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Film / The Ghost and the Darkness

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"They are not lions, they are the Ghost and the Darkness."

The Ghost and the Darkness is a 1996 American adventure thriller film directed by Stephen Hopkins, starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.

It's a very loose re-telling of the story of John Henry Patterson (Kilmer), a British-Irish Lieutenant Colonel and Military Engineer who was assigned to supervise the construction of the Uganda Railroad in Tsavo, Kenya in 1898. This mission seems easy enough at first, but is soon complicated by the appearance of two relentless anthropophagous lions, the "Ghost" and the "Darkness," who manage to infiltrate every part of the construction camp whenever they please to hunt the workers. This naturally spreads panic among the men and makes the threat of rebellion likely, leaving Patterson, with only the help of his African assistant Samuel (John Kani) and the American hunter Charles Remington (Douglas), to face the lions and save the railroad project before it is too late.

The film provides example of:

  • Anachronism Stew: Samuel's double-barrelled shotgun is appropriate for the time period...but the red plastic shells are not. It would not be until 1960 that the first plastic shotshells were introduced; before then, shotshells were made of brass or paper.
  • Animal Nemesis: Patterson becomes obsessed with taking down the two lions.
  • Animalistic Abomination: The lions are speculated to be this In-Universe, with Samuel declaring them to be Made of Evil.
  • Arc Symbol: The beauty of Africa and the dangers lurking underneath is represented by the tall brown Savannah grass. Patterson burns it to flush out the remaining lion. In the ending, he still worriedly looks at the grass, afraid something else might jump out of it.
  • Artistic License – Biology: The real Tsavo maneaters had no manes, but audiences would find it strange and less impressive to see male lions without manes.
  • Ax-Crazy: The two homicidal lions whose murderous actions goes beyond normal predators' standards. It's also implied that they kill for the pleasure.
  • Babies Ever After: Patterson is reunited with his wife and their newborn baby at the end of the movie.
  • Bad Boss: Sir Robert Beaumont, and he absolutely knows it. First thing he tells Patterson upon meeting him is that he's a monster and that the latter will grow to hate him.
  • Batman Gambit: Both Patterson and the lions do this repeatedly. Patterson's trap was assuming the lion would hit the tripwire, and it worked, but then the lion trapped continually moved and roared, deducing the workers would be too terrified to shoot accurately. When Patterson, Sterling and Samuel corner one of the lions, it hinged on the other one leaping when they were focused. The barn also worked, but the lions were quick to see through it.
  • Battle Amongst the Flames: The final confrontation between Patterson and the remaining lion occurs on and around the bridge right after Patterson has set the surrounding grassland on fire in order to drive the beast out of hiding.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: The two lions.
  • Blood Lust: According to the autopsy once the lions have killed Mahina they licked his skin off and drank his blood once it gets out.
  • Cannibal Larder: The protagonists find the lions' den while tracking them down, and discover that it is littered with bones of the lions' victims, animal... and human.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Patterson has one. It involves dreaming his wife and newborn child are eaten by the lions.
  • Cats Are Mean: The two feline antagonists are vicious, blood-thirsty wild beasts who at times even appear to be humanly-like evil. And that's when they're not being depicted as straight-up supernatural.
  • *Click* Hello: Remington enters the movie popping out of a crowd to do this to Abdullah.
  • Composite Character: In the film, Mahina is an African foreman with a reputation for toughness, which makes it all the more shocking when he's killed by the lions. In Patterson's narrative of the real events, it was the death of a Sikh jemadar named Ungan Singh that convinced him the lions were a serious threat, while Mahina was the name of Patterson's Indian gunbearer; the historical Mahina survived the lions' rampage and continued to accompany Patterson on his adventures.note 
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Sir Robert Beaumont. The man only cares about the train being made, and to hell with human losses. He even refuses Patterson's request for soldiers, despite over 30 men being killed by the lions, because he only cares about a knighthood for building the bridge and doesn't want the British to seem weak by showing fear of the local wildlife. However he is pragmatic, not firing Patterson because it will take too long to replace him and Bringing in the Expert because a professional lion hunter is more likely to get results.
