There’s surely a better version of this film without Douglas on screen at all.
In Stephen Hopkins’ 1996 thriller The Ghost and the Darkness, when Val Kilmer’s John Henry Patterson proclaims, “I will kill the lion, and I will build the bridge,” he’s met with the pithy rejoinder, “Of course you will. You’re white, you can do anything.” This is meant as a scalding little snipe at the film’s protagonist and his unintentional arrogance. But it’s also a perfect distillation of the narrative’s core. Adapted from a true story of the late 1800s, the film follows Patterson, a man hired to build a bridge in Tsavo, Kenya for the ivory trade. Workers are getting sick and injured, resources are scarce and everything else about the project is ill-conceived and criticized by the locals, but that’s the sort of dissent no one in charge could even begin to care about.
The story changes when crew members begin to get picked off by a pair of murderous lions. Patterson, a military engineer, has encountered similar wildlife inconveniences before, but never this severe. Patterson has no pride or investment in this project beyond doing the job and finishing in time to get home and witness the birth of his child. To him, any obstacle is just a function he must perform, whether it’s managing the labor force or killing a mammal. The early fun in this film lies entirely in the chasm between how quickly the natives (and the audience!) recognize this threat and how Patterson and his bosses do not.
What begins as a somewhat stuffy throwback with casual anticolonial undertones morphs into a gripping and darkly comic thriller literalizing the spirit of resistance to Britain’s sprawl in these cunning, malevolent beasts. With a game performance from the always versatile Kilmer, a largely sharp script from legendary scribe William Goldman, a killer score from Jerry Goldsmith and evocative photography from Vilmos Zsigmond, The Ghost and the Darkness certainly seems like an underrated gem to anyone who wasn’t around for its original release and has stumbled upon it on Hulu.
Then Michael Douglas shows up. Douglas was a producer on the film initially, and then somewhere along the process he decided he should be the film’s co-lead, Charles Remington, a badass and mysterious hunter brought in to help Patterson fell the lions. On the page, Goldman wrote Remington as a wholly fictional addition to the historical tale who could be a captivating presence, ideally for an older character actor, to really sell how evil and vengeful these lions are, thus making Patterson an even bigger hero for eventually besting them.
But Douglas got into Goldman’s ear, wanting the part expanded into a more prominent position, with Remington’s lore filled in needlessly. In Goldman’s second autobiography, Which Lie Did I Tell?, he outlines a number of writing experiences marred by listening to a movie star’s wrongheaded input, but none (not even Chevy Chase wanting to make Memoirs of an Invisible Man more melancholy) were quite as ruinous as Douglas insisting the threadbare and enigmatic Remington be given an elaborate and pointlessly tragic backstory. Its inclusion makes the character feel like little more than an overlong aside in an improv exercise, a frustrating bundle of tropes and heartstring-tugging bullshit that fails to make the character deeper but succeeds in dragging him and the film into startling mediocrity.
This kind of random meddling still takes place today, but this particular instance feels decidedly ‘90s, as so many big-studio pictures of the era feature stellar casts and exemplary talent behind the camera, yet execute into a package less than the sum of its creative parts. There’s surely a better version of this film without Douglas on screen at all. Alas, his beleaguered face still hogs half the poster.