspired by true events (though with many fictitious additions), The Ghost and the Darkness narrates the hunting of two man-eating lions in Kenya (1898). These lions appeared at night to drag construction workers outside of their tents and eating them alive. The movie has many similarities with Jaws (without getting close to its level of quality): a beast that appears to disturb the peace of a human community, the responsibility taken by a couple of brave men to fight against this evil, the negligence and irresponsibility by the”formal authority” toward a grotesque situation that clearly threatens the safety of citizens, and the introduction of a third hero (who represents guile and brute force) that complements the final hunting.

Lion from The Ghost and the Darkness

It seems that the writers somehow tried to replicate the successful formula from Spielberg´s film (more so when you consider that the third hero, played by Michael Douglas, is a fictional character that didn´t exist in real life; why did the writers force the introduction of this character?) without much success.

The film begins with the hiring of John Henry Patterson (Val Kilmer) by the financier of a railway´s construction, Robert Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson). Patterson was a man whose greatest ambition had long been to go to Africa to experience the continent´s natural wealth, for which he was even willing to miss the birth of his soon to be son. Little did he know that his dream would end up becoming a nightmare, something like what happened to Leonardo Di Caprio´s character in Titanic when he won the tickets for the cruise in a card game.

Arriving in Kenya, Patterson befriends one of the African construction chiefs, Samuel (John Kani), who would be his unconditional ally throughout the film, and also the story´s narrator. Problems didn´t take long in showing up, as a lion that lived around constantly appeared to eat the workers.

Patterson and Samuel with one of the lion´s victims

Patterson decides to take charge of the problem, climbing to a tree with a rifle at night to hunt the predator. He quickly gets what he wanted, killing a lion and becoming a hero to his subordinates, but it´s easy to predict that we´re very early in the story to declare victory. When peace had returned, the real lion appears to kill again, which causes panic and rebellion by the workers. Beaumont (the financier) is notified about the lion, but takes importance away from the problem as he only cares about finishing the railway.

Here we see the negligence of official authorities symbolized, which are more concerned with their own economic welfare than the citizen´s safety. On the other hand, a new discovery surprises everyone: it´s not just one lion but two. Double trouble. And none of Patterson´s hunting traps work. That’s when Beaumont finally reacts and hires experienced hunter Charles Remington (Michael Douglas) to join the hunt. Remington is a renegade who has a great reputation in the area: clever, brave and effective to the point where no predator can escape from him (although he´s a fictional character; in reality, Remington never existed and Patterson hunted the two lions alone). He also brings with him his team of native hunters who have accompanied him on previous occasions, all of which makes the workers have more confidence to keep the work on the construction.

Remington, Patterson and the native hunters

However, not even Remington´s cleverness combined with Patterson´s determination gets to stop the lions, which makes African superstition invade the environment, attributing divine qualities to the man-eating couple, calling them “The Ghost and the Darkness”. At this point the film begins to give great strength to the lion´s mystical air, trying to make the plot more interesting, but this results in rather corny scenes that border on the ridiculous.

A new attack that kills more workers than ever makes everyone leave (including the native hunters from Remington´s team), leaving Patterson, Remington and Samuel alone, who are determined to face the danger rather than run from it (similar to the three characters of Jaws that go to the sea to face the beast by themselves). Fate has death planned for one of the three (just like in Jaws), a price to be paid for ending the area´s hysteria.

The Ghost and the Darkness -Patterson, Remington and Samuel

Exciting adventure, though not so much for the film critics, who mostly disliked the film, even delivering Val Kilmer the Razzie “award” as Worst Supporting Actor (which I find totally exaggerated). Nevertheless, The Ghost and the Darkness had two consolations: the Oscar for Best Sound Editing and a profit of $20 million at the box office. At least the movie entertains and makes us aware of a real and chilling event that happened just over one hundred years ago. Those who want to read the true story told in first person by John Henry Patterson can always read “The Man Eaters of Tsavo”, the book written by himself that made the story famous. Moreover, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago bought (for what today would be about $66,000) the lion´s skins and rebuilt them for display on their facilities, where visitors can look into the eyes of the two animals that ate up about 135 men (according to Patterson).

Tsavo man-eaters reconstructed at the Field Museum of Natural History in ChicagoThe bodies of the Tsavo man-eaters, reconstructed in the Field Museum of Natural History at Chicago

Image / Jeffrey Jung.

However, what´s really shocking is that some people have to be constantly looking behind their shoulders for fear of being eaten by an animal. Now that’s creepy.