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Suspense light-years beyond Jaws
on May 4, 2005
The Ghost and the Darkness is about the two maneating lions that terrorized the crew building a bridge at a desolate, nowhere place called Tsavo, Africa, circa 1890s, a place that had long been known as an area of active maneating lions. The original account written by Col. John H. Patterson, the engineer responsible for building the bridge and killing the lions (and played superbly by Val Kylmer), is one of the greatest Classics of African Hunting Literature ever written and known very well by legions of non-Bambi outdoor enthusiasts around the world. Subsequent accounts, the best of which is the well-researched wrtiing of 20th Century African hunter Peter Hathaway Capstick in his "Death in the Silent Places" and "The Maneaters of Tsavo" have become nearly as popular.
The movie does take some liberties with events but most of the key scenes in the movie actually happened though perhaps in a bit different context. For example, the movie has the den of the maneaters being found prior to the lions' deaths but it was actually found some weeks afterward. But that wasn't the point in 1898. The cave actually contained (as in the movie) the skeletal remains of hundreds of human victims, so many, in fact, the probability is that den had been used by maneaters for centuries. Not too surprising the crews and locals felt Tsavo was a place of Evil. Adding credibility to the longevity of use theory is the fact that four other maneaters who ran up a score of 50 souls in that same area were killed in a single day by hunter Robert Foran - in 1947. But wait. Professional hunter John Kingsley-Heath killed another maneater there too - in 1965. But wait - Peter Capstick's boss was killed and eaten not too far from Tsavo on Labor Day 1974. That's right - 1974. Where were YOU in 1974?
The African and Indian cultures of the 1890s weren't, and aren't, the United States. The liklihood these two lions would quickly be seen as "more than just lions", as some unstoppable Evil is more like a guarantee. The abject Terror of 2000-3000 African and Indian laborers was a real as Death itself. That Terror is amply displayed in the movie, but is still understated.
The movie's lions, even with their ominous role as "more than lions", act very much like real maneaters did, and do. And when they do it in a joust with unarmed humans, they usually win, bigtime, and assorted gore and human body parts are a consistant by-product of such festivities. I've never never read anything at all about a famous lioneater.
The movie's filming and effects are very good. Michael Douglas, as the ficticious hunter Remington, supports Kylmer well, and with a well-done, darkly amusing style. The "shock" scenes are "SHOCK" scenes, especially one in particular. You will FEEL your blood pressure drop to zero only to be red-lining again in a flash. You WILL hold your breath and you may regain it. Seriously, allowing a young child to watch this is probably not the best of ideas, and not because of the gore but because many of the scenes of the primal, nightmarish Horror these maneating lions deliver take place after dark and "after dark" is already an "iffy" proposition for many kids without the fangs of Hades clashing in their minds. Sweet Dreams.