Mountains of the Moon Review

Few directors have had such an odd career as Bob Rafelson. As the co-creator of 'The Monkees', he had a profound influence on American popular culture and as co-founder of BBS productions, he brought us films as important as Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, The Last Detail and his own Five Easy Pieces. But following his underrated follow up to the latter, the breathtaking The King of Marvin Gardens he seemed to lose his way. Although popular success came with the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, bizarrely unfocused films like Black Widow suggested that whatever ability he once had was slowly dwindling. It came as a pleasant surprise in 1990, given this history, to see Mountains of the Moon, an intelligent epic about the 19th Century search for the source of the Nile. Thirteen years later, the film still looks good and may well be one of Rafelson's best.

Most epics are exercises in landscape photography occasionally interrupted by actors trying to breathe some life into unspeakable dialogue. Mountains of the Moon makes some attempt to be more complex, examining the complex relationship between the two men who searched for the source for the Nile, the Irish Sir Richard Burton (Bergin) and John Hanning Speke (Glen). In the 1850s, Speke joins a Royal Geographical Society expedition led by Burton, an unpredictable and quirky man who was famed for his works on travel, weaponry and, most notoriously, sex; he translated "The Kama Sutra" and "The Perfumed Garden" for the delectation of a secretly fascinated, if publicly shocked, Victorian audience. The trip fails following a raid on the party's camp by African tribesmen which leads to both men being seriously wounded and the rest of the team lost. Returning to England, and a dalliance with proto-feminist Isabel Arundell (Shaw), Burton determines that he will make another journey to find the elusive source and he persuades Speke to go with him. But the almost impossibly difficult and painfully protracted quest does as much to drive the men apart as it does to unite them and when they return to London, acclaim soon turns into personal disaster. The title alludes to the mythical location of the source which comes from native tradition.

It's interesting to see a period epic which is set in exotic locations but not filmed in Scope. This is symptomatic of Rafelson's approach which is resolutely analytical rather than based on visual spectacle. Not that it doesn't look good - Roger Deakins' photography is world class - but it's not allowed to overwhelm the central story of the relationship between two men who share only a fundamental drive to become famous. Burton in particular is a natural star, a man who in a later time would have been the darling of the tabloids; hard drinking, promiscuous, charismatic and relentlessly seeking fame with a focus that is slightly unnerving. Rafelson's film examines the man without trying to explain him, content to place this wonderful character at the centre of a narrative and retrieve him from the dustbin of history. If we know of Burton at all, it's probably for his translations of erotica. Most of us, including myself, have never connected the name with anything other than a similarly hard living actor from Wales. The implicit comparison between geographer and actor is interesting in itself because they share a sense of being an outsider, a desire for headlines and a relentless streak of self-destructiveness which fed the desires of the public to see the famous brought down to size. If you read Burton's writings, you get a marvellously vivid sense of intellectual curiosity tempered by childish wonder and a lot of this comes through in Patrick Bergin's performance. Bergin, an actor whose career went somehow wrong following some success in Hollywood, makes him a vain and rather infuriating man who can also show great kindness and generosity. It's easy to believe that Isabel Arundell could have fallen in love with him so quickly.

More to the point, it's just as easy to believe to John Hanning Speke could have fallen in love with him and it's this repressed desire that makes the relationship so spiky and difficult. Repressed sexuality is one of the great clichés of the period film but it's well played here by Iain Glen as part of the character rather than the modus operandi of the entire man. Speke's basic prissiness and inability to compromise are as much the key to his eventual downfall as his repressed love for Burton and Glen gives a subtle and intelligent performance. When, during the intriguing last third of the film, Speke falls apart and despairs, Glen is very powerful and expresses pained emotion without wallowing in self-pity.

