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The movie tells the Very Loosely Based on a True Story (mis)adventure of John Henry Patterson, a British-Irish Lieutenant Colonel and Military Engineer that is assigned the supervision of a railroad's construction in 1898 East Africa. This mission that seems so easy at first is soon complicated by the apparition of two reckless anthropophage lions, the Ghost and the Darkness, that manage to infiltrate every part of the construction camp whenever they please to hunt the workers. This obviously spreads panic among the men and makes the threat of rebellion likely, leaving Patterson with only the help of his African assistant Samuel and the American hunter Remington to face the lions and save the railroad project before it is too late.
Part because live-acted lions didn't seem much of a threat after theatres had already been attacked by expensive CGI dinosaurs and alien invaders, part because the main character (played by the goddam Batman) was heavily toned down to make room for the originally tertiary character played by producer Michael Douglas, the film got mixed reviews and a disappointing performance in the box-office. It also won an Accademy Award for Best Sound Editing which is pretty much like winning nothing. The movie still remains an entertaining adventure movie with that classical feel in it, however.
The film provides example of:
- Agony of the Feet
- Artistic License: The real Tsavo maneaters had no manes. Manes look cool, though, and the animal handlers tend to complain if you say you want to shave their lions...
- Lions from Tsavo, which is a particularly hot and arid region, generally have little to no mane because it's cooler that way. The particular pair of maneaters aren't special. The reason the mane is so iconic to the lion in general is because that's what zoos want to keep and what artists want to depict.
- Asshole Victim: Hawthorne downplays it.
- Babies Ever After: Patterson is reunited with his wife and little child at the end of the movie.
- Bad Boss: Beaumont. And he knows it.
- Badass: Not just the main characters but Mahina, the guy that killed a lion with his bare hands. It didn't help him much in the end, though.
- The lions count too.
- The British Empire
- Catapult Nightmare: Patterson has one (see Narm).
- Zebra Scare
- Complete Monster: Well, given the fact that these two lions hunt and kill humans for pure fun or lick their victim's skin off and drink their blood as it oozed to the surface (normal lions never do this) then we have a proof of what happens when an animal falls in this trope.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Sir Robert Beaumont.
- Cruel and Unusual Death:
- Angus Starling’s throat is torn out by one of the lions.
- Mahinha has all of his skin licked off by the lions.
- 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 bellow.
- Darkest Africa
- Deadpan Snarker: Abdullah.
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."
Preacher: (Spit Take)
- Decoy Protagonist: Remington.
- Determinator: The lions.
- Who fail to realize that when Patterson says he's never not finished a job, he means it.
"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.
- Dropped a Bridge on Him: Remington is found dead by Samuel and Patterson, having been killed by the lions in his sleep.
- Hawthorne is dragged off by one of the lions during their attack on the makeshift hospital.
- Dr. Jerk: Hawthorne doesn’t have much in the form of bedside manner.
- Executive Meddling: According to script writer William Goldman, Remington was originally going to be a small and enigmatic character simply known as "Red Beard", but after Michael Douglas took over as producer the role was given to him and received more importance at Patterson's expense. The final insult came when Val Kilmer was nominated to the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actor.
- Exploring the Evil Lair: Patterson and Remington when they enter in the lions' cave.
- Fake Brit: Val Kilmer as Col. John Henry Patterson.
- For the Evulz: Implied that's the reason why the lions do their killings. Remington also suggest this when he and Patterson explore their liar 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 Nineties
- 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 maneating lions and Remington is killed by one of them.
- Hey, It's That Guy!: The Captain of the Titanic is the Railway Doctor!
- 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.
- Ironic Echo: "You've just been hit. The getting up is up to you."
- The Ishmael: Samuel.
- It Can Think: Exagerrated, for the fact the lions can even figure out when you set a trap for 'em.
- Truth in Television: 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.
- Jerry Goldsmith
- Lovable Coward: Starling.
- Made of Iron: The lions seems almost immortal sometimes.
- Mighty Whitey: Remington, big time. He is an ex-Confederate soldier living among (and at some point commanding) Maasai hunters, for crying out loud.
- Name and Name
- The Narrator: Samuel.
- 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 God Mode Sue.
- Red Shirt: Indian and African workers.
- Sacrificial Lion: Remington.
- Slashed Throat: Starling’s throat is torn out by one of the lions.
- Shoo Out the Clowns: Starling is killed by one of the lions.
- Super-Persistent Predator
- Title Drop: "The natives call them The Ghost and the Darkness".
- Vertigo Effect
- 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.
- 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.