Picks and Pans Review: Mountains of the Moon

updated 03/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Patrick Bergin, lain Glen

Bergin and Glen, as the 19th-century British explorers Richard Burton and John Speke, are splendid, dashing actors. East Africa, which Burton and Speke traveled in seeking the Nile's source, is a magnificent setting. Burton's and Speke's lives, full of heroism, loyalty, treachery and romance, were a biographer's dream.

So why is Mountains of the Moon so coldly uninvolving?

For one thing, the richness of the explorers' lives makes it difficult to cram them both into one movie. While the 1972 BBC miniseries The Search for the Nile covered other explorers too, Burton and Speke dominated its six hours.

A far more vital problem is director and co-writer Bob (Black Widow) Rafelson's approach to his story. He does portray Burton as an open-minded, curious man who respected the African peoples he encountered. Rafelson contrasts Burton's attitude with an opportunistic Speke, suggesting a serious treatment of the monumental arrogance shown by most of the 19th-century Europeans who devastated Africa. Burton seems to be in Africa to learn, Speke to exploit.

It's impossible to see that conflict, however, without thinking that Rafelson has failed to give the movie the historical perspective it demands. He knows better; we know better. But this movie still basically focuses on how tough it was for two white men to trespass on a foreign continent.

Rafelson flaunts the majesty of his Kenyan locations, even if his silhouettes-against-the-sunset tableaux seem studied. He also emphasizes Burton's friendship with an escaped slave, played by Delroy Lindo (a London-born actor who was Isaac Stubs on Beauty and the Beast).

But Lindo is the only black among the first 23 actors listed in the credits, and even his character exists mainly to show what a good-hearted guy Burton was. The only scene in which black Africans appear without any whites is one in which a chief and his corrupt minister debate whether to kill the captured Burton. Nowhere is there any sense of what this invasion looked like from the Africans' viewpoint.

Rafelson is a white American—as is, presumably, most of his audience. But the emotional and historical integrity of his story, not to mention fairness, were ill served by his limited perspective.

This is an often elegantly framed, evocative movie. By no means is it racist. It is, however, insensitive and unimaginative in just the places where it shouldn't be. (R)

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