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The Best Movie You Never Saw: The Ghost and the Darkness

10.07.2016

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine. This week we’ll be looking at THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS.

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THE STORY: A British military engineer (Val Kilmer) travels to Africa circa 1900 to complete a railroad project that’s been plagued by delays. While there, he’s horrified to discover his native workers are being picked-off one-by-one by a pair of man-eating Lions. Ill-equipped to deal with the almost supernaturally deadly lions, he enlists the aid of a famed American hunter (Michael Douglas) with a tortured past.

THE PLAYERS: Director: Stephen Hopkins (PREDATOR 2, JUDGEMENT NIGHT, BLOWN AWAY, LOST IN SPACE, TV’s 24). Written by William Goldman. Starring: Michael Douglas, Val Kilmer, John Kani, Bernard Hill, Tom Wilkinson and Emily Mortimer. Score by Jerry Goldsmith.

the ghost and the darkness michael douglas val kilmer

THE HISTORY: If you’ve read William Goldman’s second volume of memoirs, “Which Lie Did I Tell?” you’ll note that the esteemed writer of BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING is not entirely pleased with the finished version of THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS. This was a passion project of his, basing it on the real Tsavo Man-Eaters, who are actually on display at the Museum of Natural History in Chicago. He wound-up having a lot of grievances against the finished film, but the big sticking point is the casting of Michael Douglas as Remington, the hunter. As they went into production, Douglas was already involved in the film as a producer, and they tried to get Sean Connery or Anthony Hopkins to take the part, only for Douglas to step-in out of necessity. However, once he was cast the part had to be beefed-up, and Douglas apparently insisted on re-writes that Goldman thinks ruined the film.

“Michael decided to play the part himself. My initial reaction was delight. He is a major star, he gave the movie all the weight it would need. He also ensured against any catastrophe that the movie would get made. More than that, I knew the script was protected because I had spent hours and days with him going over it and I knew he understood what the strengths were. But shit, as we all know, has a way of happening.” – William Goldman, ‘Which Lie Did I Tell: More Adventures in the Screen Trade’

His original script may well have been a masterpiece, and the movie probably would have been better with Connery and someone else other than the miscast Val Kilmer (struggling with his Irish accent). But, the fact is the finished film is pretty damn good, and even Goldman's feelings on the film have improved in recent years, with him recently admitting that director Stephen Hopkins did a great job. While mostly treated as a footnote in Douglas’s career, I’ve noticed that THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS has a lot of fans over the years, most of whom, I presume, are like me, having seen the film in theaters as a fourteen-year-old, who found the idea of Douglas and Kilmer hunting lions in Africa pretty damn exciting.

the ghost and the darkness michael douglas val kilmer

In 1996, this was considered a prestige movie, even getting a late fall release. It wound-up bombing both financially and critically, with Kilmer getting a Razzie nomination for his performance (although it did get one Oscar nod – for best sound editing). I believe it wound-up eking out a profit with the foreign gross, but it was bad enough that for the next few years Douglas stuck pretty-close to type, playing mostly harassed businessmen, until really shaking things up in 2000 with the one-two combo of WONDER BOYS and TRAFFIC.

WHY IT'S GREAT: There’s something about the old-fashioned pageantry of THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS that just appeals to me. A kind-of “OUT OF AFRICA meets JAWS”, there’s no way a movie like this would be made on the same scale nowadays as it was in the nineties. At the time, Michael Douglas was one of the biggest stars in the world, and Val Kilmer was just coming off BATMAN FOREVER, so the studio probably thought they had a huge hit on their hands. While it didn’t do very well at the box office, it’s developed an appreciative following over the years, and it’s a damn exciting, grounded thriller with amazing sound design and an incredible score by Jerry Goldsmith, one of my all-time favorite composers.

“Michael wanted the audience moved when Remington died. That’s what I think was at the heart of the changes. And the best way to do that was to win sympathy for Remington. What he succeeded in doing was destroying him.” – William Goldman, ‘Which Lie Did I Tell: More Adventures in the Screen Trade’

To be fair to Goldman, he has a point about Remington’s story being too prominent. While Douglas is off-screen until the second half, and used sparingly, there’s a scene that’s just as bad as Goldman says it is – which is when some clunky exposition reveals he lost his family in The Civil War. It humanizes a character that should have been mysterious and larger-than-life, and probably would have stayed that way if Connery or Hopkins had played him. Val Kilmer also seems a bad choice for Patterson, the Irish engineer. The part was originally written for Kevin Costner, who would have also been miscast, and I have no idea why Paramount was so dead-set on an American playing the part. A guy like Pierce Brosnan, who was just coming-off GOLDENEYE, could have killed in the role. Kilmer is wooden here and you can see why he never quite made it as a leading-man, especially when Douglas is on-screen, as he’s just blown-away by him.

the ghost and the darkness michael douglas

Even still, the movie is magnificently shot and edited, with terrific action scenes, and a fun “high adventure” vibe throughout. I love these kinds of old-fashioned adventure films, and the supporting cast is full of character actors who went on to become big names, like Emily Mortimer as Kilmer’s wife, Tom Wilkinson as his boss, and LORD OF THE RINGS’s Bernard Hill as the requisite cynical safari doctor. John Kani, who recently showed-up as Black Panther’s doomed father in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, also steals scenes as the cynical African foreman, who sticks around once the lions start turning his workers into lunch.

