Friday, October 14, 2005

Unfortunate taste

So, as promised, those lions.

The Ghost and the Darkness is not the most brilliant of films and certainly not as good as William Goldman’s script, which I happened across first. It was going for a pound in a Greenwich bookshop and, when I finally read the thing, proved utterly mesmerising. Haunting, epic, funny and terrifying… You can understand Goldman’s despair (in the excellent Which lie did I tell?) at Hollywood’s failure to properly realise “Jaws directed by David Lean”.

The story is pretty simple, and based on real events. At the end of the nineteenth century, Prime Minister (and uncle) Bob Salisbury had to apologise to the Lords for delays in building a railway through Kenya. It seemed, he said, that two lions had appeared in the Tsavo area and, “conceived a most unfortunate taste for our porters.”

In charge of the construction was a chap called Patterson (played, in the film, by Val Kilmer), and it’s his job to get shot of the man-eaters. Goldman fleshes out the story expertly. I’d misremembered as Patterson’s own a brilliant bit where, sitting alone in his makeshift treehouse, he learns that lions climb trees…

Still, Patterson’s version is glorious, boy’s own stuff:
"The hunter became the hunted; and instead of either making off or coming for the bait prepared for him, the lion began stealthily to stalk me! For about two hours he horrified me by slowly creeping round and round my crazy structure, gradually edging his way nearer and nearer. Every moment I expected him to rush it; and the staging had not been constructed with an eye to such a possibility. […]

I kept perfectly still, however, hardly daring even to blink my eyes: but the long-continued strain was telling on my nerves […]

About midnight suddenly something came flop and struck me on the back of the head. For a moment I was so terrified that I nearly fell off the plank, as I thought that the lion had sprung on me from behind. Regaining my senses in a second or two, I realised that I had been hit by nothing more formidable than an owl, which had doubtless mistaken me for the branch of a tree […]

The involuntary start which I could not help giving was immediately answered by a sinister growl from below."

Lieutenant Colonel JH Patterson, DSO, "The Man-eaters of Tsavo and other east African adventures".

The lions are now on display at Chicago’s Field Museum, and last summer I dragged the Doctor along to see them. She was born not far from Tsavo, museums are her thing, and anyway, I wanted to see them…

They weren’t at all what I’d expected, to be honest. Put back together from the rugs Patterson had made from their skins, the two lions are smaller and a bit more battered than they were in real life. But the thing that really surprises is that they’re not anything like the lions in my head (and in the film). Goldman named them “Ghost” and “Darkness” because of their manes.

Tsavo lions, however, are maneless.

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