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Mountains of the Moon reaches into the past -- and misses

Directed by Bob Rafelson.

[cw-2]Based on the novel Burton and Speke by

William Harrison, and original journals by

Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke.[cw0]

Starring Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen.

Now playing at the Harvard Square

and Charles theaters.


IT USED TO BE THAT the impending release of a Bob Rafelson film was awaited with breathless anticipation. Sad to say, that hasn't been the case in recent years, and his newest film, Mountains of the Moon, does nothing to reverse that trend. It's a fairly pallid film, both uninspired and uninspiring.

The film is a historical drama about the efforts of two British explorers, Richard Burton (Patrick Bergin) and John Hanning Speke (Iain Glen), to find the source of the Nile River during the 1850s.

This immediately causes Rafelson to run into problems which he fails to solve very well. For example, the topic isn't exactly new. The search for the head of the Nile has been told in various books, films, and television shows. None of those previous efforts would have mattered much if Rafelson had been able to provide fresh perspectives on the story. While he does come up with some new ideas, they are insufficient to make the story dramatically compelling.

As an artist, it is Rafelson's duty to present the story in ways that re-create and re-present an appropriate sense of adventure and accomplishment. And that is where Rafelson falters: The majestic scenery, sweeping camera shots, exotic natives, and heroic struggles are not enough to to allow the viewer to share in the explorers' excitement.

To give Rafelson some credit, he does seem to be aware of these issues and he does try to address them. In particular, the director's interpretation resurrects Burton's contributions to the search for the Nile from near historical oblivion, and Rafelson also makes him a much more sympathetic character to modern, post-colonial audiences. For example, Burton wants to observe and learn from native cultures rather than conquer them, and he points out the inherent absurdity of Europeans claiming to "discover" something that the natives have known about for thousands of years.

All of this does help the film, but these tidbits do not manage to lift the film out of its general doldrums. In fact, the film actually does not begin to engage its audience until two-thirds of the film is over. It is only when a controversy erupts between Burton and Speke after they return to England for the second time that the film begins to stand on firm ground. As a result, Rafelson's film is certainly more successful than, say, Out of Africa. But when one thinks of the other films this director has under his belt -- like Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, and the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice -- one can't help but cringe at the general mediocrity of his newest film.