In 1898 British Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson was put in charge of the construction of a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya. According to the movie, the schedule was tight, as Great Britain was in competition with the French and the Germans for dominance in the region. Presently the project was put in jeopardy by attacks from two lions. And that’s the basis of this movie, The Ghost and the Darkness. It stars Val Kilmer as the real-life Patterson and Michael Douglas as the fictional Charles Remington. I saw it before, and I may have once had a VHS. It is now available on Amazon Prime Video. This was released by Paramount Pictures in 1996. Details are from Wikipedia.
After opening scenes, showing Patterson being inducted into the project by Sir Robert Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson), we see Patterson on a train to the job site, along with Angus Starling (Brian McCardie), who plays fill-in roles in the plot, and who seems to have been injected primarily to add extra British flavor to an otherwise African story.
Together, Patterson and construction supervisor Samuel (John Kani) discuss how the construction will proceed. Samuel asks if Patterson is married and if he loves his wife. Patterson says he does, very much. Samuel reveals he has five wives, and he does not like any of them.
In a reveal, a scene shows a tan ghost moving through the tall grass near the construction site. Death is coming.
It comes in the middle of the night, as a lion drags a worker from his bed.
Patterson, who has hunted in India but has never seen a lion, takes up a rifle and hunts down and kills a lion face on. All want to think the lion menace is done.
But there are more attacks. Samuel and Starling team with Patterson to bait and hunt the attacking lion. As they stalk one lion through the train station, they spy another on top of the building. There are two lions.
Patterson gets the idea from his experience in India of trapping and shooting the lions. He converts a rail car into a trap. A lion enters the open door. The door slams shut behind the lion. Experienced shooters inside, protected by a steel barrier, will then shoot and kill the lion.
It doesn’t work. The terrified shooters fire but hit nothing besides the steel barrier. The lion breaks free.
Enter professional hunter Charles Remington. He’s going to kill the lions. He’s brought along a platoon of Maasai warriors to help flush out the lions.
It doesn’t work. The lions to not respond as expected. The Maasai don’t understand why the lions are acting as they do. They call them the ghost and the darkness.
Patterson constructs a stakeout platform and proposes to lure a lion within shooting range. Remington is skeptical, but it works. A lion comes, there is great danger. Patterson kills the lion. One more to go.
Patterson and Remington celebrate their partial victory. Patterson dreams his young wife (Emily Mortimer) has come to visit with their new baby. As he rushes to greet her on the station platform he sees death racing through the tall grass. He can’t save her as the lion pounces. He wakes up. Remington is missing. A lion has killed him and taken his body out of the camp.
Patterson and Samuel plot to kill the remaining lion. The lion attacks in the night and pursues Patterson onto the partially completed bridge and then to a tree, where Patterson takes refuge. The lion follows. The double-barrel long gun that Samuel throws to Patterson falls to the ground. Patterson falls, as well. The lion attacks. Patterson gets off a shot, wounding the lion. The lion persists. Patterson shoots him full in the face at point blank range.
The workers, who previously fled the lion menace, return, and the bridge is completed. And so is the movie.
Good drama, good action, good acting, good photography. A whimsical plot. A few points:
Three experienced shooters confront a lion trapped inside the rail car, and they can’t get a shot between the slats of the steel barrier?
Nobody ever thinks to tie a few goats around the camp to give the alarm when a lion approaches in the darkness?
Patterson fends off a lion at close range? No way. A real lion would have been on top of him in milliseconds. The director (Stephen Hopkins) stretched out the drama interminably. Gives us something to watch while Patterson kills the lion.
Guinness Book of World Records, in an addition I previously owned, listed this episode as the world’s worst attack by man-eating lions. I recall the number 300, the movie, based on Patterson’s book, claims 135. Researchers think it was more like 28 to 31.