MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON is an outstanding film. Rare is the period film set in a non-Western locale that seems strangely authentic and devoid of overly exotic fetishism and/or preachy moralizing. To be sure, there have been many decent genre movies about whites in Africa hunting, warring, and adventuring. The older ones tend to romanticize the white man as upright, dashing, and fun in contrast to natives who are generally either noble/innocent or savage/dangerous. The later ‘revisionist’ movies tend present whites as greedy exploiters and non-whites as the oppressed burning with righteous rage. Most of them, whether traditional or progressive, tend to share a set of cliches and plot formulations. The revisionist films may have turned things upside down, but they still functioned within similarly simpleminded sets of assumptions, with predictable conclusions about good and evil.
Thankfully, MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON was based on the actual events surrounding the search for the source of the Nile, so the extent of ‘creative license’ was restricted by the nature of the source material itself. Of course, many movies purporting to be based-on-true-events tend to be no less fanciful or cliche-ridden than purely fictional films, but MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON, like Sidney Lumet’s PRINCE OF THE CITY, is a notable exception.
When this film came out in 1990, I ignored it for the simple reason that the director’s name was associated with films such as FIVE EASY PIECES, KING OF MARVIN GARDENS, and BLACK WIDOW. BLACK WIDOW came out three yrs prior to MOUNTAINS and struck me as only adequate. Bob Rafelson’s fame was then–as is now–most closely linked with FIVE EASY PIECES, which along with EASY RIDER, catapulted Jack Nicholson to the pantheon of leading actors of his generation. Though considered an important work at the time, a ‘cultural event’ heralding a new era of personal film-making in America, it hasn’t aged particularly well; Nicholson particularly looks miscast as a classical-pianist-turned-drifter. It was heavier on attitudinizing and mannerism than on truth. KING OF MARVIN GARDENS, Rafelson’s next film, has its defender and detractors. Let’s just say I couldn’t make myself care for the characters or plot, a sure sign that the film was more head than heart. Even so, given what has become of American cinema, FIVE and KING are understandably cherished as special works made at a time when American cinema seemed to be maturing into an artform along the lines pioneered by European masters. Anyway, given Rafaelson’s legendary status as one of the key personal directors of the early 70s, his foray into ‘epic filmmaking’ with MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON struck me as a kind of ‘selling out’ to middlebrow respectability. It seemed as if he was trying to be David Lean.
If I recall correctly, MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON didn’t make much money and won no special plaudits from the critics. Most of the reviews were favorable but not ecstatic. I recall catching Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on their nationally syndicated show praising the film highly, but I don’t think it made either’s Best Movies of the Year list. In time it was forgotten, and I doubt if most people even heard of it. Even within the film community, Rafelson will continue to be associated with FIVE EASY PIECES than with anything else.
This is too bad since MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON is by far Rafelson’s best film and indeed one of the best movies about the era of British Imperialism. It’s interesting that some of the best period films about British history have been made by Jewish directors who actually rose to prominence by making films about the restless post-imperial ‘present’. FIVE EASY PIECES was very much a film of its time, and Mike Leigh, the Anglo-Jewish director of the superb TOPSY-TURVY, came to prominence through socially conscious drama such as HIGH HOPES and NAKED. Though having made their name by plunging their hairy arms into the rough-and-tumble cesspool of the here-and-now, they later seemed to drawn to another time and place, an earlier era when the distinctions among the classes, nationalities, races, sexes, and cultures had been more clearly demarcated. (One thing FIVE EASY PIECES and MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON have in common is the theme of privileged white men adrift in the world. The difference is the characters in MOUNTAINS still believe there is much to discover whereas the attitude of the protagonist in FIVE seems to be there’s nothing left to discover. Everything’s been mapped, and life is too easy. FIVE EASY PIECES is about the difficulty of making peace with the unbearable ease of life. So, the hero goes out of his way to seek trouble, to get lost. If the heroes of MOUNTAINS venture off in search for something new and unknown, the anti-hero of FIVE EASY PIECES crawls away to hide from the world but can’t find any refuge. Everything becomes too familiar, too boring, and too same too fast. In psychological terms, he can’t hide from the world because he can’t run from himself.) Given the implicit political material of MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON or TOPSY-TURVY, Rafelson and Leigh could have had a field day with politically correct critique of ‘racism’, ‘sexism’, and cultural prejudice. Yet strangely enough, TOPSY-TURVY is Leigh’s most big-hearted work, by which I mean his feelings are humanist than ideological. Perhaps, it’s easier to wax romantic about the past since, good or bad, it’s lost and gone forever. However one may feel about the British explorers/exploiters and their cultural assumptions in the Victorian era, we can rest assured–with relief or grief–that the likes of them shall never walk this earth again.