BEST SCENE: While I think the bit detailing his “tortured past” robs the Remington character of any mystery, Douglas is still really cool in an against-type part of as the half-crazed hunter, and his introduction ranks as one of his most iconically cool scenes.

SEE IT: While it’s not yet available on Blu-ray (what gives Paramount?) the DVD is widely available and pretty reasonable. You can also find it (in HD) on most places like Netflix, iTunes and Amazon.

the ghost and the darkness val kilmer lion

“I also think the time was wrong. Not the time of year when it was released, I mean the time for lions. In our long history, perhaps no other animal has had such graph changes. From being vermin to being gods. Now is a cutie-pie stage. BORN FREE and THE LION KING. I don’t think the audience wanted much to hear about these two monsters that shredded so many lives.” – William Goldman, ‘Which Lie Did I Tell: More Adventures in the Screen Trade’

PARTING SHOT: I get pretty nostalgic for movies like THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS, because I can remember a time when big-tentpole movies weren’t solely the domain of superhero sagas and sequels. In the era of Sherry Lansing, Paramount was one of the last hold-outs to keep making old-fashioned star-driven entertainment, and I kinda wish people like her were still around calling the shots.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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9:54AM on 10/09/2016

Great movie

Feelings of nostalgia make this movie pretty much critic-proof for me. I love the adventure of this man vs. nature tale, and I make it a point to look those two lions in the eye whenever I'm at the field museum (btw, they are smaller on display than they were in real life due to damage done to their hides). Love this movie, and it's always been a go-to for me on scold winter afternoon when I need some adventure in my blood.
Feelings of nostalgia make this movie pretty much critic-proof for me. I love the adventure of this man vs. nature tale, and I make it a point to look those two lions in the eye whenever I'm at the field museum (btw, they are smaller on display than they were in real life due to damage done to their hides). Love this movie, and it's always been a go-to for me on scold winter afternoon when I need some adventure in my blood.
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8:19AM on 10/08/2016

90's Memory

I remember sneaking into the theater to see this when I was 11 with a couple of my friends. We bought tickets for D3: The Mighty Ducks and walked inside the theater to see The Ghost and the Darkness instead. As the Chris' article states the film was a flop so finding a few empty seats to sit in wasn't that difficult. I remember back then how much it scared the crap out of me and my friends and when it came out on VHS 9 months later we had to re-watch it again. Fast forward 20 years later to me
I remember sneaking into the theater to see this when I was 11 with a couple of my friends. We bought tickets for D3: The Mighty Ducks and walked inside the theater to see The Ghost and the Darkness instead. As the Chris' article states the film was a flop so finding a few empty seats to sit in wasn't that difficult. I remember back then how much it scared the crap out of me and my friends and when it came out on VHS 9 months later we had to re-watch it again. Fast forward 20 years later to me re-watching this film a couple months ago on STARZ. Despite now realizing how bad Val Kilmer's accent was along with the bleach blonde tips of his hair and Michael Douglas looking like he just walked off the set of Romancing the Stone, I still found myself enjoying this movie. They definitely will never make another movie like this without overloading it was cgi set pieces and cgi lions. Thanks for the good read, Chris!
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7:28PM on 10/07/2016
"(although it did get one Oscar nod for best sound editing)"
Umm.....spoiler alert....The Ghost and The Darkness WON the Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing.
I like this movie. I've liked this movie ever since I first saw it's first premiere on HBO. One big element I enjoy with the film is Jerry Goldsmith's score, a fantastic piece.
"(although it did get one Oscar nod for best sound editing)"
Umm.....spoiler alert....The Ghost and The Darkness WON the Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing.
I like this movie. I've liked this movie ever since I first saw it's first premiere on HBO. One big element I enjoy with the film is Jerry Goldsmith's score, a fantastic piece.
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6:33PM on 10/07/2016
Love this movie. The critics of the time delivered a severe injustice to this fantastic film.
Love this movie. The critics of the time delivered a severe injustice to this fantastic film.
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6:12PM on 10/07/2016

Great film

saw it in the theater and loved it I watch it every year or two. Kilmer was good in it as well, your critique of him seems off to me.
saw it in the theater and loved it I watch it every year or two. Kilmer was good in it as well, your critique of him seems off to me.
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5:01PM on 10/07/2016

Wasted potential

First of all "an incredible score by Jerry Goldsmith" ?? Are you kidding me?! I know the man was a legend and all but this was one of his worst pieces of work ever, like he was on a two day deadline and desparetly scrambled together whatever he could because there no time to research to capture that "African" theme.

Also, the whole story of how Michael Douglas got involved suddenly makes alot of sense because I had a hard time buying him as a badass (even back then as a teen). Yes, the man
First of all "an incredible score by Jerry Goldsmith" ?? Are you kidding me?! I know the man was a legend and all but this was one of his worst pieces of work ever, like he was on a two day deadline and desparetly scrambled together whatever he could because there no time to research to capture that "African" theme.

