Two movies about the search for the source of the Nile, made half a century apart, have arrived on video at the same time. Shot in striking black and white, Stanley and Livingstone is an old-fashioned prestige picture, heavy on enjoyable hyperbole and a strong sense of its own moral purpose. The reliably natural (and naturally reliable) Spencer Tracy is the determined newspaperman, Stanley, out to find the then-fabled missionary Livingstone (Cedric Hardwicke), only to discover that the good doctor is apparently the prototype for Mother Teresa. The movie features more uplift than a plastic surgeon’s office.
By contrast, the sensual, violent, and finally quite moving Mountains of the Moon is the antithesis of Hollywood’s old tendency to pamper history. Whereas director Henry King in Stanley and Livingstone merely tells of privation, hardship, and the thrill of discovery, Bob Rafelson dramatizes them in Mountains. The tall, true tale of Sir Richard Burton (Patrick Bergin) and John Hanning Speke (Iain Glen) searching for the Nile’s source is also a poignant story of a mismatched yet intimate friendship that eventually runs sour. It’s also a great romantic love story, and as Burton’s passionate, early-feminist wife (”If I were a man, I’d be Richard Burton”) Fiona Shaw is all too briefly magnificent.
In both movies the movement of bands of men across unknown and immense landscapes that dwarf them is awesome. The native attacks, the bouts of fever, and a terrain that cannot be second-guessed make kids of us all. Stanley and Livingstone treks across our vision in somewhat forgivable fits and starts. But Mountains of the Moon (the translation of the native name for the Nile’s source) flows by beautifully and treacherously — a grand and unstoppable rush of style, intelligence, strangeness, and emotion. A