On the orange plains of Africa, two feisty British explorers march onward, searching for their Holy Grail — the elusive source of the Nile. They fight off lions and deadly insects that slide into their ears in the middle of the night; they endure strange diseases that make their legs swell up with blood; they’re captured by natives who cage them and feed them hallucinogens. All the while, a brassy-romantic, John Williams-ish score keeps soaring with pride, in celebration of their manly fortitude.
In Mountains of the Moon, director Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces, Black Widow) has made a newfangled version of an old-fashioned colonial adventure. Shot in Kenya, and drawn largely from William Harrison’s 1982 novel Burton & Speke, the movie is a large-scale, essentially nonfiction treatment of the story of Richard Burton (Patrick Bergin), the legendary adventurer from Victorian England, and John Hanning Speke (Iain Glen), who joined him on several expeditions into the African wilds.
According to the film, the pair had radically different goals. Burton, a poet, womanizer, devoted scientist, and daredevil by temperament, was the proverbial Englishman gone native, an anthropological cowboy who had a mystical respect for indigenous cultures and longed to experience them on their own terms. He was an explorer of the soul. Speke, on the other hand, was an aristocrat bent on locating the Nile’s source for glory and profit. Ironically, it was Speke — the opportunist — who ended up with credit for the discovery. (The film’s title refers to the mountains that, according to geographical legend, hid the source.)
The myth of civilized white men confronting the enigmas and dangers of primitive society has served the movies often, if not too well. In such extravagantly high-minded anthro-spectacles as The Mission, Out of Africa, and The Emerald Forest, the clash-of-cultures scenario has produced much inflated moralizing and patronizing of the natives. It may be that this theme is simply better handled (at least by white men) in a fanciful, storybook setting — e.g., John Huston’s splendid 1975 adaptation of The Man Who Would Be King.
Rafelson, who claims he was drawn to Burton’s story back in the ’60s, has never worked with this sort of epic material before. Nevertheless, Mountains of the Moon is physically raw and impressive. Aided by the gifted cinematographer Roger Deakins and the sound whiz Alan Splet, Rafelson conjures up an alarmingly vivid primitive uuiverse, with sun, animals, and the nearly uninhabitable terrain merged into a harsh continuum.
In other ways, his inexperience at spectacle shows. Structurally, Mountains of the Moon has no center. Amid the graphic and often bloody detail, the wilderness anecdotes veer and collide, so that we get none of the escalating drama of Burton’s quest. Still, the film’s rambling style might have been forgivable if we sensed Rafelson were at least straining to get an original handle on his subject. The surprise — and disappointment — of Mountains is what a ponderously square and earnest white-man’s-burden movie it is. It plays like an ooga-booga jungle fantasy from the 1940s padded out with state- of-the-art documentary details of native life.
The film can’t make up its mind whether to treat Burton as a human being or a mythic swashbuckler, a 19th-century Indiana Jones. The Irish actor Patrick Bergin speaks his lines in a booming, generic he-man’s voice. He’s believably fearless, but his personality has no weight or flamboyance. Surely the real Burton, a man far ahead of his time and culture, would have been a complex eccentric and not this square-jawed Saturday-matinee stud.
And Rafelson ends up playing the native hostility for exploitation thrills. The character we get to know best is a sadistic tribe leader who delights in publicly humiliating Burton and his men. He’s meant to be a corruption of the natural order, but what about the tribesmen Burton actually worked with? Aside from the inevitable grinning safari guide (Paul Onsongo), none of the friendly natives ever develops into a character. Rafelson’s anthropological seriousness is beyond question, but considering his ’60s roots, his dramatic sense seems curiously unenlightened. C