  • Cultural Translation: The (Southern) American hunter Charles Remington played by Michael Douglas is entirely fictional and was probably introduced to appeal to American audiences. See also Executive Meddling on the Trivia page.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • A trait of Abdullah's.
      John: I will take care of the lions. You will be safe.
      Abdullah: About that, I will choose to remain dubious.
    • Samuel delivers most of his lines this way.
      Preacher: I will not rest until you are all safely in the fold!
      Samuel: (blandly) I have four wives.
  • Determinator: The lions, who in turn to fail to realize that when Patterson says he's never not finished a job, he means it.
    Patterson: "I'm going to sort it out." *BLAM* "I'm going. To sort! IT OUT!!"
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: At one point, apropos of nothing at all, Remington wishes Patterson a merry Christmas.
  • Did Not Think This Through: Given the fact that everyone is already well aware of the lion problem, Samuel, as one of the in-house protectors, seems woefully unprepared during the attack sequence where Angus is killed. We see Samuel haphazardly clutching a shotgun bandolier with his pump hand, letting it dangle loosely and interfere with his weapon's function. Several seconds later, he starts loading his shotgun, revealing that he'd been walking around as part of the strike team with an unloaded gun: possibly, and hopefully, due to a massive adrenaline dump.
  • Epic Fail: The workers that try to shoot one of the lions when it falls in Paterson's trap only damage the cage and themselves with their panicky fire, even if they're standing three to five feet away, and set the device aflame when they kick over a lantern is said panic. It was a whole lot worse in the real events — not only were the shooters experienced policemen instead of rookies Paterson taught in an afternoon, but in a twist that wouldn't have made it into the film because it's too crazy to believe, one of the bullets hit the cage's lock, letting the lion escape.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Patterson's nightmare of the lion jumping out of the grass and killing his family inspires him to burn the grass to flush out the remaining lion.
  • Evil Colonialist: Beaumont might not be bloodthirsty like the typical example but he ticks all the other boxes. Racist, apathetic, condescending, egotistical and overall a strong believer in the British Empire and its “supremacy”
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: The lions do seem to care about each other. When one of them is killed, the surviving lion seems to star hunting humans even more to avenge his companion's death.
  • Exploring the Evil Lair: Patterson and Remington when they enter in the lions' cave.
  • Fangs Are Evil: Just like any normal lions, the Ghost and the Darkness have very sharp-looking fangs which only make them look more scary and ferocious.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Samuel serves as the story's narrator.
  • For the Evulz: Implied that's the reason why the lions do their killings. Remington also suggest this when he and Patterson explore their lair full of bones.
    Remington: Lions don't do this. Lions... never had a lair like this. They're doing it for the pleasure.
  • The Gay '90s: The film takes place during this decade, but given that it takes place in Africa, none of the standard tropes of the setting are in effect.
  • Give Me a Sword: Patterson (who is unarmed) and Samuel (who has a double-barreled rifle) climb separate trees to escape the pursuing lion, which then starts climbing after Patterson. Samuel can't shoot it because the lion is shielded by the tree trunk, so he throws the rifle to Patterson. The rifle bounces off a branch and falls to the ground, so Patterson leaps down after it, grabbing the rifle Just in Time to shoot the lion.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Done a number of times either fully or partially, and to great effect; few immediate wounds the lions cause are even given close, focused attention in most of the shots, but provide just enough of a visual to let the imagination do all the grisly work. Notable subversion is the full frontal shot of Sterling's gaping neck wounds. Played completely straight with Remington's corpse; you never even glimpse so much as an appendage - just the horrified onlookers and the large swathe of grass stained crimson. However, given what man-eaters tend to leave behind, the use of this trope is probably for the best.
  • Great White Hunter: Present and subverted at the same time. Patterson finds his experience as a big game hunter in India to be almost worthless when dealing with the man-eating lions and Remington is killed by one of them.
