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Cult Classics Revisited: MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON (1990)


(US - 1990)

Directed by Bob Rafelson. Written by William Harrison and Bob Rafelson. Cast: Patrick Bergin, Iain Glen, Richard E. Grant, Fiona Shaw, Peter Vaughan, Bernard Hill, Roshan Seth, Delroy Lindo, Anna Massey, James Villiers, John Savident, Paul Onsongo, Roger Rees, Adrian Rawlins, Peter Eyre. (R, 136 mins)

Bob Rafelson isn't the first director to come to mind when you think "big-budget epics." Born in 1933, Rafelson got his start as a story editor and writer on various 1960s TV shows before becoming one of the primary creative forces on the TV series THE MONKEES. He directed the group's 1968 feature film HEAD, scripted by his friend Jack Nicholson, and he and business partner Bert Schneider would soon expand their Raybert Productions (the pair produced EASY RIDER) to form BBS Productions with new partner Stephen Blauner. Through BBS, Rafelson also had a hand in producing Peter Bogdanovich's THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971), Nicholson's first directing effort DRIVE, HE SAID (1971) and Peter Davis' Oscar-winning documentary HEARTS AND MINDS (1974). BBS also handled Rafelson's own directorial efforts like his breakthrough FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) and THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972). The company folded after HEARTS AND MINDS, but in this selection of work (all except HEARTS AND MINDS are on the 2010 Criterion set AMERICA LOST AND FOUND: THE BBS STORY), you see key building blocks in 1970s auteurism and the independent film movement with the kinds of intimate, serious, unflinching character studies (HEAD being the exception) for which Rafelson would come to be known. Simply put, Bob Rafelson wasn't the kind of guy who made huge, sweeping, expensive event movies.

Bob Rafelson on the set of MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON
By the time Rafelson began shooting MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON in late 1988, he'd only made two films over the course of the decade: his controversial 1981 remake of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, with Nicholson and Jessica Lange, and the 1987 suspense thriller BLACK WIDOW, with Debra Winger and Theresa Russell. BLACK WIDOW was a rare commercial hit for Rafelson, grossing $25 million and becoming a cable mainstay to this day. Never prolific even in his prime, the now-81-year-old Rafelson has directed only eleven features over the course of his 50-year career--six of which involve Nicholson, the actor with whom Rafelson will always be inextricably linked--and he hasn't made anything since the little-seen 2003 thriller NO GOOD DEED, an updated adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's 1923 short story The House on Turk Street, with Samuel L. Jackson and Milla Jovovich. The subject of MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON was an interest of Rafelson's since the 1960s and the film was a longtime dream project that he'd been trying to get made since 1980, but never managed to get it off the ground.  That is, until he met Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, the heads of the indie production company Carolco.

Kassar and Vajna's Carolco began as a low-budget outfit producing horror films like THE CHANGELING (1980) and SUPERSTITION (shot in 1982, released in 1985). Carolco's first box office success came with FIRST BLOOD (1982), and would continue throughout the decade with hits like RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985), RAMBO III (1988), and RED HEAT (1988) and notorious controversies like Alan Parker's ANGEL HEART (1987). They made a move into critical respectability with Costa-Gavras' MUSIC BOX (1989), which earned an Oscar nomination for Jessica Lange. A film like MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON would be another huge bid at serious artistry that the indie producers wanted, and they were eager to help Rafelson achieve his vision with a budget in the vicinity of $20 million. Considering how many of today's biggest actors and directors see their films going straight to VOD because something's a "flop" if it doesn't gross $75 million in its opening weekend, it's hard to believe there was once a time when producers were willing to give $20 million to Bob Rafelson, an accomplished and acclaimed filmmaker who nevertheless wasn't exactly synonymous with "big box office," to make a personal pet project starring two unknown actors and shot on location in the vast wilderness of Kenya, much like it's hard to believe there was once a time when $20 million was considered "big budget."

Iain Glen as John Hanning Speke
Scripted by Rafelson and William Harrison, from Harrison's 1982 biographical novel Burton and Speke as well as the personal journals of the men at the core of the story, MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON takes place from 1854 to 1864, and chronicles the efforts of explorers Richard Francis Burton (Patrick Bergin) and John Hanning Speke (Iain Glen) to find the source of the Nile. To do so requires going into the darkest heart of Africa where white men have never journeyed, and Rafelson follows them and their party every grueling step of the way, with hostile tribes, impenetrable terrains, and other life-threatening obstacles, from malaria to a deadly beetle burrowing into Speke's ear and causing him to go partially deaf, to Burton getting a spear thrown through his cheek and later slicing his legs open to combat a crippling bout of cellulitis causing a near-fatal swelling. But, in keeping with Rafelson's style, it's also a very human, character-driven story of two competitive men who shared a mutual respect and kinship, with their differences complementing one another to make them the perfect team. Burton was the scientific one, intellectual and learned (he claims to speak 23 languages), and dedicated to his profession but able to unwind with a rogue-ish, hard-living wild side tamed by the love of the upstanding Isabel Arundell (Fiona Shaw) back home in England. Speke was an ex-military man who made up for his lack of book smarts with his heroic actions, saving Burton's life on a number of occasions throughout their journey. When Burton is stricken with malaria and held captive by a chieftain, Speke goes forward and is convinced he's found the source of the Nile, christening it Lake Victoria. Burton is unconvinced, pointing out that the untrained Speke is barely literate and knows nothing of cartography and measuring coordinates (future historians and medical experts concluded that Speke was most likely dyslexic, a condition not identified or studied until well into the 1880s). A progressive-minded man who doesn't believe white men can "discover" any land that native people are already living on, Burton also has a change of heart during his time in captivity, when he's forced into the mercy-killing of slave Mabruki (Delroy Lindo in his first noteworthy screen role), and doesn't wish to proceed forward, instead dismissing Speke's assertions and calling an end to the expedition and heading back to London.

