Review: The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)

The Ghost and the Darkness

The Ghost and the Darkness



Stephen Hopkins


William Goldman


1h 50m


Michael Douglas, Val Kilmer, Tom Wilkinson, John Kani, Bernard Hill, Brian McCardie, Emily Mortimer, Om Puri, Henry Cele

MPAA Rating


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The idea of bridge building is a metaphorical construct that has been infrequently employed in film. The Ghost in the Darkness tries to give the audience a connection between the desire to finish what one has started with the notion of fatherhood, but some of that salience is lost by the film’s exciting finale.

Not particularly well known for his cinematic astuteness, director Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2 and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5) manages to find a winning formula that blends his understanding of genre tension with a compelling look into the heart of darkness when man faces his inner fears via external threats.

The story revolves around a young army engineer (Val Kilmer) hired by a megalomaniacal land baron (Tom Wilkinson) seeking to build a bridge across the Tsavo river, to become the first to transverse Africa by rail. As soon as Col. Patterson arrives at the work site, the workers are plagued by a vicious lion attacking them in the middle of the night. After killing one, two more lions appear to ravage the workers and put an end to the work being done in spite of some measure of progress.

Screenwriter William Goldman has more to do with what works in the film than Hopkins does, though the thrilling, frightening final reel speaks to Hopkins’ capabilities. Goldman’s screenplay takes a true, though probably embellished, story about Patterson’s struggle against vicious, man-eating beasts while attempting to build a bridge over a wide river and turns it into a metaphorical examination of Patterson’s internal conflicts about becoming a father and the fear of failure and struggle for success he fights within himself. Kilmer, for his part, conveys a driven, yet fearful military man well, giving Patterson humanity and trepidation in equal measure.

Michael Douglas, in his short role as a noted hunter, is horrendously miscast and makes the scenes in which he plays feel entirely unnecessary. Wilkinson, John Kani as the camp’s secondary leader, and Brian McCardie as one Patterson’s fellow builders, are significantly better in their roles. Meanwhile, Bernard Hill as the camp’s physician, Om Puri as the tribal workers’ leader, and Emily Mortimer as Patterson’s wife are unfortunately some of the weaker elements.

The drive of a man to build a bridge was best tackled in The Bridge on the River Kwai with the great Alec Guinness taking on the Patterson-type role as a POW helping his captors build a literal and metaphorical bridge. The same kind of metaphor is at play here, but it doesn’t quite amount to the same cathartic denouement as in the David Lean film. The audience is ultimately left satisfied, but not without its concerns over the protagonist’s mediocre growth over the course of the film.

Review Written

June 7, 2021

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