The Ghost and the Darkness. Dir. Stephen Hopkins. Constellation Entertainment. 1996.

Film Poster for The Ghost and the Darkness


This film is a retelling of The Man-Eaters of Tsavo – the published journal of John Henry Patterson. He was an Irish engineer and soldier (played by Val Kilmer), who is sent to Africa to help build the British railway from Mombasa to Uganda (572 miles) that was at times referred to as the “lunatic line” in 1898 (Brian 4). When Patterson arrives at Tsavo to oversee the construction of a bridge, the workmen are attacked by a pair of man-eating lions. Patterson is determined to kill the hunters, but often finds himself outwitted and outmatched. The workers, and even Patterson, begin to question if these are just lions and not evil spirits or devils that have taken a lion’s form. These spirits are given the names “The Ghost” and “The Darkness” and this accounts for the title of the film. After many lives lost and great struggle Patterson succeeds in slaying both lions, saves the railway construction, and completes the bridge.

This film is a hybrid between two genres: the historical fiction/biographical film and the horror/stalker film. While all history is narrative in its form, historical fiction puts the emphasis on narrative over verifiable facts and evidence. Where a historical narrative needs to produce evidence for all of its claims, a historical fiction does not (Munslow 1-15, 67). In the case of The Ghost and the Darkness the major changes have been in characters and the ordering of events, but this has its purpose and more will be said on this later. The other genre is that of the horror/stalker film. Often these films allow the audience to experience some voyeurism through the eyes of the killer as they pursue and murder their victims, and this film does the same. (Dika 85-101). Voyeurism allows the audience to have the pleasure of seeing and experiencing that which they would not normally see, or should not see. This occurs when the audience is put in the place of watching a character undress, or watching two people engage in sex, take a shower, or in this genre be chased and killed. The audience gets thrill from engaging in the act of watching when it knows it shouldn’t be. It can also be said that the killers in this film have racked up a body count of over a hundred victims, far more than the usual stalker film killer. While a convention of this genre is to have many of the victims chased and killed be female, there is only one who is attacked in this film; this attack is also part of a dream sequence so ultimately all of the deaths are of males – including the lions themselves.

Screen shot of lion from The Ghost and the Darkness

One of the most surprising elements about this film is that what seems the most outlandish elements of the narrative are true. The two lions did constantly outwit attempts to capture and kill them. In the film this is demonstrated in a number of scenes. Patterson creates a trap which will catch a lion in a cargo container with protective bars for hunters to sit behind and shoot the lion at point blank range, but the lion escapes it. This did happen in the history as well. Once Charles Remington enters the film, (played by Michael Douglas) an expert hunter, the lions show more of their cunning. Remington orders that the hospital for the railway workers be abandoned and a new one created. Patterson and Remington cover the old hospital in fresh animal blood and await the lions’ arrival, but instead the lions attack the new hospital. This also occurred in the real history, but before the trap was created and foiled. Part of this is for the narrative of the film to demonstrate the lions’ ability to outwit the experienced hunter after they have bested an engineer. Charles Remington’s appearance in this film is a narrative addition not found in the history of the man eaters. Patterson was hunting alone, or with the aid of local police and soldiers. Famous game hunters showed up for a promised reward for the lions’ death, but they never killed or successfully hunted the man eaters. It is likely this role was created for Michael Douglas as he was the film’s executive producer, and neither Remington, nor any other famous hunter, was killed by the man-eaters, as occurs within the film.

Another narrative alteration of the film is that both of the lions have large manes, and according to the historical record the two man-eaters were without manes. An iconic Hollywood image is the MGM lion, and as a result it was likely felt that manes on the lions were necessary as a visual cue to inform the audience that they were males. The manes would allow for more make-up effects to make the loins appear more bloodied and monstrous from past kills. As Jonathan Burt points out in regard to the lions of the film “different model heads were placed on lion bodies depending on the expression required; whilst in post-production the animals were digitally recoloured, enhanced, and is some cases replaced completely by animation” (Burt 159). All of this is done in an effort to make the lions more frightening, and to play on the idea that they are more than a normal lion. This point will be returned to in the conclusion. While there are other historical alterations, such as workers trying to kill Patterson because of his inability to stop the lions (There were murder attempts on Patterson, but it was related to working issues and policies, and not the man-eaters), they are not as directly linked to the lions, and will be skipped over for the purpose of this analysis. The workers did strike and abandon Tsavo after a number of killings by the lions, but returned and hailed Patterson as a hero once he had successfully killed them.

