In 1898, Sir Robert Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson), the primary financier of a railroad project in Tsavo, Kenya, is furious because the project is running behind schedule. He seeks out the expertise of John Henry Patterson (Val Kilmer), an Irish military engineer, to get the project back on track. Patterson travels from England to Tsavo, telling his wife, Helena, he will complete the project and be back in London for the birth of their son. He meets supervisors Angus Starling (Brian McCardie) and Samuel (John Kani), (the film's narrator), and the doctor, David Hawthorne (Bernard Hill). Hawthorne tells Patterson of a recent lion attack.
That night, Patterson kills an approaching lion with one shot, earning the respect of the workmen. The project gets back on schedule. However, not long afterwards Mahina (Henry Cele), the construction foreman, is dragged from his tent in the middle of the night. His half-eaten body is found the next morning. Patterson then attempts a second night-time lion hunt, but the following morning another worker is found dead at the opposite end of the camp from Patterson's position.
Patterson's only comfort now is the letters he receives from his wife. Soon, while the workers are gathering wood and building firepits around the tents, a lion attacks the camp in the middle of the day. While Patterson, Starling and Samuel are tracking it to one end of the camp, another lion leaps upon them from the roof of a building, killing Starling with a slash to the throat and injuring Patterson. Despite the latter's efforts to kill them, both lions escape.
Samuel states that there has never been a pair of man-eaters; they have always been solitary hunters. The men, led by Abdullah (Om Puri), begin to turn on Patterson. They dub the lions "the Ghost" and "the Darkness" because of their notorious methods of attack, and work on the bridge comes to a halt. Patterson requests soldiers from England to protect the workers, but is denied. During a visit to the camp, Beaumont tells Patterson he will ruin his reputation if the bridge is not finished on time and that he will contact the famous hunter Charles Remington (Michael Douglas) to help because Patterson has been unable to kill the animals.
When Remington arrives with skilled Maasai warriors to help kill the lions, the initial attempt fails when Patterson's borrowed gun misfires. The warriors decide to leave, but Remington stays behind. He constructs a new hospital for sick and injured workers and tempts the lions to the abandoned building with animal parts and blood.
When the lions fall for the trap, Remington and Patterson shoot at them; they flee and attack the new hospital, killing many patients and Dr. Hawthorne. Abdullah and the construction men leave, and only Patterson, Remington, and Samuel remain behind to face the marauders. Patterson and Remington locate the animals' lair, discovering the bones of dozens of the lions' victims. That night, Remington kills one of the pair by using Patterson and a baboon as bait. The men celebrate, though later Patterson dreams about his wife and infant son visiting him in Tsavo, only for them to be killed by the remaining lion before he can get to them.
Waking from his nightmare the next morning, Patterson discovers that the remaining lion has dragged Remington from his tent and killed him; Patterson and Samuel cremate Remington's corpse on a pyre at the spot where he died. Grief-stricken and desperate to end the carnage, the two men burn the tall grass surrounding the camp, driving the surviving lion toward the camp (and the ambush they set there).
The lion attacks Patterson and Samuel on the partially constructed bridge and after a lengthy fight, Patterson finally kills it. Abdullah and the construction men return, and the bridge is completed on time. The film ends with Patterson's wife arriving with their son, and a narration by Samuel, who informs the audience that the lions are now on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. Even today, he says, "if you dare lock eyes with them, you will be afraid".
- Val Kilmer as Col. John Henry Patterson
- Michael Douglas as Charles Remington
- John Kani as Samuel
- Bernard Hill as Dr. David Hawthorne
- Tom Wilkinson as Robert Beaumont
- Brian McCardie as Angus Starling
- Emily Mortimer as Helena Patterson
- Om Puri as Abdullah
- Henry Cele as Mahina
William Goldman first heard about the story when travelling in Africa in 1984, and thought it would make a good script. In 1989 he pitched the story to Paramount as a cross between Lawrence of Arabia and Jaws, and they commissioned him to write a screenplay which he delivered in 1990.
The script fictionalises Patterson's account, introducing an American big game hunter called Charles Remington. The character was based on Anglo-Indian big game hunter Charles Ryall, superintendent of the Railway Police. In original drafts the character was called Redbeard, and Goldman says his purpose in the story was to create an imposing character who could be killed by the lions and make Patterson seem more brave; Goldman's inspiration for the part was Burt Lancaster.
Kevin Costner expressed interest in playing Patterson, but Paramount wanted to use Tom Cruise who ultimately declined. Michael Douglas then came on board as producer and Stephen Hopkins was hired to direct. Val Kilmer, who had just made Batman Forever then expressed enthusiasm for the script, which enabled the project to be financed. The part of Remington was originally offered to Sean Connery and Anthony Hopkins but both declined; the producers were considering asking Gérard Depardieu when Douglas decided to play the role himself.
In early drafts of the script, Remington was originally going to be an enigmatic figure but when Douglas chose to play him, the character's role was expanded and was given a history. In Goldman's book Which Lie Did I Tell?, the screenwriter argues that Douglas' decision ruined the mystery of the character, making him a wimp and a loser.
The film was shot mainly on location at Songimvelo Game Reserve in South Africa, rather than Kenya, due to tax laws. Many Maasai characters in the film were actually portrayed by South African actors, although the Maasai depicted during the hunt were portrayed by real Maasai warriors who were hired for the movie.
While the real man-eaters were, like all lions from the Tsavo region, a more aggressive, maneless variety, those used for filming were actually the least aggressive available, for both safety and aesthetic reasons. The film's lions were two male lions with manes. They were brothers named Caesar and Bongo, who were residents of the Bowmanville Zoo in Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada, both of whom were also featured in George of the Jungle. The film also featured three other lions: two from France and one from the USA.
"The Ghost and the Darkness" debuted at #2 at the box office, grossing $38,553,833 during its opening weekend.
Domestically, the film made $75,019,405, $55,000,000 in the foreign market and $36,400,000 worldwide.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie was given a 50% rating based on 26 reviews.
Roger Ebert gave it a rating of three in a half stars, saying that it "Despite mumbo jumbo about the lions being supernatural demons unleashed by the imperialistic white man, it's nothing more than Jaws with claws.".
The San Francisco Examiner said the film "The picture is too lightweight, too posturing and too self-important to go in an introspective direction.".
- ↑ Goldman p 72-74
- ↑ Patterson, Bruce D. (2004). The lions of Tsavo: exploring the legacy of Africa's notorious man-eaters. McGraw-Hill Professional.
- ↑ Goldman p 89
- ↑ Goldman p 91-93
- Goldman, William, Which Lie Did I Tell?', Bloomsbury, 2000