Also, the whole story of how Michael Douglas got involved suddenly makes alot of sense because I had a hard time buying him as a badass (even back then as a teen). Yes, the man is an incredible actor but his dialogue felt, i dunno "misplaced" and now I know why.

If (Sir) Anthony Hopkins had taken the role I think i would have enjoyed this more because the old man back then could handle himself perfectly in action scenes (The Edge, Mask of Zorro, heck, even in Bad Company alongside Chris Rock) and also if Pierce Brosnan had replaced Val Kilmer, I'd be praising this film like all fellow commenters right now but unfortunately i'll have to settle with "Ooh, what could have been". I really wanted to like this movie but poor cast and crew choices ruined it for me.

Oh and btw " the cynical African foreman, who sticks around once the tigers start turning his workers into lunch."
(*sigh*) ...O. M.G..! You do know that tigers are another type of big-cat species...? Which happen to be found in Asia?
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3:41PM on 10/07/2016
Wasn't most of it true.The moving the people in the hospital ,only for the new one to get attacked.And the railway car when the Lion is like a metre away and they still miss shooting it? Sure that's real.Great movie.Love the callback at the end to that dream sequence.At the railway and Val sees his wife but he briefly stops and looks over too make sure it's safe.
Wasn't most of it true.The moving the people in the hospital ,only for the new one to get attacked.And the railway car when the Lion is like a metre away and they still miss shooting it? Sure that's real.Great movie.Love the callback at the end to that dream sequence.At the railway and Val sees his wife but he briefly stops and looks over too make sure it's safe.
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3:15PM on 10/07/2016

Great underrated film.

I live in Chicago. If you ever swing through, these lions are still in the Field Museum. They were actually females so no scary mane, but looking into their eyes is very haunting.
I live in Chicago. If you ever swing through, these lions are still in the Field Museum. They were actually females so no scary mane, but looking into their eyes is very haunting.
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2:23PM on 10/07/2016

once upon a time Val Kilmer did great movies like this one !


Love this movie ! great choice !

Love this movie ! great choice !
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2:23PM on 10/07/2016
Loved this movie. It was like jaws but with badass lions. Amazing setting. And I totally agree with you. Superhero movies ruined awesome adventure flicks like this one.
Loved this movie. It was like jaws but with badass lions. Amazing setting. And I totally agree with you. Superhero movies ruined awesome adventure flicks like this one.
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2:20PM on 10/07/2016
Such an underrated movie. Whether or not the entire story was true or not, it certainly made for a captivating movie. Kilmer and Douglas were spot on in this and I remember when it was shown that Remington was killed, I was blown away, being quite young and all. I never thought such a tough character could die without going down swinging.
Such an underrated movie. Whether or not the entire story was true or not, it certainly made for a captivating movie. Kilmer and Douglas were spot on in this and I remember when it was shown that Remington was killed, I was blown away, being quite young and all. I never thought such a tough character could die without going down swinging.
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12:56PM on 10/07/2016

Awesome movie

I have to watch this again, it's been too long. I saw it in theaters as well and it's one of those movies I watch if it's on TV. I don't agree with some of your points though. Val Kilmer was a leading man and could easily carry a movie. His Madmartigan is classic, he was a great Batman in a so-so Batman movie and he starred in The Saint which has its fans. I don't feel at all like he gets blown away by Michael Douglas who I also love as an actor. I also don't agree with Remington having
I have to watch this again, it's been too long. I saw it in theaters as well and it's one of those movies I watch if it's on TV. I don't agree with some of your points though. Val Kilmer was a leading man and could easily carry a movie. His Madmartigan is classic, he was a great Batman in a so-so Batman movie and he starred in The Saint which has its fans. I don't feel at all like he gets blown away by Michael Douglas who I also love as an actor. I also don't agree with Remington having to be a mysterious figure. We got just enough of his past to know why he's a bit reckless. It's not like every detail of his life was explained. If anything it made his death more of a gut punch because we liked him so much.

Either way though, great movie and I like it how it is. Interesting choice with Pierce Brosnan though, that would have been cool as hell.
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12:47PM on 10/07/2016
This really is a great movie and underrated one.
This really is a great movie and underrated one.
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11:31AM on 10/07/2016
Great choice, great movie.
Great choice, great movie.
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11:23AM on 10/07/2016

Love it!

is a good nostalgia movie for me.
is a good nostalgia movie for me.
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11:05AM on 10/07/2016
I don't know why, but this movie is infinitely quotable for me. For years I have responded to people asking me what I'm going to do with "I'm going to sort it out" in a terrible british accent. I also tell people "You sound like a man who wants to live" for absolutely no reason
I don't know why, but this movie is infinitely quotable for me. For years I have responded to people asking me what I'm going to do with "I'm going to sort it out" in a terrible british accent. I also tell people "You sound like a man who wants to live" for absolutely no reason
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2:19AM on 10/08/2016
This made me literally laugh out loud.
This made me literally laugh out loud.
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