This is a fascinating and horrifying portrayal of the hardships faced by 19th Century explorers. On the East African coast in 1854, the brilliant Sir Richard Burton, who can speak 27 languages, teams up with fellow explorer John Hanning Speke in search of the source of the Nile River. Referred to by African tribesmen as “mountains of the moon”, the Nile’s source, which according to legend was deep in the African interior, was a mystery that fascinated Victorian England.
The Royal Geographic Society commissions Burton’s safari, and they endure many hardships: a lion attack; a warrior’s lance piercing Burton’s face from cheek to cheek; a bug lodging itself in Speke’s ear rendering him deaf in that ear; the loss of men from desertions and tribal wars; and, eventually, imprisonment in an evil and sadistic kingdom.
Speke is allowed to leave. He returns claiming to have found the source of the Nile, which he names Lake Victoria. Burton insists that the source must be instead a basin of lakes. The one hardship he cannot bear is his betrayal by Speke, who returns to Britain in glory, abandoning the ailing Burton to make his way home as best he can.
The movie reaches its climax when the two are about to confront each other back in England at a debate sponsored by the Geographic Society. When Speke is killed in an hunting accident just before the debate, Burton is moved with compassion for his former friend and repudiates his theory in support of Speke’s. Burton and his wife are assigned to the consulate in Brazil. Twelve years later, Lake Victoria is confirmed as the source of the Nile.
This good-to-excellent film, which follows the friendship that develops between these two very different men as they make their way through an Africa unseen by Western eyes, is a history lesson set in the context of a real-life adventure that was as momentous in its time as the moon walk was in ours. What moves the story is their relationship and the question of motives. Why did Spekes betrayed Burton? For his own glory, it would seem, bringing to mind Ezekiel 29:9b: “Because you said, ‘The Nile is mine; I made it,’ therefore I am against you…” Burton’s motive, on the other hand, was to be truthful in reporting the matter, which is ironic since the film makes clear very early on that he is lost spiritually.
Filmed mostly on location in Kenya, the cinematography is captivating. The painstaking production design brings the Arab towns and tribal villages of this boisterous world to the screen. The costumes are vivid, and the music adds drama to the confrontations between man and nature.
There are a few scary moments of tribal violence which may be too intense for some (animal heart gutting and throat slitting). A brief instance of nudity with Burton’s later-to-be wife and a couple of obscenities are also objectionable. Overall, MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON is recommended for mature audiences with caution.
Very brief female nudity with implied promiscuity; obscenity; and, some tribal violence.