Many interpretations can be drawn from the characters and events in MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON, but Rafelson is to be commended for leaving the final judgment to the audience. He has approached the material with respect, reverence, and even awe. For however we may feel about Western imperialism, there’s no denying that some British explorers were men of great vision and courage as well of vanity and a bit of madness. This may explain the film’s failure with the general audience and film scholars. People want to be told what to think. They want good guys vs bad guys or a sermon about social or historical evils. They want sweeping epic grandeur and sensationalization of the exotic–either as colorfully noble or wickedly savage.
MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON doesn’t present its two main characters as grand heroes nor as ‘evil racists’. And the diverse cast of natives comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes, temperaments, and convictions. There is no easy truth, no easy emotion. Indeed, Rafelson restrains from overt emotionalism even when the expedition arrives at Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile. Rafelson makes us share not only in the explorers’ excitements and dangers but their anxiety, doubts, and frustration. The existential is melded with the exhilarating and exhausting. It is one of the most thoughtful period ‘epics’.
It’s interesting to watch the British, the most advanced people on Earth at the time, trekking forth in near-primitive and hapless conditions through much of the journey, often dependent on sheer luck and accident to advance few extra miles for long stretches. And that some native Africans willingly joined this seemingly insane adventure tells us how desperately poor and/or bored they must have been. If you wanna be crazy, why not go all the way and follow the great crazy white man with the biggest craziest ideas?
One may argue that most of the Africans only register as manual laborers or strange tribesmen, but the story is essentially and unapologetically told from the perspective of white explorers–based on their written records. It makes no pretense to hide its ‘Eurocentrism’ or to be ‘balanced and fair’(with token moments to ‘get to know the darkies better’). Whatever limitations or prejudices this may pose to the current orthodoxy, it is more honest in some ways. As an artist seeks the truth, he should dwell on truth he knows best than pretend to care about peoples he knows nothing about. (I haven’t read PASSAGE TO INDIA–surprise, surprise–, but David Lean’s adaptation seemed to be marred by an overeagerness to be ‘fair’ to the dotters–and to everyone. It all seemed strained and possibly even a bit condescending.) MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON shows us the world through the minds, eyes, and feet of British explorers of privileged background. It doesn’t pretend to be about the whole truth, which is too vast and complex for any single artist or work to grasp. But, the film is very much aware of its limitations, which is why Rafelson doesn’t deliver moments portending the revelation of some great truth. No “magic negro” nor “white man’s burden” moment. Though grand in scope, it is thoughtfully humble of heart and mind. If anything feels wrong throughout the movie, it is the musical score which is typical of the feel-good epics Hollywood churns out now and then. The shaded complexity of the characters and drama is sometimes thickly overlaid with gushing false notes of the score, but then music is often been the worst element in many films.
The two main characters are Richard Francis Burton, a Scotsman, and John Hanning Speke. Speke is from an aristocratic family and a member of the British Royal Society. He takes to hunting and adventure with an enthusiasm bordering on the boyish–but also vanity, impatience, and fragile pride. But, he is a man of his word, of considerable courage and commitment. He lives by a code of honor, however limited such things may be. His strengths are inseparable from his flaws. No matter the distance he travels, the peoples and cultures he encounters, and the lessons he learns(or should learn), there is always the touchy-proud and uptight/upright aristocrat about him. His inner compass sustains him through the toughest times, but it always points back to Britain. Even when he finally sets his eyes upon Lake Victoria which he believes to be the source of the Nile, it’s more a moment of official than personal triumph. In his heart, he’s done it for the Royal Society, the Queen, the Empire.
Richard Burton is different, which accounts for the not infrequent tensions flaring up between Speke and him. But, they also make a natural pair with complementary talents and skills. Burton is the dashing and daring explorer who has an easy rapport with the natives; he’s adept at tuning into the signals of different cultures. Burton is something of a paradox; he feels at home everywhere because he feels at home nowhere. Adventure is his home.
His dream of finding the source of the Nile is personal than social or political. Perhaps the fact that he’s a Scotsman of lesser privilege–cultural and class–infused him with a certain ambiguity about the British Empire. He feels as an outsider even though officially he’s an insider.