Given material that cries out for the widescreen spectacle treatment, Rafelson's decision to go for a more intimate narrative is a brave one and may well account for the unpopularity of the film at the box office. This is a downbeat and difficult film which doesn't offer any particularly likeable characters - or at least, likeable in the traditional sense - and leaves you with an awkward sense of unresolved emotions. I think this is admirable and in many scenes, Rafelson gets across some of the same intensity he achieved in his early work. The scene where Speke tries to persuade the sceptical Burton that he has found the source is full of understated power and there's a marvellous moment where an unbalanced native king is introduced to the power of guns. This is similar to a scene with an equally insane leader in Herzog's disappointing Cobra Verde but much more convincing. Burton and Speke's inability to communicate and really understand one another is reminiscent of the scene at the end of Five Easy Pieces between Bobby Dupea and his invalid father and the film is at its best in this unresolved relationship which never really worked but was full of mutual affection. Some lovely images early in the film capture this, especially Burton tending to the seriously ill Speke in a makeshift tent. Towards the end, a moment when Burton is told to go to see Speke but insists "He must come to me" tends towards camp but is redeemed by Burton's obvious anger and frustration.

I don't want to suggest that the film is without flaws. Rafelson's decision to focus on character tends to deaden the pacing, especially during the second hour, and the attempt to examine pre-feminist 'girl power' in the person of Isobel Arundel is somehow forgotten after Fiona Shaw makes a very strong start. The supporting cast gives the impression of the film being some kind of Royal Command Performance for character actors. I'm certainly not going to complain at the chance to see the great Peter Vaughan and Leslie Phillips but I'm afraid that it's impossible to see John Savident nowadays without expecting him to shout "Ashley ! I say, Ashley !". This linking of actors with their other roles is juvenile and superficial but sometimes unavoidable. I was particularly fascinated to see that, prior to captaining the Titanic, Yosser Hughes was posing as Dr David Livingstone. More seriously, the casting of Richard E.Grant as Speke's old friend who tries to stack the odds against Burton is too predictable and Grant gives his usual foppish bastard performance which he later perfected as Larry Lefferts in The Age of Innocence. The scenes set in England also have a stagy quality with lots of extras 'hrumphing' in period costume and the kind of dialogue which suggests people in the Victorian Era talked either in expository sentences or mildly witty epigrams.

Yet there's something very impressive and oddly affecting about this film. Rafelson's filming of the brief battle scenes is an object lesson in fast, brutal action that never becomes confusing. He and his writer, William Harrison (on whose book about Burton and Speke the film is based), have produced an epic film which doesn't pander to simplistic notions of heroism. Without preaching, it considers the essential Imperialist nature of the quest for the source and the ingrained racist assumptions of the Western attitude to the natives of Africa. This is particularly interesting in the way it relates to the character of Sidi Bombay who in most films would simply be a native bearer; here, he is a friend and confidante of Burton who is given considerable significance. But most of all, it considers the ways in which men relate to each other and how deeply the betrayal of friendship can affect their lives. It is in this thoughtful and touching aspect of the film that Rafelson's approach really pays dividends. This certainly isn't a great forgotten classic but it's a good, substantial film that deserves a wider audience.

The Disc

This underrated film has been released by Momentum as part of their "Take One" collection. It's not a bad disc at all, particularly considering the low price at which it is available.

The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. The transfer hovers between very good and very bad. The colours are constantly stunning - the reds of the uniforms in the opening scenes is staggeringly vivid and the many sunsets and desert landscapes come across quite beautifully. There's also plenty of detail to the picture and it's sharp without being over enhanced. However, there are compression artifacts on show throughout the film and they become severely distracting during the night scenes in the first twenty minutes. The picture also looks excessively grainy. Overall, it's a mixed bag but the virtues of the rich colours do tend to overcome my other reservations.

The soundtrack is a direct Dolby Digital Stereo transfer of the original stereo recording. It's a good track although the insistent and somewhat syrupy music score by Michael Small tends to dominate and drown out the ambient sounds. The dialogue is clear however.

The only extras are the original theatrical trailer - in anamorphic 1.85:1 - and a fullscreen featurette. The latter, lasting all of 5 minutes and 21 seconds, is a superficial look at the making of the film with an excitable voiceover and featuring nothing of any great interest.

There are a generous 36 chapter stops. No English subtitles are provided.

Mountains of the Moon is a film which is well worth seeing, especially if you like the sound of an epic which is more than simply a glorified travelogue. It's ambitious attempt to anatomise a relationship isn't always successful but it's certainly the best film Bob Rafelson has made since his great early days. The DVD is adequate but sometimes impressive and is worth a look, especially considering the budget pricing.

Mountains Of The Moon is released by Momentum DVD on the 8th September

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