A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Ghost and the Darkness is a 1996 drama about seemingly otherworldy lions that in 1898 killed more than 100 bridge-building workers at a Kenyan outpost. There's plenty of violence, blood, and red-stained lion mouths roaring. Language includes "s--t," and clever camerawork increases the terror of the lions' stalking, attacking, and dragging off of screaming, mauled men. The movie downplays the agency and competence of Africans to solve their own problems, bringing in a British engineer to build a bridge and an American hunter to clear the area of marauding lions. Adults drink alcohol.
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What's the story?
THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS are the nicknames given to two vicious lions that have been stalking and terrorizing a camp of workers building a Uganda-Mombasa railroad bridge over a Kenyan river in the late 19th century. In a departure from normal behavior, lions seem to be maliciously mauling humans, not for food, but for sport. The Irish engineer in charge, John Patterson (Val Kilmer), is a steady and practical man, and he takes a practical approach to dispensing with the big cats before they drive his workers away. When he shoots one lion, two more seem to become madder and more retaliatory than ever, leading to the deaths of at least 100 men. British railroad magnate Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson) is impatient and unsympathetic and, with no regard for the human toll, demands Patterson solve the problem or expect to have his reputation ruined for life. Enter Great White hunter Remington (Michael Douglas) in full Romancing the Stone/Indiana Jones gear and with a devil-may-care attitude.
Is it any good?
This is a drearily conventional film. Director Stephen Hopkins himself said in a 1998 interview that The Ghost and The Darkness "was a mess ... I haven't been able to watch it." Worse yet, it promotes old racist and imperialistic assumptions about the competence and superiority of foreign White people over the wisdom and ability of local peoples familiar with their own terrain and problems. (Two notable exceptions are characters played by John Kani and Om Puri.)
If you can get past that premise, Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer give serviceable performances, but the narrative does little more than repeat the same problem -- how to defeat attacking lions -- over and over. It feels odd that White hunters are called in to kill an animal that natives are probably far more familiar with, but high-powered rifles will probably be more effective than spears and hand-to-claw combat. Any time a lion is shot, heroic music wells up to trigger our admiration for the great hunters. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is lush and haunting.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what makes scary movies scary. How do the filmmakers increase the tension through editing to make the lion attacks more frightening?
What is The Ghost and the Darkness' attitude toward the expertise of the local people with regard to defending against the lions as opposed to the expertise of the foreign White hunters? Does it make sense that the hunters know Kenya and lions better than the locals do?
The hunters rarely seem afraid. Do you think that's realistic? Do you think sensible people facing danger can be afraid and still do their jobs well? Why or why not?
- In theaters: November 11, 1996
- On DVD or streaming: September 12, 2017
- Cast: Michael Douglas, Val Kilmer, John Kani, Emily Mortimer, Om Puri
- Director: Stephen Hopkins
- Studio: Paramount
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 110 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: for some violence and gore involving animal attacks
- Last updated: May 30, 2020
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