Perhaps, we cannot fully appreciate this unless we take into account how the British Empire was dominated by men of certain classes in certain southern regions of Britain. Even so, we shouldn’t make too much of this. Burton is thankfully not an overbearingly politically correct(thus anachronistic) figure of white guilt and conscience. He’s not a walking Gandhi-the-movie. There is no doubt he is ultimately a man of the Empire who feels pride in his identity. After all, it’s the empire that allows him to travel around the world as privileged member of a great power.
He supposedly knows 23 languages, read most of the great holy texts in their original languages, and loves to mingle with and learn about other cultures. Though he marries a white woman, she’s fascinated with him precisely because he’s so restless and adventurous; he’s a conquering hero, not a stuffy homebody. He even seems to dally with native women.
When Speke first seeks him out, he’s sitting in a Mosque with Muslims. Some on the White Right may denounce him as the original Globalist or cosmopolitan type, but such views would be rather historicist, not to mention churlish and petty.
Richard Burton was both an emblematic man of his time and a rare man of his time. He was interested in the peoples and cultures around the world, but he was no dreamy-eyed radical utopian. A Globalist is someone who seeks to force the entire world into the NWO; a Globalist tries to squeeze all the people into one global village. Burton, in contrast, thinks and acts as an individual. He doesn’t wish for the world to be like him or follow his lead. Indeed, he relishes the fact that he himself is special, an oddity, a man of too great an intelligence, imagination, and curiosity to be satisfied with British or nationalist ‘provincialism’. But he knows most people can never be like him.
Burton’s ‘cosmopolitanism’ is individualist than ideological. But, ‘cosmopolitan’ may not be the right word, for it implies an urban-centric view of the world that wishes to stress the universality of man and human rights. Burton does have a basic and even universalist view of human morality, but he is drawn more to the differences among peoples and cultures than to whatever generic commonality they may share.
If there’s always the upright Briton within Speke wherever he goes, there is always the maverick loner in Burton even when he’s back in Britain. Burton is the more charismatic of the two, though the headstrong discipline of Speke was no doubt crucial to the success of the expedition. Burton is an exciting figure but also a lonely one. Restless in his quest for knowledge and adventure, he feels at home nowhere–not in Britain, not in any part of Africa. His love of Africa is less about the fondness for particular peoples or cultures than for the thrill of ‘discovering’ yet another native tribe or natural treasure just over the mountain, around the shoreline, across the valley, and so on. In his adventures, he’s like Odysseus, but if Odysseus had a faithful wife who longed for his return, Burton’s wife seems to be turned on by the fact that her man is a kind of ‘rock star’ who always has to play master of the world.
Near the end of the movie, Burton criticizes British imperialist politics and calls for fuller appreciation of Africans and their cultures. This speech carries the element of nobility of heart and mind without the preening self-aggrandizing feel-good righteousness that define most films of this type. We can’t help but to sympathize with Burton’s sentiments because we followed him through the travels and travails. Just as what soldiers see and sense on the frontline is different from what politicians see and think from far away–consider soldiers in Iraq as opposed to neocons running the policy in Washington–, Burton’s words carry the weight of real experience.
It should be noted that the depiction of most of the white-African-Arab relations seem well-researched and open-minded. It’s not reduced to a simple message of evil white man oppressing poor blacks or barbaric Muslims good for nothing but slitting throats of innocents.
Along the journey, we discover the Arab role in East Coast African slave trade; but, we also see how Arabs have settled in the region and become a part of the landscape. As the expedition enters more deeply into tribal areas–where some natives have never seen a white man–we come upon tribes which still practice slavery and commit cruel acts of torture. When Burton and Speke enter the village of one particularly unpleasant tribe–in which a black friend of Burton is tortured and killed–, Burton is deeply distressed and perhaps even filled with doubt as to his respect for different cultures and tribes. (And, it must be said the only reason why Burton can enjoy his various adventures is because there is a political and economic center called Britain. If such didn’t exist and if Burton had to fend for himself all alone in the world, could he be a man-of-the-world? As much as he feels at home all over the world, he is respected as a white man only because of the riches and power of his imperial domain. The black cargo carriers and other servants who joined the expedition–of which they have little clue–are in awe of the rich and powerful white man because of the white man’s power. Indeed, the vicariousness of being a white man in the wider world is revealed when Burton and Speke later come upon a hostile tribe that has no knowledge of the white man or the white man’s power. Perhaps, this is something modern white liberals don’t quite recognize about themselves in relation to the larger world. They go to poor Third World countries and feel rich and powerful; they are treated with a degree of respect and awe by the locals. Thus, a kind of White Man’s Burden overtakes their mind, even if it’s of the more ‘progressive’ and do-goody brand. White liberals don’t understand that the natives’ respect for white folks has everything to do with the power and wealth of the white world, not out of any respect for white people themselves.)
