Perched on a sand dune on the shores of East Africa in the middle of the night, Bob Rafelson was directing his very first battle scene. A band of Somali warriors was attacking the campsite of 19th-century British explorers Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke as they were setting out to find the source of the Nile — the arduous quest that is the subject of Rafelson’s new movie Mountains of the Moon.
Rafelson had opted for a historically accurate evening shoot and had hit upon using flaming logs whizzing through the air as a device to heighten the chaotic, frightening moment. Deep into the adventure of it, the rugged, gray-haired director stood just outside camera range hurling the burning torches himself.
How did Rafelson wind up on a beach in Kenya with the Indian Ocean at his back late in 1988 making a movie about Sir Richard Burton? The eccentric explorer and the hero of this particular tale had been an obsession of his for years. But it had taken most of the past decade to find Hollywood backers who shared his enthusiasm, particularly since he had argued against casting marquee names for a story better suited perhaps to Masterpiece Theatre viewers than multiplex moviegoers.
Here was a director who works only when he wants to, and on his own terms (the money he earned as the creator of The Monkees TV series has left him very comfortable, thank you), shopping around a weird version of an epic that had no pretty scenery, no stars, and no sex. To top it off, the man who made such small personal films as Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, and Stay Hungry — portraits of disaffected Americans — was now proposing to shoot a period costume drama in the remotest African bush.
It’s no wonder that Rafelson’s project seemed to have about as much chance of getting financial backing as Burton and Speke did of finally stumbling their way to the Nile’s origin hidden deep in the African interior. But this modern quester persisted and actually found his grail.
All it took was ”an ironic mixture of passion and good luck,” Rafelson, 57, says. An inveterate world traveler whose wanderlust has taken him from the Amazon to the Himalayas, the Los Angeles-based director had long harbored an interest in the Irish-born Burton, who, in a sense, was one of the original dharma bums, quitting the restrictive comforts of Victorian society for an unfettered life exploring India, Arabia, and Africa. Tackling Burton’s story, though, seemed beyond Rafelson’s turf. ”I felt I had a sort of curious obligation to do films about subcultures in the American landscape,” he admits. ”I had begun to buy into my own myth.”
But in 1982 he read William Harrison’s historical novel Burton & Speke. The book’s focus on the two adventurers’ love-hate relationship struck a nerve. ”The questions of loyalty and friendship and betrayal have been very much on my mind for quite a few years,” Rafelson explains. ”Here was a story about that, about people I admired, taking place in a remote land in a time period I was hungry to make a film about. I began to think about all the foreigners who had come to America and made films so well and thought, ‘Why don’t you try to make a film in England and Africa?’ It took increments of courage to do this until I couldn’t understand why it had taken me so long.”
With the backing of producer Daniel Melnick, he acquired Burton & Speke after its original purchaser, Oliver Stone, let his option lapse. Rafelson then wrote the script with Harrison, a University of Arkansas literature professor with one previous screenplay (Rollerball) to his credit. As if some of the Burton-Speke rivalry rubbed off on them, Harrison recalls that ”we got together for several weeks and yelled at each other. (Rafelson’s) a notoriously irascible man, but we’d have been less than ourselves if we hadn’t yelled. I might add, he won all the arguments between us. Directors tend to do that.”
Unfortunately, Warner Bros., where the film was originally developed, with stars like Mel Gibson and David Bowie mentioned as potential leads, wound up having a disappointing experience with another African adventure — Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. Not surprisingly, the fear of another bungle in the jungle soon caused the studio to set the project adrift. ”We were told that constantly supervising pictures in very remote locations had taken a toll on the studio’s manpower — vice presidents flying over and spending time in places they didn’t particularly like,” Rafelson says. ”Quite apart from the commercial feasibility of the story, they figured, ‘Why bother?”’
Melnick and Rafelson next brought it to Carolco Pictures, EMI, and then Cannon, where the improbable suggestion was made that it be filmed in South Africa, using some of the company’s frozen funds and Sean Penn as the movie’s star. With that grim prospect at hand, it didn’t take a 19th-century explorer to discover that this was a quest that had become seriously sidetracked. In fact, it was dead in the water.
By early 1988 Melnick and Rafelson were back at Carolco, about to start shooting another film, Air America, an action-comedy about covert CIA operations in Southeast Asia, when the Writers Guild strike called a halt to needed rewrites. (That movie, ultimately directed by Roger Spottiswoode and starring Mel Gibson, is scheduled for summer release.) Seizing the moment, they suggested substituting Mountains of the Moon, which already existed as a finished script, got a green light for the $18 million production, and flew off to England the next day to begin casting.
After interviewing 150 actors — some of whom couldn’t understand why he was making a film about Elizabeth Taylor’s late ex-husband — Rafelson finally settled on the darkly handsome Patrick Bergin, a Dubliner who had just begun to make his mark in British films, as Burton, and the contrastingly fair- skinned Iain Glen, a Scot who’d played a supporting role as an American research student in Gorillas in the Mist, as Speke.
”I’m never against the idea of using stars,” Rafelson says, defending his penchant for casting unknowns. ”But you have to put yourself in the position of trying to do a movie about an Irishman and an Englishman. Who are the stars who can play them? Since I have had good luck in the past — actually, I don’t think it’s luck but a talent of mine for uncovering very interesting actors who then go on to become movie stars — people assume I’m not going to cast a picture badly and whoever is in it will be perceived as stars on the horizon.”
With all the pieces finally in place and shooting ready to begin, Rafelson — true to his contrarian form — decided to scale the epic tale as an anti-epic. The image of himself as a David Lean-like figure, eyes trained on the horizon, a vast film crew waiting patiently for that one perfect shot — a breathtaking conjunction of sun and scenery and the proverbial cast of thousands — wasn’t exactly what he had in mind.
As Rafelson viewed them, the film’s Kenyan locations — ranging from the vast, windswept grasslands of the Athi plains south of Nairobi to the eerie, rock-strewn shores of Lake Turkana — were not the picture-postcard vistas of Out of Africa. ”The scenery was selected almost totally to characterize the arduousness of the trip rather than its potential beauty,” he insists. ”The explorers themselves did not think they were wandering through some majestic landscape. And since I walked it myself, I didn’t think so either. If anything, it was the redundancy, the bleakness, the horror of men walking for two years halfway across the continent that was their achievement. I thought if there were too many sunsets in it, too many beauty shots, that would tend to undermine the characters.”