Mountains of the Moon (1989) – reviewed by George

A film about Richard Burton (Patrick Bergin) and John Hanning Speke (Iain Glen) as they search Africa for the source of the Nile treats us to a sort of non-fictional “King Solomon’s Mines”. The term “non-fictional”, however, is arguable since additional reading has prompted me to have some doubts about historical accuracy.
The East Cost of Africa, 1854: Speke arrives with an arsenal, but can’t get permission from the British Colonial Service to go inland. He goes to Burton, who fancies himself “Ptolemy, Napoleon”, and wants to discover the source of the Nile and to find gold. Speke likes that idea – as the younger son of a wealthy man, he basically has little money. Burton notes that the natives call the Nile’s source the mountains of the moon, and he takes Speke on as a subordinate – Speke’s guns influence that decision somewhat. That first expedition ends abruptly when a carefully planned native assault on their group leaves only three survivors: Burton, Speke, and Burton’s oldest native assistant. But they did discover Lake Tanganyika.
Back in England Burton gives a rousing speech to the Royal Geographic Society, and the Society agrees to sponsor a second expedition.
Burton was older than Speke, but Speke had done a good deal of exploring exotic sites on his own and now was the co-leader of this second expedition, but still listed under Burton. They get to Africa, hire porters and linguists, and set out for the interior. Along the way they both have serious illnesses, and there are run-ins with tribes who had been led to think that any foreigner was a slaver. The film is exciting, while still being somewhat educational. At the crucial point Burton was too ill to travel, so Speke went on with a small crew and discovered Lake Victoria. He was sure that it was the source of the Nile and he was right, but it was largely due to gut-feeling, since he had no equipment for measuring the height of the lake, and was unable to walk around it, because of its very large size. Burton was convinced that the lake was not the source of the Nile. When Speke arrived back in England, the movie supposes that his publisher Oliphant (Richard E. Grant) told him that Burton’s report to the military called Speke inexperienced and cowardly, and Oliphant used this to get Speke to go ahead and speak to the National Geographic Society (to much acclaim) about the discovery of the source of the Nile, therefore hyping sales of Speke’s journal. Since Burton and Speke had agreed that neither would speak until they could appear together, Burton never trusted him again.
On the day before they were finally scheduled to appear before the Society together Speke died in a hunting accident. The movie makes it clear that it was suicide due to the fact that Speke had just learned that Burton’s report actually gave Speke due credit and even stated that Speke had saved his life (true). However, in reading about the men, I read an argument that stated that the location of the wound makes suicide unlikely. So the film, while excellent, may or may not leave something to be desired in the factual area.
Some other players must be mentioned. Delroy Lindo plays Mabruki, one of the native crew leaders, who later served in Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone, Fiona Shaw plays Burton’s wife Isabelle, and Roger Rees has a cameo at the end where he comes to Burton with the death mask he has made of Speke, saying that death distorts the features and he wants Burton’s opinion on accuracy. Burton then remolds the cheeks.
I liked the film; all my questions come from reading about the men after seeing the movie.
Based on the Biographical Novel “Burton and Speke” by William Harrison, and on Original Journals by Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, Screenplay by William Harrison and Bob Rafelson, Directed by Bob Rafelson.

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