  • Hero Killer: Not even great badass hunters like Mahina and Remington can compete against the lions.
  • Historical Downgrade: While Patterson is depicted as needing help from Remington, all known accounts of the incident describe the real Patterson killing both lions by himself.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: "Tsavo" means "slaughter". It becomes a Meaningful Name when the lions start to kill people, escalating to the full-blown massacre of the site's hospital.
  • Idiot Ball: Patterson, an experienced soldier and hunter, decides to change his gun at the last minute and go to hunt the lions without testing it before. Remington calls him on it. Later, all three main characters (Patterson, Remington and Samuel) grab it and decide to party after killing one of the lions, assuming the second will just flee... but instead comes back to kill Remington. The workers assigned to shoot the lion are too terrified to aim properly when it walks into a trap and then try to say the lion kept moving. Patterson calls them on their bad excuse. The first and third events actually come straight from Patterson’s account, while the second was played up for dramatic purposes.
  • Ironic Echo: "You've just been hit. The getting up is up to you."
  • It Can Think: The lions figure out when they're trying to be trapped. The real-life Tsavo Maneaters were notoriously hard to lure into traps, many times going around the traps set by Patterson and striking at the vulnerable workers.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Beaumont is a FIRST CLASS DICKHEAD and takes colossal pride in being one but he does have a couple of points. The first is denying Patterson’s request for Soldiers. Even though Soldiers would definitely make Patterson’s job a whole lot easier but Beaumont points out it would be embarrassing for the British Empire to bring in troops because of problems with the local wildlife and that it would make the British appear weak to their colonial rivals( the French, Germans, Belgians and Italians) who are trying to outdo them in Africa.
    • The second point is pointing out the problems with Patterson’s contraption especially after hearing that the Colonel tried it in India and it failed. He’s proven right when the Indian Marksmen who Patterson hires to kill the Lions fails to EVEN WOUND one of them when he walks into the trap. This of course leads to Beaumont bringing in Remington.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Dr. Hawthorne introduces himself as somewhat smug and indifferent to his surroundings, and makes jokes about his own lack of charm and character. However, when the lions attack the hospital one night, Dr. Hawthorne fearlessly engages them in a valiantly futile effort to defend his patients.
  • Jump Scare: When Patterson and Remington hunt the Ghost, an owl flitters in from nowhere as a false alarm. According to Patterson's own account, this actually happened, causing a literal jump scare when Patterson assumed that the lion had just pounced on him. Patterson did not, however, fall from his perch; landing in front of the lion without any Remington to save him would have been fatal.
  • Made of Iron: The lions seem almost immortal sometimes.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Are the maneaters merely lions or something supernatural? Working together and hunting for sport leaves some credence to the latter position.
  • Meaningful Name: Tsavo means slaughter, and it fits all the killing the lions do.
  • Mighty Roar: The lions occasionally do one of these. The result: it's quite scary.
  • Mighty Whitey: Remington, big time. He is an ex-Confederate soldier living among (and at some point commanding) Maasai hunters, for crying out loud.
    • Though he seems to be acting more as their agent to English-speaking individuals, as pretty much the first thing Remington does is negotiate payment for the Maasai, not himself.
    • Patterson himself is sarcastically referred to as one.
      John: I will sort this out. I will kill the lion, and I will build the bridge.
      Abdullah: Of course you will. You're white, you can do anything.
  • Name and Name: The Ghost and The Darkness are the names given to the lions by construction workers.
  • The Narrator: Samuel is the narrator.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Remington was inspired by actor Burt Lancaster and big game hunter Charles Ryall, the superintendent of the Railway Police.
  • Non-Malicious Monster: Subverted, more or less. The lions seems to hunt and kill more for fun than out of hunger. One of 'em even leaves Remington's corpse where Patterson can see him apparently just to provoke him.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Val Kilmer's Irish accent leaves a lot to be desired.
