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