Great unappreciated films: Mountains of the Moon


(c) TriStar Pictures


I recall seeing Michael Gove – formerly Minister of Education in David Cameron’s government, now thankfully deposed – appear on TV one evening and get awfully excited reminiscing about Ladybird Books’ history series.  Which was disturbing.


For those of you too young to remember the heyday of Ladybird Books, the company published children’s books that emphasised the educational, the wholesome and the patriotic.  The library at my primary school was stuffed full of them – and their slim historical tomes were given special prominence.  These dealt with famous figures in British history like Admiral Nelson, Captain Cook, Florence Nightingale and David Livingstone, of whom they painted glowing and sanitised portraits.  Such historical characters, according to Ladybird Books, were fine, upstanding and virtuous, qualities that British people had traditionally prided themselves on having.  Also, the establishment they represented, back in the days of British imperialism and the British Empire, was by extension a fine, upstanding and virtuous thing too.  Needless to say, Ladybird Books didn’t trouble the minds of its young readers with such topics as Admiral Nelson’s dalliance with Mrs Emma Hamilton or, indeed, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer’s orchestration of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in 1919.


Anyway, it struck me as worrying that the politician responsible for education in 21st-century Britain seemed to believe that the stories told in these old-fashioned, pint-sized, kiddie-orientated propaganda tracts were, you know, real.


And yet…  At the same time, I can understand Gove’s enthusiasm for the damned things.  In my childhood, I loved those Ladybird history books because they served up two things that were vital for a kid: heroes and adventures.  Never mind the fact that they overlooked the moral complexities of character and the moral ambiguities of history.  It was simply, viscerally exciting to read about people who were, supposedly, both incredibly decent and incredibly brave, setting off to perform feats of derring-do in a world that was, one or two centuries ago, full of danger and mystery.


This brings me in a roundabout way to Mountains of the Moon, the Bob Rafelson-directed movie from 1990, which tells the story of Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Speke and their 1857 expedition to find the source of the River Nile.  I suspect the reason I like this film so much is because it lets me have my cake and eat it.  On one hand, it offers a tale of British historical adventure that’s as thrilling as anything published by Ladybird Books.  On the other hand, it’s critical of the British Empire and the people who ran it.  You can enjoy the exploits of the two protagonists as they battle their way past peril after peril but, simultaneously, you don’t have to feel guilty for doing so.


Mind you, I don’t ever remember seeing a Ladybird volume dedicated to Sir Richard Francis Burton, despite the fact that Burton, as his Wikipedia entry puts it, was a “geographer, explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, Egyptologist and diplomat” and spoke 29 languages, including Icelandic, Swahili, Amharic, Sanskrit and Hebrew.  The lack of a Ladybird biography on Burton may be down to Burton’s fascination with the sexual practices of the many cultures he visited, which “led him to take measurements of the lengths of the sexual organs of male inhabitants of various regions which he included in his travel books”; or to the rumour that during his military career he once went “undercover to investigate a male brothel reputed to be frequented by British soldiers”.  Whatever the salacious details of his life, Burton was also, undoubtedly, a loose cannon.  His unruly reputation prevented him from being promoted to the very heights of the British establishment, either as a soldier or as a diplomat.


In the Mountains of the Moon, Burton is played by Irish actor Patrick Bergin.  From the movie’s opening scenes – when we see Burton have a spear thrust through his mouth by some natives in Somalia, a mishap that’d deter most people from ever wanting to set foot on African soil again, but with Burton seems only to enflame his passion further for the place – Bergin does a good job of capturing the man’s versatility, unpredictability and boundless energy.  Indeed, if there’s one thing the film conveys beautifully, it’s the glorious insanity that propels Burton and Speke (and indeed, all those explorers of yore) into the unknown, determined to make sense of it; whilst enduring hardships, indignities and degradations a million miles removed from the cosy, cloistered lives they led in upper-class Victorian Britain.  During the 1857 expedition, Speke – who in Mountains of the Moon is played by Iain Glen – is almost driven mad by beetles crawling into his ears while Burton becomes crippled, his legs swelling up to the point where they need to be lanced.  (Come to think of it, this stuff wasn’t mentioned in the Ladybird books, either.)