  • Not Enough to Bury: Mahina and Remington are eaten to the point of being unrecognizable and the audience doesn't gets to see the worse part of the gore — and in the case of Mahina, the doctor describes in detail what the lions did to him after an autopsy so we should be thankful we don't. In Remington's case, all we get is an overhead Gory Discretion Shot.
  • Place Worse Than Death: Tsavo, a region deep in Darkest Africa that is hellish long before the apparently-supernatural man-eaters come along.
  • Race Lift: While portrayed as African, the real Mahina was ethnically Indian.
  • Railroad Plot: The obstacle obstructing the railroad is a pair of man-eating lions who are decimating the construction crew.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: One of the most criticized scenes, the one where a lion falls in one of the traps but the three Indian guards fail to kill him until it escapes... not only happened in reality, but in an even more outlandish way. There were actually like 10 men firing on it, who were agents of the Mombasa police (not just railroad guards), and the only one bullet that made target broke the cage's lock letting the lion escape.
    • It's worth mentioning also that the real lions were of a rare stock that doesn't have manes, which is difficult – if not impossible - to "respect" in the films. Hence why they are played by normal maned lions in both films.
    • Roger Ebert defined the film as "an African adventure that makes the Tarzan movies look subtle and realistic". Ironic considering it's still Based on a True Story.
    • Patterson supposedly killed both lions himself, without the help of any professional hunter. If the story was told as both he and others recorded at the time, people would have been decrying it as a pure ego project on the part of Kilmer, who simply must have forced them to turn the movie into a story about his invoked God-Mode Sue status.
  • Red Shirt: Indian and African workers.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Many as the film goes on.
    • Mahina, the powerful and loyal foreman to Patterson, is the first to be killed by one of the lions.
    • After his friendship with Patterson, it's a surprise when Starling is killed in a sneak attack by one of the lions, showing first that there's more than one man-eater and second, Anyone Can Die.
    • Due to his helpful and good nature, when the lions attack the sick and wounded in his new hospital, Dr. Hawthorne goes back to save them before he is killed by one of the lions as they massacre his patients.
    • After the death of the Ghost, it seems things are turning around. Not so. Remington is dragged from his tent and killed by the Darkness.
  • Scenery Porn: The movie doesn't shy away from beautiful panoramic shots of the African savannah.
  • Slashed Throat: Most of the people killed by the lions get this.
  • Suave Sabre: Remington's large knife/machete is actually a cut-down cavalry sabre, hinting at his Dark and Troubled Past as a Confederate Cavalry Officer in The American Civil War.
  • Super-Persistent Predator: The lions keep coming no matter what Patterson and Remington throw at them. It is implied that they are hunting humans because they enjoy it, rather than for food.
  • Suspiciously Stealthy Predator: One of the many reasons people believe the lions are actually demons.
  • Title Drop: "The natives call them The Ghost and The Darkness."
  • Vertigo Effect: When Paterson faces one of the lions and his gun misfires.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: As mentioned above, in many ways the true story was altered to make it less fantastical and more believable to movie audiences.
  • Villainous Breakdown: It's implied that the Darkness is going through one after the death of the Ghost. Its roars that he lets out after it's companion death that Samuel claims are of fear could be seen as being of anger instead, and during the final confrontation it quickly gives up any attempts at being stealthy and just start chasing Patterson.
  • The Worf Effect:
    • Mahina is killed off easily after being introduced as a badass. This leaves the rest of the men in an understandable state of panic.
    • Word of God says Remington's character was also intended to be this; someone badass whom the lions could kill, making Patterson that much more awesome when he survives.
  • The World's Expert (on Getting Killed): Mahina claims to have killed a lion with his bare hands, but while there's no reason to think he's lying, he's the first victim of the Ghost and the Darkness. Remington, an experienced big game hunter, is much more helpful to Patterson and proves invaluable in taking down the Ghost; regardless, he's killed in his sleep by the Darkness shortly afterwards.
  • Wrestler of Beasts: Mahina claims to have once killed a lion with his bare hands. The lions killing him shows how terrifying they are, while also suggesting he completely made up the deed.