Mountains of the Moon: A Re-inscription of the Colonial Master Narrative

Mountains of the Moon: A Re-inscription of the Colonial Master Narrative

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Mountains of the Moon: A Re-inscription of the Colonial Master Narrative

 If Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke were alive in 1989 to see the release of Bob Rafelson’s Mountains of the Moon, what would their response to the film be?  Would they agree with the way Rafelson’s film depicts their remarkable journey into Africa to find the source of the Nile River?  Would they agree with the way the film dramatizes their relationship with each other?  The answers to these questions would help a great deal in determining whether Rafelson’s film about Burton and Speke’s expedition was accurate, or whether his film was an attempt to sensationalize their story to increase its reception.  Unfortunately, Burton and Speke are not around to answer these questions, which makes an analysis of these issues difficult.  Therefore, rather than analyzing this film from a historical perspective, this critique is concerned with what story Rafelson’s film tells.  How does Rafelson’s movie shape audience’s opinions about Burton and Speke as characters?  Does his story, through visual rhetoric, retell or reinterpret Burton and Speke’s story?  What role does Africa play in Rafelson’s film?  The answers to these questions should help determine whether Rafelson’s film is a re-inscription of the colonial master narrative, or whether it is a post-colonial critique of European colonization.

  Mountains of the Moon sets out to recreate the adventures of Richard Burton (Patrick Bergin) and John Hanning Speke (Iain Glen).  The plot of the film focuses on Burton and Speke’s relationship, and their journey to discover the source of the Nile River.  One interesting characteristic that separates Rafelson’s Mountains of the Moon from previous attempts to describe Burton and Speke’s expedition is that Rafelson’s film introduces a human element into Burton and Speke’s relationship; an element that remains the focal point throughout the entire movie (Campbell, As a result, Rafelson shifts the focus of the movie away from the business aspect of the story, and compels audiences to focus more on the friendship that develops between Burton and Speke.  Sidney Pollack’s Out of Africa shifts in the same way.  In Pollack’s 1985 film, audiences find themselves more concerned with the film’s love story, than with the Baroness’s coffee plantation in Africa.  This shift occurs not by accident, but rather as a deliberate attempt by Pollack to tell a particular story.  Therefore, Rafelson’s film deliberately shifts to allow him to tell his story: a story about “Two strangers made friends by a savage land.

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  Two friends made enemies by the civilized world” (Quote extracted off of the cover of the film case).  So what does Rafelson’s story tell us about Burton and Speak, and their relationship?

Clearly, Rafelson wanted to make Burton the hero of his film.  He shoots Patrick Bergin’s character in such a way as to convince audiences that Sir Richard Burton was equally concerned about ethnography, as he was about discovering the source of the Nile River.  For example, one scene in the film shows Bergin admiring one of the native tribe’s send-off ceremonies.  The camera, utilizing an establishing shot (a shot used to show the spatial relations among important figures, objects, and setting), shows how intrigued Burton was with the ceremony.  In contrast to Burton, Speke is pinned as the typical British colonizer.  Rafelson’s Speke comes across as a power-driven explorer, only concerned with discovering the source of the Nile.   The ceremony scene described above personifies this interpretation.

Speke, in an effort to continue the expedition, snaps at Burton in the ceremony scene, and ridicules him for admiring the tribe’s rituals.  Speke’s failure to appreciate the value of that particular ceremony is a perfect example of what W. E. F. Ward claims was a common problem in Britain in the 19th century.  Ward, in his essay “The Colonial Phase in British West Africa,” states, “The British people’s ignorance of Africa was and is profound, and even governments have not always been well-informed” (Ward, 405).  I believe Rafelson wanted to give the typical colonizer a voice in this film.  For this reason, Speke’s character represents an example of Britain’s ignorance about Africa, and how that ignorance was directly related to the country’s colonial agenda.  In the end, Rafelson’s story persuades audiences to sympathize with Burton’s character, and to be skeptical of Speke’s.  Clearly, Rafelson sought to dramatize Burton and Speke’s relationship to persuade audiences into siding with Burton.  Therefore, does Rafelson’s film retell or reinterpret Burton and Speke’s story?

