When approaching stories of exploration and discovery it is best to trail the truth, particularly as the real explorers are gradually being outnumbered by the fantasy adventurers. It also helps to present them as villains if villains they were, though a filmmaker might reduce one to the figure of a delightful rogue because his box-office returns depend on it. Shackleton was stiff-coloured and stubborn, Rhodes, above all, a man of capitalist vision. Exploration long done away with on planet Earth, men can mine the polar icecaps but they can't bodily visit the lakes underneath. It's over down here, and uneconomic out there. Mountains Of The Moon succeeds in finding that sought after medium, the story of Richard Burton and John Hanning-Speke's quest for the source of the Nile, making of Hanning-Speke a desperate, vulnerable, backstabbing user, a runaway from himself, but balancing him nicely against Burton, the educated and knowledge hungry, considerate and grateful to those who have served him and served with him, be they fellow thrill-seekers or the indigenous hands, courageous and sensible, if an excusable cad over his felicitous relations with the native and gentry women alike... well he did have those sexual manuals to write and the Kama Sutra to translate. Burton spoke 32 languages, including dialects (not altogether a cheat), and his pouring over religious text in its original form made him a spiritual man. The continuing fascination for Burton is natural, his intellect, his sexual stamina, his enviable strengths, it is no surprise that Philip Jose Farmer gave him the starring role in his series of Riverworld trilogy, delivering the famous dead to a puzzling, fantastic 'land', Burton the head full of questions, his great quest for knowledge focused on source of yet another marvellous river.
The film works so well because it has co-scripting partners in an authority on Burton and Speke, the historian and biographer William Harrison, and an authority on film technique and visual storytelling, the director Bob Rafelson. They trust one another. Harrison is clearly trusted with the facts, Rafelson with the best way of delivering them in a filmed narrative. The chronological approach agreed invokes a queer balance and though the African episodes are clearly presumed the setting for the most dramatic incidents, the social life and funding wrangles of home are no less catching, and the fascination for the big story, the little stories, the characters and the eccentricities of the day is captured and held throughout.
John Hanning-Speke is a soldier of good family stock driven to adventuring by too much of an awareness of his shortcomings. Though not without courage, he would rather give his life to a greater pursuit than among the many who may die ignominiously to a battle. He courts fame. If not in England a victim to leisure cannot become so bored that he allows his homosexuality to be given the greater opportunity for public knowledge and he would prefer to save the last of his family from that, or so it is heavily intoned in the film. His first teaming with Burton ends almost immediately with an attack on their encampment. Nearly everyone is killed, Burton and Speke escaping but not without terrible wounding. The second outing sees the pair, ably assisted by Ali Bombay, and the team of bearers, on a gruelling journey. Burton rescues a tribesman (Delroy Lindo) who had been condemned to be eaten by lions and both Burton and Speke suffer terrible ailments. There are encounters with tribes that are friendly and tribes that are abusive, far from civilisation and still there are those who sickeningly govern and dictate under the most appalling of conceits.
There is such a richness of story to be told that in a single scene several conflicts and twists can arise. At the final village, Burton must remain while Speke takes a smaller team to what he will 'discover' and dub Lake Victoria. The tribesman rescued by Burton is again denied his liberty, this time by the Chief Minister who reads into Burton's reactions his responsibility for the man and savours the pain of both. An already crippled Burton, drugged by the Chief Minister and his crutches removed, crawls into the King's rooms on all fours, the Chief Minister demanding permission of the tribal king to kill the visitor. Torturing the tribesman with Burton's own sword, the Chief Minister addresses the weakness of Burton, expressed by his tears. Burton anticipating both their deaths as imminent, moves in on the tortured tribesman and smothers him, thus saving him from the longer drawn out death perceived in store for him. This has what the viewer sees as the effect of inadvertently saving Burton's life, the tribal King viewing Burton has having the qualities of a king (something that he had originally lied to them about) and also, in the Chief Minister's continuing demands making up the King's mind to shoot dead his Chief Minister with the pistol that Burton had made a gift of to him on arrival. But the viewer has been duped. The obnoxious, softly-swaggering and egomaniacal (he comes from a small dominion with little idea of the vastness of the world, so by that it's as far as his egocentricity and imagination takes him) young King's only reason to cull the Chief Minister and his insistences is because, just like Speke, he courts fame, and wants Burton to speak his name in his land (England). The reason this film can be viewed time and again is because of the interrelation of very real specific characters both on home turf and on the adventure, like a complicated mathematical calculation understandable in its subdivisions but impossible to picture in an instance as a whole.
It is as perfectly recounted a tale as is possible and embarrassing that it is so under-appreciated, particularly when nonsense like The Man Who Would Be King is still so overly praised. Mountains Of The Moon has its shocks. The spear that Burton catches through the face on the first expedition is horrific at every sitting. The bug that crawls into Speke's ear has you screaming also, the failure to kill it with hot wax bad enough, that Speke finally decides to attack it with the pointed end of a compass is the last horror we need at that stage. Bergen and Glen successfully put the rigours and the pain across throughout. They are great performances, particularly from Bergen, superb as Burton. The supporting cast is tremendous, Fiona Shaw in bristling form as Burton's intended, with Peter Vaughn, James Villiers, Leslie Philips, Anna Massay, Roger Rees, John Shrapnell and Bernard Hill (as Livingstone) among the many lighting up the screen with their able support.
Arriving in cinemas in 1990 it was the victim of trends, the pathetic state of film at the close of the 1980s must have led Rafelson to expect a winner with this quality film. Alas, 1990 saw trends change, films getting bigger, the movie psycho take centre stage, and effects obsess the audiences. Guild released the film in the UK, but could not generate enough interest in it, pathetic given that Burton and Speke were homeland heroes. Speke's sexuality is lightly accounted for, Richard E. Grant, predatory and conniving, raising the finance for the expedition, his father (Villiers) enquiring if the eventual newsworthiness and respondent riches in a successful endeavour are "the only reason" for his interest in Speke. Though only made 13 years ago it was still before Longtime Companion made homosexuality a viable theme for, if you'll pardon the pun, exploration in commercial cinema, but that was not the reason for further investigation of Speke's sexual predilections. For nothing more could be crammed in (and his sexuality is largely speculation). The story surely had many other details and even those that made it into the final film could never be fully discussed in the space of this review. There is so much in this film as it stands that it multiple plays gratify.
Sadly this is a lazy DVD release, the aspect ratio and lack of supporting features mean that if you have the video original you really don't need this, in fact, probably lose out, as at least Guild Home Video would have had half a dozen tacky trailers leading up to the main feature. It is only the latest of injustices to this film. One hopes someone will eventually reward it with the critical attention it deserves. Let this be the starting point.