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Screen shot of lion attack in The Ghost and the Darkness


A final historical inaccuracy that should be pointed out is the finding of the man-eaters’ lair in the film by Remington and Patterson. The pair discovers it while out stalking the lions, and within find bones of hundreds of victims. According to historical records Patterson did find the lair, but after the lions had been killed. There were bones of a few human victims, but not hundreds. Historically it is stated that the lions killed twenty-eight Indian workers, and it is believed over a hundred Africans (Brian 28). These film alterations are done in part to help establish a greater depth of fear about the lions, but also plays with the genre convention of horror/stalker film by having the would- be victims stumble upon the killer’s lair. This is added to the narrative to build the myth of the killer and trace how long and how successfully they have engaged in their bloody and sadistic deeds. One of the important differences in this stalker film is that the killer is eating their victims instead of just killing them, and this is often not the case, save for Hannibal Lectre. The eating of humans is seen as taboo in human culture, and therefore makes a man-eater seem more sinister, but there is nothing particularly unnatural about a carnivore eating another living animal – which humans are.

The stalker aspect of the film becomes very important because the audience is put in the vantage point of the killer, or in this case the lion. As a result the audience is stalking their own kind, but not to kill, but also to eat. What the lions are doing is hunting prey for sustenance; it just happens to be that the prey is human. At other points the viewer’s perspective is shifted to that of Patterson as a stalker of the lions. Here we are a voyeur of a human hunter, and the hunter is positioned as a hero, but the audience is also occupying the visual space of seeing a fellow human as prey. This offers an odd contradiction of human views. For centuries, hunting lions was a noble act and a courageous act of sport, yet when the lions hunt humans for food it is seen as evil and unnatural. This view of hunting clearly positions a human viewpoint of only humans being allowed to kill for any purpose and reason, except for fellow humans – most of the time. However, animals can never take a human life and remain as anything but evil and unnatural, even if they take it to feed. The most interesting scenes are the ones where the human and lion are being stalked by each other, and the perspective keeps switching to demonstrate this. In this moment the audience is juxtaposed in the position of both hunter and hunted. They are stalking and being stalked. The voyeurism is one that is set up to be excited by watching death, but whether it will be a human or animal death is unknown, unless the viewer is familiar with the history of the events. This is a moment that allows the audience to collapse the human/animal binary through voyeurism.

The portrayal of the lions in this film is always shifting between a position as natural and unnatural. Part of this is literal because of filming techniques and post-production effects, and another part is based in the narrative and genre convention. Often stalker film killers are seen as more than human. In this film, and in the history, the lions were often viewed as such too. Patterson describes in his book that he could never explain how it took so many bullets to kill each lion (in one case six bullets at different times), how they kept easily making their way through all the thorny barriers that were constructed, or their lack of fear of fire (Patterson 34-42). These elements play to the horror genre convention, but there also seems something truly horrific to people about animals that kill humans. It is often displayed as something unnatural when animals hunt humans, and even more so when the animals have a talent for it. Perhaps it reminds humanity of its frailty and mortality, or it may be that it forces humans to recognize their place in the food chain, and as such their animality. As a result it is a common convention in such films to create the animal as being supernatural, or appearing to be in some ways. There may even be an idea that by consuming human lives they are gaining greater strength, intelligence, and super natural abilities. Making man eaters extraordinary allows humans to have a coping mechanism to explain their being dominated and consumed by a non-human. Examples of this can be found in Jaws, Orca, and The Edge. This results in the human audience being able to attribute such success of animal hunters to a unique specimen that is greater than the average of its kind. This helps to reinforce the narrative of dominance of humanity over the animal world that such films and accounts usually disrupt. The role of dominance would have been even more important with this event, and in this narrative given the imperial aspect of British empire building it was bound up with, and the loaded aspects of Patterson’s success as a hunter meant to the British first, and to humanity second. It was important to the British to demonstrate the power of the empire and the expansion of white civilization on “the dark continent,” and for humanity it was important to justify and reassert our domination of the non-human creatures of the planet.

Further Viewing/Reading

Brian, Denis. The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2008.

Bwana Devil. Dir. Arch Obeler. Gulu Productions. 1952.

The Edge. Dir. Lee Tamahori. Art Linson Productions. 1997.

Jaws. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Zanuck/Brown Productions. 1975.

Patterson, Bruce. The Lions of Tsavo: Exploring the Legacy of Africa’s Notorious Man-Eaters. New York: McGraw Hill Publishers, 2004.

Patterson, John Henry. The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. New York: Createspace, 2011.

Orca. Dir. Michael Anderson. Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica. 1977.

Work Cited

Brian, Denis. The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2008.

Burt, Jonathan. Animals in Film. London: Reaktion Books, 2002.

Dika, Vera. “The Stalker Film, 1978-81” American Horrors. Ed. Gregory A. Waller. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Munslow, Alun. Narrative and History. London: Palgrave Macmillian, 2007.

Patterson, John Henry. The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. NewYork: Createspace, 2011.