A long-cherished project for director Bob Rafelson, this fact-based adventure does not take as long to sit through as it took its central characters, 19th-century British adventurers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, to discover the source of the Nile. It only seems that way.
The Rafelson in the director's chair here is less the filmmaker justly famed for movies like FIVE EASY PIECES; THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS; and BLACK WIDOW than he is the Rafelson who managed to make a dreary, snooze-inducing melodrama out of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, with Jessica Lange as
the lust-crazed, greasy-spoon waitress driven to murder after thrashing in the flour with Jack Nicholson. MOUNTAINS also cools off a hot-blooded character in Burton, who ran afoul of Victorian prudery with his graphic studies of sex practices around the world and such bedside classics as his
translation of the Arabic erotic text The Perfumed Garden.
Unfortunately, that Burton barely exists in this film. The action starts in 1854 Kenya, with the first meeting between the refined dilettante Speke (Iain Glen) and Burton (Patrick Bergin), the earthy explorer and writer fluent in 23 languages and a dizzying array of scientific disciplines. On
leave from the British Army, Speke (who the film obliquely suggests is a repressed homosexual attracted to Burton) joins one of Burton's expeditions in order to do some big-game hunting. The two become friends after a battle with restless natives, during which each gets a chance to save the
other's life. Back home in England, Speke resumes his training to become a physician, while Burton courts--or, more accurately, is pursued by--the high-born Isabel Arundell (Fiona Shaw of MY LEFT FOOT, who has one marvelous moment here when Isabel secretly peruses The Perfumed Garden by
candlelight, with a deliciously naughty gleam in her eye). There is eventually a lovemaking scene between Burton and Arundell that, like so much else in the film, is staged with more silly solemnity than heated abandon, but--unfortunately for the film and for Burton--Isabel gets left behind once
the boys are off again, this time to find the Nile's source, under the auspices of the Royal Geographic Society. Back in Africa, the two face many trials. Speke gets a bug in his ear. Burton's legs swell up. The explorers also get captured by another group of natives, who hold Burton hostage and
torture him while Speke is allowed to continue--eventually, it seems, stumbling onto the Nile's source at Lake Victoria. When he returns to England, Speke is turned against Burton by his backbiting publisher, who tells Speke that Burton intends to ridicule Speke's contributions in his own book
about the expedition. Why Speke would accept this at face value without confronting Burton is never explained. But it sets the stage for the film's anticlimactic climax, a Royal Geographic Society debate in which Burton goes head-to-head with Speke over who really has the right scientific stuff.
Through all this, Rafelson and cowriter William Harrison, upon whose book about Burton and Speke the film is partly based, utterly fail to bring any sense of excitement to the quest, mainly because they fail to bring their central characters to life. There is undoubtedly a basic fidelity to
facts--few writers outside of the Monty Python gang would contrive to present a bug crawling into somebody's ear as a crucial scene in an adventure drama. But Rafelson seems to have been unable to get beneath the surface to communicate whatever it was about this real-life story that excited him
enough to bring it to the screen in the first place. For all its blood, sweat, and conflict, and despite a handsome, painstaking production filmed mostly on the locations where the events actually occurred, MOUNTAINS remains curiously uninvolving, seemingly endless, and not helped at all by the
colorless casting of Bergin and Glen in the lead roles. Only Shaw manages to cut through the overwrought, Hemingway-esque machismo with which Rafelson has otherwise smothered what should have been a ripping good true-life adventure yarn. (Violence, adult situations, nudity.)
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- Released: 1990
- Rating: R
- Review: A long-cherished project for director Bob Rafelson, this fact-based adventure does not take as long to sit through as it took its central characters, 19th-century British adventurers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, to discover the source of the Nile… (more)