While the film celebrates the two men’s heroism, or heroic powers of endurance, it disdains a British imperial establishment that’s supportive of them because it hopes to enjoy the prestige of their achievements; but one that’s also manipulative and untrustworthy.  It’s a historical fact that by the early 1860s Burton and Speke had fallen out, due to a claim by Speke — disputed by Burton — that the source of the Nile lay in Lake Victoria.  Speke’s claim was something that the British press of the time was only too happy to believe and it led to Speke being feted and celebrated.  Meanwhile, Burton’s role in the 1857 expedition was played down.


Mountains of the Moon would have you believe the establishment’s prejudice against Burton was partly because of his Irishness – his father was of Anglo-Irish stock, though Burton himself was born in Devon.  Speke on the other hand was an English gentleman of the stiff-upper-lip variety, whom the film suggests was more palatable for the establishment to sell as a hero of the Empire.  (Actually, it’s ironic that actor Iain Glen is a Scotsman, from Edinburgh.  And I have to say that generally, with Bergin in the role and displaying a recognisable Celtic brogue, Burton seems more Irish in the film than he probably was in real-life.)


The feud between the two explorers came to a sudden and unexpected end in September 1864, one day before Burton and Speke were scheduled to debate the Nile’s source at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.  Hunting on a relative’s estate, Speke was killed when his gun discharged itself into him while he was climbing over a wall.  Predictably, this caused speculation that the controversy that’d soured things so badly between him and his old comrade had led Speke to kill himself, although a jury later ruled that it’d been an accident.  Mountains of the Moon remains ambiguous about Speke’s death, but the door is left open for the possibility that, upset about how the establishment had set him and Burton at each other’s throats, Speke committed suicide.


Also indicative of British attitudes at the time is the neglect shown to the African guide Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who in Mountains of the Moon is engagingly played by the Kenyan actor Paul Onsongo.  Despite proving invaluable to Burton and Speke, and later serving with Henry Morton Stanley, and crossing Africa from east to west in 1873, and becoming the British Empire’s most travelled citizen in Africa – he eventually clocked up some 9600 kilometres, most of it covered on foot – we learn in a postscript that nobody ever thought of inviting Bombay to Britain, presumably because of his lowly ‘native’ status.


The rest of the cast is good too.  The distinguished theatrical actress Fiona Shaw turns in a lovely performance as Isabel Burton, the woman who manages to capture the rumbustious Burton’s heart (though not capturing it to the point where he stops voyaging off to the back of beyond for years on end).  As Speke’s publisher, Richard E. Grant gives a performance of superciliousness that only Grant himself seems capable of.  And Bernard Hill sneaks in an endearing late-minute cameo as Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone, who gets involved in a somewhat homoerotic duel with Burton – desperate to impress each other, both men strip off to compare their Africa-acquired scars.


In retrospect, the only things that are regrettable about Mountains of the Moon are (1) how overlooked the film is; and (2) how disappointing Patrick Bergin’s film career has been since.  Regarding the second point, although he made a stir as Julia Roberts’ psychotic husband in 1991’s popular but not-very-good Sleeping with the Enemy, Bergin’s fortunes took a tumble with a couple of unfortunate film choices soon afterwards.  His performance as Robin Hood in the 1991 movie of the same name was buried by the success of the same year’s bigger, brasher, sillier, Kevin Costner-starring, Bryan Adams-warbling Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.  Meanwhile he was unlucky enough to play a villain in 1992’s ignorant Tom Clancy / IRA thriller Patriot Games (or as it was known in Ireland, Patronising Games).   I suspect these days Bergin derives more pleasure from his music – he has a band called Patrick Bergin and the Spirit Merchants and a few years ago they had a song in the Irish top ten.


As for the general neglect of Mountains of the Moon, well, it’s hard to explain.  Maybe the film had the bad luck to appear at a time when imperial-era British costume epics of the David Lean / James Ivory school were starting to go out of fashion, although Mountains of the Moon certainly doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with such staid fare as Chariots of Fire (1982) or A Room with a View (1985).


No doubt when director Bob Rafelson is laid to rest, the movie titles that’ll be inscribed on his tombstone will be his earlier ones like 1972’s Five Easy Pieces or 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice or even Head, that trippy 1968 epic featuring the Monkees.  But at least Rafelson himself recognises the quality of Mountains of the Moon: “I was very lucky to make that movie…” he once said in the Film Journal.  “(I)f there was ever a movie I enjoyed making, it was that one.”


(c) TriStar Pictures