Bob Rafelson’s new movie has no stars, and its subject is British colonialism. Does this maverick director harbor a box-office death wish?
Since the Sixties, Rafelson has dreamed of making a film about Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, the English explorers who set out for Africa in 1854 (the first of two journeys) to discover the “mountains of the moon,” the fabled source of the Nile. Now he’s done it. The result is an occasion, and not one for napping. Rafelson’s reflective style, which took the steam out of his 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, works like a charm here. In the honorable tradition of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and John Huston’s Man Who Would Be King, Mountains is an epic of sweep and intimacy. Rafelson’s fondness for breathtaking vistas sometimes slows the pacing to Masterpiece Theater speed, but his commitment to stimulate the mind along with the senses fires the film.
Siiting with William Harrison (on whose 1982 book Burton and Speke the film is based), Rafelson found strong contemporary relevance in the conflict between ethics and ambition. For Burton — scientist, poet, linguist and translator of erotica (The Kama Sutra, The Arabian Nights) — the expedition is a rare chance to study uncharted lands and tribal cultures. For Speke — an aristocrat envious of Burton’s celebrity — the goal is more immediate: to make his name and fortune by discovering and claiming another colonial jewel for Queen Victoria’s crown.
In the early London sequences, Rafelson stacks the deck against the careerist Speke. Iain Glen, the gifted Scottish actor who played the researcher accused of murdering Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist, plays Speke as a manipulated snob. It’s hinted that Speke is in the amorous thrall of his smarmy publisher, brilliantly portrayed by Richard E. Grant. Rafelson carries this too far, though, by suggesting a link between Speke’s sexual preference and his moral weakness.
Burton, in contrast, is set up as a man’s man. The strapping Patrick Bergin, an Irish stage actor who has appeared in two films (The Courier and Taffin), gives Burton the stature of a hero who could walk twice across Africa or cut open his own swollen leg to ease a crippling case of cellulitis. Bergin’s triumphant performance is deepened by his haunted eyes, which burn with the insatiable social and sexual curiosity that kept Burton at odds with polite society. In bed with his lover Isabel Arundel (Fiona Shaw), the lusty Burton uses a candle to inspect her erogenous zones. Later, Isabel’s conservative parents, sharply drawn by Anna Massey and Leslie Phillips, object to her marriage to this avowed sensualist. But Shaw, an incandescent Irish actress already being compared to Streep and Redgrave for her work on the stage (Electra) and in film (My Left Foot), cannily shows how Isabel is as avid for the conversation after sex as for the action during.
An inveterate traveler, the fifty-six-year-old Rafelson shares Burton’s passion for trodding the less beaten path. In the mid-Sixties, Rafelson got rich quick — in Speke style — by initiating the TV series The Monkees. But in 1968, Rafelson made his debut and reputation as a film director by exposing the cynicism of that enterprise in the cult classic Head. Since then, Rafelson has interrupted his globe-trotting mostly to fashion small, personal films (Five Easy Pieces, Stay Hungry and The King of Marvin Gardens) about alienated rebels chasing fading frontiers.
Burton and Rafelson, two outsiders by temperament, seem the ideal film match — too ideal, perhaps. Before seeing Mountains, my fear was that Rafelson might be using Burton to send himself a valentine, the way Francis Coppola did in Tucker, in which Coppola compared himself to an innovative automaker whose genius went unappreciated by the common herd.
Unfortunately, Rafelson never stoops to the ain’t-it-a-bitch-being-brilliant level. In the African scenes — spectacularly shot by Roger Deakins on locations ranging from blazing Kenya to the jagged shores of Lake Turkana — Rafelson shows the mettle of both men in the face of those great equalizers: heat, starvation, disease and hostile natives. Rafelson tellingly renders the growing mutual regard of these two opposites. Through Glen’s performance, which grows in power with the film, we grasp Speke’s ambition in human terms: He sees success as the first stop on the road to freedom. Rafelson knows that territory. Why else did he make the shallow 1986 thriller Black Widow, if not to prove that he could swim in the mainstream and justify a costly project like Mountains?
Temporary accommodation to popular taste is one thing; it’s the embrace of success for its own sake that Rafelson abhors. When Speke betrays Burton by returning to London and maintaining that he alone discovered the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria, the rift between the two men becomes permanent. Years later, at the Royal Geographical Society, an agitated Burton challenges his former partner, saying that Speke had no scientific evidence to back up his claim. Before Burton can complete his speech, word comes that Speke is dead, a suicide.
Despite the film’s rousing thrills, startling beauty and searching performances, the prevailing tone is meditative, sorrowful — as befits its subject. Other directors have explored the ambitions of dreamers, but none can equal Rafelson in charting the treacherous terrain between the start of a rainbow and the pot of gold at its end.