In 1898 British military engineer John Henry Patterson (Val Kilmer) is sent to Tsavo, Kenya on a mission to get a costly railroad project back on schedule. His innate decency and idealism soon win over the mixed group of native African and migrant Indian workers, but a terrifying obstacle arises in the form of two large man-eating lions. Their unusually bold and brutal attacks quickly decimate Patterson's crew leaving the survivors reluctant to stay in fear for their lives. When all efforts fail to halt these vicious predators, chief financier Sir Robert Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson) brings in famous big game hunter Charles Remington (Michael Douglas) though even he finds the lions a formidable foe.
Written by William Goldman, legendary scribe behind among others Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), All the President's Men (1977) and The Princess Bride] (1987), and based on a true story transcribed in a book by the real Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson ("The Man-Eaters of Tsavo"), The Ghost and the Darkness was intended to be basically Jaws (1975) on land. With a dash of sweeping historical adventure a la Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Alas, what emerged was a mess even the film's director Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2 (1990), Blown Away (1994), Lost in Space (1998)) later admitted he found unwatchable. For his part Goldman chalked up the film's commercial failure to wildlife conservationism having so influenced popular opinion audiences no longer found lions scary. No matter how much gory havoc they wreaked on screen. However the film had other problems to contend with behind the scenes. Among these: bad weather, the crew beset by scorpions and other insects and a supposedly tense relationship between Hopkins and executive producer-star Michael Douglas. It is worth noting both Hopkins and Goldman praised the famously temperamental Val Kilmer for his enthusiasm and commitment to the project even though filming the similarly problem-plagued The Island of Doctor Moreau (1996) left him too exhausted to make sense of his character.
Goldman establishes an intriguing historical backdrop to his jungle shocker, drawing Patterson as a liberal idealist who perceives a nobility in his job (and the underlining concept of empire) building bridges that bring civilizations together. Early on the film contrasts him with not only caricatured imperialist Sir Robert Beaumont but cynical Dr. David Hawthorne (Bernard Hill) who shares none of Patterson's idealism. He sees the whole bridge-building project as about nothing more than ivory trade: white imperialist greed, pure and simple. Unfortunately both the ideological clash and hint of racial tension between white colonialists, Indian workers and native Africans take a back seat once the film shifts its focus onto the gory lion attacks. Despite striking photography by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, The Ghost and the Darkness strives for a combination of heroic grandeur, visceral terror and pulp poetry sadly beyond its grasp. The end result proves merely obtuse. Jumbled editing makes a mess of Goldman's ambitious script and smacks of post-production tampering.
By all accounts the chief culprit was Michael Douglas. He makes his belated albeit initially badass entrance at around the forty minute mark, but thereafter proves hard to take seriously. Goldman intended Remington, a wholly fictional character he concocted for the movie (in real life, Patterson faced the lions alone) to come across as enigmatic and ambiguous. A dissection of that macho archetype the Great White Hunter. However Douglas (who only decided at the last minute to play the role himself) re-cut the film in post-production, removing forty-five minutes of scenes that according to Goldman rendered Remington a "wimp and a loser." The depiction of the non-white characters in the finished film as screaming buffoons and lion bait is also deeply problematic with the lone exception of Samuel (John Kani) the token clichéd 'noble savage.' One imagines or at the very least would hope Goldman's original draft had more finesse. What remains, whether intentionally or not, seems to tacitly endorse imperialism as a unifying rather than dividing or exploitative force. Given Hopkins' schlock-horror staging of the lion attacks (including a tacky dream sequence that harks back to his Hollywood breakthrough with A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)) are as ham-fisted as his work in Predator 2, the film does not have much to fall back on. Much like the unfortunate railway workers its guts have been disemboweled. Yet strangely it seems to have endured among genre fans judging from several online polls listing it among the best animal-horror films out there. So maybe William Goldman was wrong about modern viewers no longer finding lions scary.
It wasn't so much that audiences didn't find lions scary, Goldman said (the one in Jumanji freaked out a generation), but more that they couldn't get on board with killing them, no matter how many people the beasts had eaten. Just like the unwritten "don't kill the dog" rule. The real story is actually quite fascinating, but I don't know if there will ever be a right time to fictionalise it in movies.