* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Bob Rafelson

Written by William Harrison and Rafelson

With Patrick Bergin, Iain Glen, Richard E. Grant, and Fiona Shaw

As far as great white hunters go, movies haven’t progressed much from the cheerfully juvenile Jungle Jim films (starring a waterlogged Johnny Weissmuller) through King Solomon’s Mines (1950 remake with old smoothie Stewart Granger) to Robert Redford in Out of Africa (1985). A Nietzschean superman on safari. Your typical bwana–part Green Beret, part Renaissance man–is a splendid blend of intellect and instinct, equally adept at identifying a rare flower at 50 paces as at gunning down a rhino at 500. This noble savant cultivates a warm rapport with the natives (so long as they behave themselves) and is admirably aware of his own environmental impact. What a guy.

Yet our hero teeters between two antagonistic cultures: between industrial civilization and the vast romantic wilderness where he enjoys a less cramped life-style. Sooner or later, though, a trickle and then a horde of bureaucrats and speculators will travel the very trails that the intrepid explorer blazed to escape them. In a devilishly ironic way, the great white hunter figure is an imperialist stooge. Another pitfall these fellows face in technologically inferior lands is the onset of egomaniacal madness. In various guises and locales (other than “great white hunter” in sub-Saharan “Africa”) filmmakers flush out over and over the cruel internal conflicts undergone by the protagonists of Lawrence of Arabia, The Man Who Would Be King, The Mosquito Coast, and even by the tormented Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now.

A filmmaker could hardly hope to conjure a more intriguing adventurer than the robust and randy Sir Richard Burton, an authentic prototype for that comparatively pallid and prissy screen icon Indiana Jones. Burton, exploring Africa in the 19th-century heyday of European imperialism, was a volatile mix of soldier and scholar and as sensational a maverick as the British Empire would tolerate; envious and spiteful colleagues paid Burton a backhanded tribute in dubbing him “the white nigger.” He ventured wherever he pleased whatever the peril, and was genuinely driven by a desire to understand the mysteries of exotic cultures. Burton scribbled 47 volumes whose subjects include India, falconry, bayonet fighting, a translation of the Kama Sutra that never seems to go out of print, and even a compilation of “extensive research notes on farting.” So intrepid an investigator inspires inquiry into the motives behind his freewheeling activities. A theme that screams out of any text on Burton is how divided a man he was, at odds relentlessly with his own society, culture, and self. And who surpasses director Bob Rafelson in delineating the ecstasy and mostly petty agonies experienced by the deeply ambivalent? His heroes and heroines of The King of Marvin Gardens, Black Widow, and that sublime portrait of self-pity Five Easy Pieces are cases in point. But in the self-consciously epic-style Mountains of the Moon, Rafelson is surprisingly content to convert (with coscreenwriter William Harrison, who bowdlerizes his own novel) a really rather wily and caustic Burton and his sadistic sidekick John Hanning Speke into a pair of frightfully nice chaps prancing ever onward toward the source of the Nile despite hostile tribes and ornery wildlife. For all its keen historical nuances or depth of characterizations the film might as well be entitled “Dick and Jack’s Excellent Adventure.” Although Rafelson quick-marches us through a multitude of dangers, the scenes themselves lack dramatic voltage and are strung together perfunctorily–only slightly more exciting than a video game wherein a tiny animated hunter evades crocodiles and cannibals.

Mountains of the Moon opens in 1854 as British lieutenant-on-leave John Hanning Speke (Iain Glen) disembarks in an East African port, where swarms of mute natives are busy toting this barge and lifting that bale. (Only two nonwhites–one a sultan–manage to utter any English.) Speke, a sharpshooter, craves a spot of hunting, but the interior is brimming with wrathful warriors. With a sniff, a British colonial official mentions that the disreputable Burton is mounting an expedition for some depraved purpose or other. Speke hastens to Burton’s camp where that legendary libertine (Patrick Bergin), veteran of countless battles and bouts of venereal disease, fluent in 23 languages (“though some Turkish dialects confound me”), inducts the eager lieutenant into his current preoccupation, the search for the source of the Nile, evidently a purely scientific enterprise. So pay no attention to rumors about El Dorado-like cities or vast gold deposits or the amazing sexual practices of the local folks. Forget personal glory or enrichment of the empire. The journey is treated onscreen as if there were nothing more at stake for Burton and Speke than, say, winning tenure in an anthropology department back home. Burton is depicted as a devout scholar, sifting disinterestedly through the data. “It is ironic,” he muses ruefully, “that I must be responsible for the exploitation that must follow [my trail].” Rafelson declines to ask who Burton thinks he is kidding.

The expedition is decimated in a night attack. Burton is speared through the face; Speke, wounded, barely escapes with his genitalia intact. They recuperate in England. Apart from translating erotic Eastern literature and scraping together funds for another go at the source of the Nile, Burton woos and weds the formidably feminine Isabel (Fiona Shaw) while Speke is befriended by Oliphant, an unctuous and unscrupulous publisher (Richard E. Grant in a reprise of his How to Get Ahead in Advertising demeanor). Soon Burton and Speke resume the search.

On this harrowing trek the English explorers cope with deserting native bearers, bribe truculent tribesmen with bolts of bright cloth, encounter lions, rescue a slave, are held captive, survive thermometer-popping fevers, and perform impromptu self-surgery. Speke patiently suffers the insistent attentions of a chubby and lovesick daughter of a chieftain, and that ordeal would be less amusing if the homoerotic dimension in Harrison’s novel Burton and Speke had been retained. With almost every trace of Speke’s repressed longings for Burton erased (except for one ambiguous shot), the story shrinks into an ordinary tale of betrayal for the sake of winning a race. Speke ventures off while Burton is immobilized with illness, and happens upon Lake Victoria, which he names and claims but cannot prove is the long-sought source of the Nile. Burton is skeptical. On returning to London Speke is gulled by Oliphant into believing Burton was a liar and a slanderer. Vengefully, Speke, lacking conclusive evidence, declares his “discovery.” Mountains of the Moon ebbs to an ironic finish as claims and counterclaims reverberate in academic chambers.

Rafelson concocts mediocre entertainment at a high cost. By denying the darker aspects of the protagonists, he depicts not tragedy or pathos but only a childish misunderstanding among friends. Why bother with the historical Burton and Speke at all? Any bland pair of shortsighted rivals would have done the trick. Burton and Speke really remain the dark continents to film audiences that they no doubt were to themselves. In gliding over historical context, Rafelson sacrifices provocative drama for pulp-magazine antics. In this “epic” he clearly opted against hunting big game–the sort you bag when, as in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge Over the River Kwai, vivid vital individuals operate within richly textured historical contexts.