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The Ghost and the Darkness

The Ghost and the Darkness
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Produced by Gale Anne Hurd
Paul B. Radin
A. Kitman Ho
Written by William Goldman
Based on The Man-Eaters of Tsavo 
by John Henry Patterson
Starring Val Kilmer
Michael Douglas
John Kani
Bernard Hill
Tom Wilkinson
Brian McCardie
Emily Mortimer
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography Vilmos Zsigmond
Edited by Robert Brown
Roger Bondelli
Steve Mirkovich
Constellation Films
Douglas/Reuther Productions
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
October 11, 1996
Running time
110 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $55,000,000[1]
Box office $75,019,405[2][3]

The Ghost and the Darkness is a 1996 historical adventure film starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas set in Africa at the end of the 19th century. It was directed by Stephen Hopkins and the screenplay was written by William Goldman.

The film tells a fictionalised account of the true story about the two lions that attacked and killed workers at Tsavo, Kenya during the building of the Uganda-Mombasa Railway in East Africa in 1898.

Despite receiving a mixed critical response, the film won an Academy Award for Sound Editing.


  • Plot 1
  • Principal cast 2
  • Production 3
    • Screenplay 3.1
    • Locations 3.2
    • Filming 3.3
  • Reception 4
  • Home release 5
  • Historical accuracy 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


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".

Principal cast

Actor Role
Val Kilmer Col. John Henry Patterson
Michael Douglas Charles Remington
John Kani Samuel
Bernard Hill Dr. David Hawthorne
Tom Wilkinson Robert Beaumont
Brian McCardie Angus Starling
Emily Mortimer Helena Patterson
Om Puri Abdullah
Henry Cele Mahina


The film is based upon The Man-Eaters of Tsavo by Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson, the man who actually killed both real lions.


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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7]


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 George of the Jungle. The film also featured three other lions: two from France and one from the USA.


The film won an Academy Award in 1997 for Best Sound Editing. However, it also received a Razzie Award nomination for Val Kilmer as Worst Supporting Actor. Reviews were mixed, with Rotten Tomatoes giving it a 50% rating based on 46 reviews. Roger Ebert said the film was so awful it "lacked the usual charm of being so bad it's funny" adding it was "an African adventure that makes the Tarzan movies look subtle and realistic".[8] Conversely, the late David R. Ellis listed this film at #8 on his "Top 10 Animal Horror Movies" countdown, a list he made to promote the release of Shark Night 3D.[9]

Home release

The Ghost and the Darkness is available as a one-disc DVD. There are no special features besides a theatrical trailer for the film. The film was released on laserdisc in 1997 as a one-disc, double-sided release featuring a Dolby Digital audio track.

Historical accuracy

Although Patterson claimed the lions were responsible for up to 135 deaths, research undertaken in 2009 says that they likely ate about 35 people. (This figure does not take into account people that were killed but not eaten by the animals.)[10] The original lions are on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Col. Patterson's 1907 book itself states that "between them (the lions) no less than 28 Indian coolies, in addition to scores of unfortunate African natives of whom no official record was kept" were killed. This lesser number was confirmed in Dr. Bruce Patterson's definitive book The Lions of Tsavo: Exploring the Legacy of Africa’s Notorious Man-Eaters published by McGraw-Hill in 2004. Patterson wrote the book at the Field Museum in Chicago, where the lions are on display. He showed that the greater toll attributed to the lions resulted from a pamphlet written by Col. Patterson in 1925, stating "these two ferocious brutes killed and devoured, under the most appalling circumstances, 135 Indian and African artisans and laborers employed in the construction of the Uganda Railway."[11]

In the film, both lions are depicted having manes. In reality, the man-eaters lacked manes, as male Tsavo lions possess either minimal manes or none at all.

Michael Douglas's character, Charles Remington, is entirely fictional. Patterson hunted and killed the rogue lions more or less on his own. However, as noted in the article on the real Patterson, some time later another man was killed under mysterious circumstances; this death is said to be inspiration for Hemingway's The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

The film claims that Tsavo means "a place of slaughter" when it is in fact derived from the Maasai word for river. The region has been referred to as "a place of slaughter" (due to a history of tribal warfare, not because of animal attacks) but it is not meant as a direct translation of the name.

The location where the bridge was built is now called Man-Eater's Camp. It is in Tsavo East National Park, Kenya, about 200 miles (300 kilometers) southeast of Nairobi, at .

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ "The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)". Box Office Mojo. 1996-12-06. Retrieved 2013-01-15. 
  3. ^ "The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)". Retrieved 2013-01-15. 
  4. ^ Goldman p 72-74
  5. ^ Patterson, Bruce D. (2004). The lions of Tsavo: exploring the legacy of Africa's notorious man-eaters. McGraw-Hill Professional. p. 33. 
  6. ^ Goldman p 89
  7. ^ Goldman p 91-93
  8. ^ "The Ghost And The Darkness".  
  9. ^ "Fall Preview: "Shark Night 3D" director David Ellis’ top 10 animal horror movies".  
  10. ^ Man eating lions - not (as) many dead, Railway Gazette International, 27 November 2009
  11. ^ The man-eating lions of Tsavo. Zoology: Leaflet 7, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago
  • Goldman, William, Which Lie Did I Tell?', Bloomsbury, 2000

External links

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