Though the main story revolves around the search of the source of the Nile River, the great journey serves as a metaphor for soul-searching as well. At one point, Burton saves a runaway black slave from lions. The saved man pledges his life to Burton and joins the expedition. He proves to be indispensable. Along the way, Burton comes down with swollen legs, and he has to be helped along for the rest of the journey. With failing legs, in his weakness and vulnerability, Burton becomes more reflective and thoughtful.
Anyway, the expedition comes upon a particularly hostile and troublesome tribe, and it turns out that the slave-saved-from-the-lion had escaped from these very people. Though Speke and Burton somehow–indeed barely–manage to put themselves on friendly footing with the tribal king, the recaptured slave is cruelly put to death. This happens right before Burton’s eyes in the tribal king’s hut while Speke is away to complete the final leg of the expedition. Though Speke fails to ascertain for sure that the mountain lake is the final source of the Nile, he’s convinced by its sheer size and grandeur. Just when he revels in triumph and glory, Burton feels lost and forlorn in the tribal village where the African he’d saved and befriended was killed for no-good-reason. I don’t know how much of this part of the story was based on actual records or fabricated for the movie, but it’s compelling as drama. Burton fails to make it make to the end of the journey and set his eyes on the great lake–eventually to be named Lake Victoria–, but he makes a discovery of his own, one that is Conrad-ian in nature. It’s as if the search for the source of the life-giving Nile was also a exploration of the source of all that is good and evil in man.
In the hostile tribe that gave Burton so much grief, there is a king who seems divided between feelings of good and evil. The king draws his power, glory, and meaning from an adviser given to corruption and sadism, proud warriors, handsome children, and primitive ingenuity in building huts and the like. This primitive setting is neither an innocent Eden nor a savage hellhole; like any world of man, it’s one where forces of good and evil vie for relative advantage. The king’s balance of morality hovers between words whispered into his ears by a cruel & cunning adviser and an inner voice–and things around him–that indicate otherwise.
It is worlds apart from the world of the British Empire, but we later see similar problems surface in London, the greatest center of the world back then. There’s the ‘provincialism’, the preening and haughty pride, and manipulations and machinations of the powerful and the cunning. In opposition are the wider and more generous world views of men of bigger hearts(and maybe bigger minds).
Thankfully, none of this is done in a cartoonish way nor in a stuffy “Masterpiece Theater”.
Still, parallels remain. Different cultures are indeed worlds apart, but the foibles of men of a great empire can also be found in men of primitive of tribes. And though Burton is sickened by an African tribe that still practices and trades in slavery, the fact remains that north Africa was opened to the world by Arab slave traders and one of the earliest interests of the British in Africa was the slave trade. MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON makes us feel a certain moral anguish but also reminds us that all peoples’ hands are soiled by ‘sins’ of cruelty and exploitation.
There is a coda to this story in keeping with the overall tone of the movie. It is not a simple feel-good nostalgic nor triumphalist movie, nor is it a movie with a moral or message that finally sums it all up. Through misunderstanding, a rift develops between Burton and Speke, one that is personal as well as academic. Though the official reason for the disagreement centers on the validity of Lake Victoria as the source of the Nile, the emotions and politics–and business–behind the debate go deeper. Initially, Speke chose not to proclaim with absolute certitude that he had definitively discovered the source of the Nile and waited to work out the details with Burton. But, an unscrupulous ‘friend’ misinforms Speke about Burton’s allegedly nefarious rumors and agenda behind his back; therefore, an angry and even spiteful Speke comes to see Burton as a rival if not an outright enemy. By the time Speke discovers the truth about the lie, it’s too late and the damage has been done. And though the film is only suggestive on this, Speke finds the only way redeem his honor.
A truly remarkable movie for those who want to experience in sights and sounds what it may have been like to be at the forefront of worldshaking discoveries when the British Empire was at its peak. Today, it should also serve as a warning to all peoples and individuals who think that no empire or glory is ever permanent.