Big, white, hunted

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The Ghost and the Darkness Stephen Hopkins (15)

The Ghost and the Darkness, directed by Stephen Hopkins, sets out to rehabilitate a genre so multiply threatened by modern guilts as to be itself something of an endangered species: the film of adventure, in which white men in a black country fire big guns meaningfully at large animals, and their triumph is presented as symbolic, even existential.

William Goldman's script insists on the factuality of its tale of a bridge- building project in East Africa in 1896 bedevilled by two man-eating lions, hunting in concert and unafraid of daylight, who killed some 130 people. In some respects this is a classic tale of Empire, and very much a boys' story - there is only one woman in the cast, a properly respectable English wife and mother living far away.

The value of the imperial enterprise is underwritten by the voice-over being given to Samuel (John Kani), the African liaison who must keep the peace between Hindu and Muslim workers and, on occasion, between antagonistic whites. Samuel's voice may introduce the story, but he is hardly the point of view, since we start in London, with the Irish engineer John Patterson (Val Kilmer) being briefed by a railway magnate about the task ahead of him.

Still, Samuel is a vital presence. Once upon a time it could be assumed that Empire was a noble endeavour if worthy white men gave it their energy. Now, for comfortable viewing, we need to be reassured that colonised peoples willingly went along with it. Samuel is on equal terms with the whites, able to joke with even the most die-hard, and he has, if anything, a greater formality. When at a moment of triumph the others drink champagne from the bottle, Samuel is loyal to his glass.

To the victor, the spoils. We shouldn't be surprised that the hero of an imperialistic story should these days be played as a matter of course by an American. We should register instead that Kilmer puts effort into his accent, and be grateful that his aide should be played by a highly likeable young actor from this side of the Atlantic, Brian McCardie.

Par for the course that all the distortions of Empire should be visited on the railway magnate Beaumont, played of course by a Brit, Tom Wilkinson. Even before the man-eaters start their depredations, Beaumont is a grotesque, telling the father-to-be he has engaged (New Man before his time, wanting to be back home for the birth) "I don't give a shit about your upcoming litter" - a sentence hardly more plausible on late Victorian lips than "I've got a pony on the Spice Girls for the Brit Awards".

Patterson presides over the site with a benevolent authority that would seem Utopian on British soil at the period of the film. When the foreman voices a murmur of resentment at white presumptuousness, Patterson's response is utterly rational: "It would be a mistake, Abdullah, not to work together on this." When Abdullah (Om Puri) seeks to leave, in fear of the lions who are so vividly slurping and crunching the workforce - licking the skin off their victims, as we are unforgettably told, so as to drink the blood - Patterson uses not threats nor a bull whip but adroit psychology: "Tell the wives of the men who were killed that you fled with the others because you could not master your fear."

Most marksmen capable of killing a lion with one shot, as Patterson does early in the film (before the lions whose nicknames give the film its title put in their appearance), have practised on less dangerous targets, but he is a sportsman after the Duke of Edinburgh's own heart. A naturalist rather than a killer. Even Remmington (Michael Douglas), the American hunter brought in to help, has no love of slaughter. In cinematic terms he is built up as a violent action hero - he makes a delayed entrance, looking like Willie Nelson's younger brother, holding a gun at someone's head, and escorted by Masai warriors - but he kills only because he's good at it, without relish.

There is certainly a frisson in seeing real lions working with people in an era of computer effects. There was a time when animals - as we saw it - could on occasions be worthy of human respect. Nowadays we tend to feel inferior to the animal world we have fairly thoroughly demolished. Only when the lions violate the Geneva Convention, by attacking a hospital, do they themselves seem to deserve death. Their blood lust drags them down to our level. At one point a lion even attacks a woman and child, though since there are no women and children handy this is a dream sequence - Patterson's nightmare of Africa striking down his wife and the son he has never seen. Dream sequences of this debased kind are usually clear indications of a loss of confidence in a genre's power without artificial boosting.

A couple of traces remain of the magic that was supposed to derive from killing a mighty beast. Much is made of a protective lion claw necklace that Patterson sometimes wears, and after his triumph over the animals he becomes mysteriously fluent in his workers' own language, without having previously ventured out of English. So perhaps some spirit of Africa entered him at the moment of victory, travelling up the barrel of his gunn

On release tomorrow