Rafelson’s film is a reinterpretation of the Burton and Speke’s story.  The best example of this point comes near the end of the film.  In the hunting scene, Rafelson, with camera angles and point-of-view shots, suggests that Speke shot himself on purpose; a view radically different from history’s account of the incident.  Near the conclusion of the film, the Royal Geographical Society scheduled a debate in order to resolve the dispute between Burton and Speke over whose account of the Nile River was truly accurate.  Building up to the debate, Rafelson suggests, once again through camera angles and close-up shots, that Speke not only has doubts about his conclusions, but that he also felt horrible for selling Burton short of the credit he rightfully deserved earlier on in the film.  Therefore, when Speke “accidentally” kills himself, I am not convinced that that is what really happened.  Instead, I believe that Speke purposely killed himself for fear that Burton might ruin him in the debate.  This argument is problematic, however, because Rafelson never has Speke’s character come out and say that this is how he feels.  As a result, audiences must interpret the films visual rhetoric (“cues”) for themselves, and “make meaning” out of those cues.  In this way, Rafelson’s film, to borrow from David Bordwell, illustrates the philosophy that “meanings are not found but made” (Bordwell, 3).  I will now turn to an examination of whether Rafelson’s film is a re-inscription of the colonial master narrative, or whether it is a post-colonial critique of European colonization.  However, in order to make this investigation more fruitful, I will first investigate what role Africa plays in Rafelson’s film.

Some critics have argued that one of the downfalls of Mountains of the Moon is that Rafelson’s story never makes the African “environment a central character” in the film, thus taking away from the story as a whole (Hartl,  I would agree that the environment plays a subservient role to the human element in this film.  However, there are a few examples in the film where the environment helps us understand the expedition better.  One example that supports this idea is the scene in which Burton forces himself to cut his own legs to relive the pressure from the blood that had built up inside of them from trekking across Africa.  This scene, through its employment of Michael Small’s music and Rafelson’s camera angles, clearly illustrates how taxing this expedition was on the bodies of both explorers.  After the scene concludes, audiences become more aware of the physical and mental pain that Burton and Speke experienced on their journey.  Nevertheless, these small instances are rare.  As result, one can conclude that Africa is a backdrop to the Rafelson’s story, not the focal point.  This is just one reason why Rafelson’s Mountains of the Moon is a re-inscription of the colonial master narrative.

Rafelson’s film is a re-inscription of the colonial master narrative because the primary focus of the movie is to illustrate the relationship between Burton and Speke, not to offer a post-colonial critique of European colonization.  As stated earlier in this essay, Rafelson wanted to add a human element to Burton and Speke’s relationship.  However, in doing so, he compels audiences to concern themselves with the development of Burton and Speke’s friendship, and the betrayal of that friendship, leaving issues of European colonialism behind.  I admit that there are a number of scenes in Rafelson’s film that might be offering a critique on colonialism.  However, those scenes cannot overpower the human elements of this film.  If Rafelson wanted to offer a post-colonial critique of European colonization, I believe he would have placed less emphasis on the human element in this film, and concentrated more on the “business” aspect of the expedition.  In addition, if Rafelson wanted to comment on colonialism in general, I believe that he would have placed more emphasis on the environment, and not just used Africa as a backdrop for his story.

 Rafelson’s Mountains of the Moon provides an excellent synopsis of the events that transpired over the course of Richard Burton and Lt. John Speke’s four-year voyage.  Rafelson crams over a decade of history into a two-and-a-half hour film in an unprecedented way.  Unfortunately, Mountains of the Moon did not receive the box office success Rafelson had anticipated.  Many film critics have cited the length of the movie, and its mediocre cast as explanations for it failure in theaters (Campbell).  Despite whatever reasons for its failure, Rafelson’s story remains one of the best accounts of Burton and Speke’s journey into Central Africa.  Furthermore, his movie, with its human touch, reveals the humanity in Burton and Speke in a way no history book could.
Sources Cited

1.  Bordwell, David.  Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation
      of Film.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.
2.  Campbell, Frank.  (
3.  Hartl, John.  (
4.  Pollack, Sydney.  Out of Africa.  Universal Studios. 1985.
5.  Rafelson, Bob.  Mountains of the Moon.  Carolco Pictures.  1989.
6.  Ward, W. E. F.  “The Colonial Phase in British West Africa.”  Handout.
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