Forgotten/Ignored Gem: Mountains of the Moon

Today’s release and rhapsodic reviews of The Lost City of Z (“…a miraculous movie, at once moving, intimidating, and gorgeous to behold.” — The Atlantic) have conjured memories of Mountains of the Moon, a little-known 1990 film examining the arduous and, ultimately, contentious, search by explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke for another great mystery of the Victorian age—this on the other side of the world—the source of the Nile River.


The travails of Burton and Speke are endlessly fascinating, the story of two British officers with—excuse the movie trailer cliche—nothing in common joining forces to achieve something great, only to have the afterglow extinguished by ambition and petty rivalry. It went something like this:

In 1855, Richard Francis Burton (b. 1821)—explorer extraordinaire (Asia, Africa, the Americas); geographer; polylinguist (fluent in 29 languages); translator (The Arabian Nights, Kama Sutra); writer (dozens of books and scholarly articles); cartographer; ethnologist (his preference for total immersion in foreign cultures and mores flew in the face of British ethnocentrism); spy; poet; fencer; diplomat—in other words, a Renaissance Man in the tradition of The Conflicted Film Snob—embarked on a journey into Somalia on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). 

Burton, 1864

In addition to a team of African bearers (beasts of burden tended to die en route so manpower was the best supply line), he was accompanied by a handful of British officers, among them John Hanning Speke (b. 1827), an aristocrat, soldier, amateur hunter and explorer. That the two couldn’t have been more different is an understatement. According to Wikipedia, “…the repressed and racially bigoted Speke felt that Burton was a lackadaisical wastrel, more interested in whoring and passing the time with natives and Arab traders than in the enterprise at hand, and Burton believed the dyslexic Speke to be stupid and incompetent, unable even to learn how to use simple measuring devices, vital to serious exploration.”

Very early in the journey, the expedition was attacked by Somali warriors. Although Burton and Speke escaped by the skin of their teeth, it came at a cost—the former took a lance to the face, the spear slicing his palate and knocking out teeth as it passed clean through both cheeks, while the latter, for a time held prisoner, was stabbed multiple times in the legs and chest.

After a convalescence, the two intrepid Englishmen were right back at it, beating the African bush to confirm the existence of huge inland bodies of water described by Arab traders and slavers. Also on the agenda, at least at its periphery: try to discover the source of the Nile. (“Every Westerner’s curiosity has been met with torture, mutilation and death,” notes Burton in the film. “The river is shrouded in mystery. Who will be the first to discover its source?”) Unfortunately, the expedition was snakebit from the start. Supples and equipment went missing, along with the majority of porters. Both Burton and Speke became gravely ill, the former unable to walk and the latter rendered temporarily blind. Despite their troubles, they persevered and became the first Europeans to set eyes on Lake Tanganyika, one of Africa’s Great Lakes.

Speke, 1863

With Burton too sick to continue, Speke made for another rumored lake, this one turning out to be Lake Victoria. Although unable to make proper scientific measurements (the necessary equipment had been stolen or destroyed), Speke came away convinced this was the source of the Nile. Burton tended to agree with the hypothesis but, legend has it, asked Speke to hold off making it public until they were both back in England. (Because Burton was so sick, he wasn’t able to sail for home until three weeks after Speke.)

Speke didn’t wait, making the announcement to the RGS. Burton, aggrieved, accused his former partner of breaking their agreement. What’s more, he suddenly changed his tune, saying the likely source of the Nile was Tanganyika rather than Victoria.

Thus a rift (oof!) between the two explorers was forever opened.

Adding to Burton’s anger (and jealousy) was the announcement by the RGS that it would fund Speke’s return to Africa to decide the matter once and for all via proper scientific measurements.

Over the next three years (1860-63), Speke and a new partner, James Grant, traveled to and mapped Victoria. Speke, strongly convinced the matter of the Nile’s source was settled, returned home a hero. Burton wasn’t so sure, feeling that many questions still remained, saying as much in frequent speaking engagements and writings. Burton’s stature in the exploring community and his persuasive (but wrong) arguments, combined with Speke’s ineffectual final report on the mission to the RGS (remember, he was dyslexic), ultimately led to the scheduling of a public debate in which the two would present their cases. However, before the debate could happen, Speke was killed in a hunting accident. It wasn’t until a decade later that Henry Morton Stanley settled the matter of the Nile’s source (Lake Victoria) once and for all. 

With a story shot through with so much adventure and intrigue, it’s no wonder that director Bob Rafelson, best known for helming The King of Marvin Gardens, the 1981 The Postman Always Rings Twice remake and the classic Five Easy Pieces

…decided to venture a bit outside his comfort zone to immortalize this epic story on film.

So, what of the movie? Any good, you ask?

Indeed it is. Despite telescoping certain events, especially Speke’s second attempt at Lake Victoria, the film, starring Patrick BerginIain Glen and Fiona Shaw as, respectively, Burton, Speke and Burton’s faithful wife Isabel…


…turns out to be surprisingly faithful to the actual events as it moves back and forth between the wilds of Africa and the stuffed-shirt civility of Victorian England. Heck, it’s so faithful I don’t need to bore you with a synopsis—just read the little history lesson above.

Of course, movies being movies, Rafelson wasn’t above some poetic license, such as portraying Speke as a closet homosexual with an unrequited crush on Burton, which doesn’t seem to be the case—Speke was attracted to African women and slept with quite a few, including a Ugandan named Méri, whom he described, according to Tim Jeal, author of the fine book Explorers of the Nile, as “my beautiful Venus.” Then there’s the Rafelson’s tendency to skew empathy more towards Burton, making Speke out to be a bit of a worm when push came to shove, the traditional line since the whole confusing affair back in the 1800s.

However, like the reexamination of the famous Captain Bligh/Fletcher Christian/HMS Bounty narrative (Bligh = jerk, Christian = put upon hero, when in reality, Bligh = stalwart captain and Christian = spoiled worm), more recent scholarship by Jeal has revealed that Burton himself could be equally petty and wormish. What’s more, Rafelson presents Speke’s death as a guilt-induced suicide to atone for bad behavior towards Burton when, according to Jeal, the evidence strongly point to Speke accidentally shooting himself.

Anyway, those quibbles are small beer. If you’re like me and appreciate films chronicling explorations into the unknown, something our generation, with its ability to use Google Earth to focus in on a fly biting the ass of a cow feeding at some river tributary in deepest, darkest Congo, will never know, you’ll definitely enjoy it.

Here’s the trailer. Rental/purchase options for the movie are weak. One can buy a crappy looking DVD on Amazon or buy it for download from the same. Unfortunately, this is no way to appreciate the stunning cinematography, by the great Roger Deakins, who—write this down and put it in your wallet—will finally win an Academy Award (after 13 nominations) for this fall’s Blade Runner 2049.

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