Patrick Bergin as Richard Francis Burton
By 1861, Burton and Speke are bitter rivals, a wedge driven between them by the abrupt end to the expedition and by the glad-handing Larry Oliphant (Richard E. Grant), an academic who's insanely jealous of Burton and manipulates the impressionable, insecure Speke into turning against him. Both Burton and Speke published their findings, and Speke was given a fully-funded expedition of his own to ascertain that Lake Victoria was indeed the true source. Public opinion sided with Speke, who relished the fame and attention but remained despondent over his and Burton's collapsed friendship. When academia-generated hype forces the two to agree to a very public debate, Burton dreads embarrassing his former friend, and Speke, fearing his intellectual weaknesses and shaky methodology will be exposed, commits suicide. Heartbroken, Burton retires from public life with Isabel as future research and exploration by others concludes that Speke was indeed correct about Lake Victoria.

It's a sweeping, beautiful piece of filmmaking, unlike anything else in Rafelson's filmography, with stunning cinematography by the great Roger Deakins. And of course, it bombed. Carolco productions were being distributed by Tri-Star Pictures, who didn't really know how to sell the film (did they think it was a sci-fi movie?). To many who saw the trailer in 1989, it looked like a then in-vogue Merchant-Ivory costume drama. According to Rafelson in a recent interview with film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz, Tri-Star executives were more focused on their own GLORY, bumping MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON from the holiday 1989 crop of year-end Oscar contenders to the early 1990 dumping ground. Opening on two screens on February 23, 1990, MOUNTAINS expanded over the next few weeks mainly due to passionate accolades from prominent critics (Siskel & Ebert loved it), but it abruptly flatlined at its widest release on 187 screens when Tri-Star gave up on it and pulled the plug, with a total gross of just $4 million. Perhaps the real, unspoken, underlying reason that Tri-Star didn't get behind the film was that it pretty clearly portrays Speke as gay, with the devious actions of Oliphant done more out of possessive love for him than overt hatred of Burton. There's a scene with a smiling Oliphant caressing an injured Speke's leg and resting his hand on his knee, and Speke smiling back, and while the film doesn't go into explicit details, the message is loud and clear. Though Rafelson doesn't specifically spell out the nature of their relationship, Harrison's research into his novel revealed that Speke and Oliphant's involvement with one another wasn't exactly a closeted secret among their social circle. Perhaps the most telling moment is where Speke comforts a delirious, incoherent Burton, stricken with malaria and the deadly swelling in his legs, with a kiss on the lips that lingers just a little too long. In the context of the scene, Burton has no idea what's happening and doesn't respond, but Speke knows what he's doing and loses himself in the moment, the implication being that Speke secretly wants to take their Victorian-era bromance to the next level.

Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar
in the early days of Carolco
Despite Carolco's success, industry experts said that the company's heavy spending ways wouldn't be able to sustain them forever. Carolco was also dealing with internal struggles at the time, as Kassar and Vajna's partnership had dissolved by November 1989 and Vajna was paid $100 million for his share of the company. He would remain credited on their films released throughout 1990, like MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON, AIR AMERICA, TOTAL RECALL, and JACOB'S LADDER, as he was still part of Carolco when they went into production. Kassar would continue Carolco on his own and oversee blockbusters like TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991), BASIC INSTINCT (1992), CLIFFHANGER (1993), and STARGATE (1994) before the bottom fell out with Paul Verhoeven's SHOWGIRLS (1995) and Renny Harlin's CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995), the latter being one of the costliest box office bombs in film history, and one that completely obliterated Carolco. Vajna formed his own production company, Cinergi, but the two would once again join forces for a new venture, C-2 Pictures, that seems to have fizzled in 2009 after an unspectacular run that included the Eddie Murphy/Owen Wilson flop I-SPY (2002), TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003), BASIC INSTINCT 2 (2006), and the well-received but short-lived 2008 TV series TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES. Neither Kassar (now 63) nor Vajna (now 70) have produced any films since 2009.

Bob Rafelson directing Patrick Bergin
Rafelson went back to work soon after MOUNTAINS sank from view, reuniting with Nicholson for the 1992 romantic comedy MAN TROUBLE, one of the low points of both men's careers. Rafelson and Nicholson teamed once more for 1997's BLOOD AND WINE, a tense noir nailbiter that Fox barely released and once again, one of Rafelson's finest films went nowhere despite a name cast that also included Stephen Dorff, Jennifer Lopez, Judy Davis, and Michael Caine. As a sleazy and terminally ill small-time criminal, Caine turns in one of his best performances in a film that he almost didn't make. Disillusioned with the state of his career after co-starring in Steven Seagal's ON DEADLY GROUND (1994) and doing a pair of low-budget, partially Russian mob-financed Harry Palmer adventures with notoriously corner-cutting producer Harry Alan Towers in 1995, a depressed Caine was seriously contemplating retirement until Rafelson and Nicholson convinced him to give BLOOD AND WINE a shot. Caine got most of the critical accolades and even though nobody saw the movie, it kickstarted a late '90s Caineassaince that resulted in another Oscar for 1999's THE CIDER HOUSE RULES and is presently ongoing. Rafelson then made the 1998 mystery POODLE SPRINGS for HBO, with James Caan as Philip Marlowe, and during this period, directed a few erotic short films and an episode of the Showtime series PICTURE WINDOWS. NO GOOD DEED is his last film to date, as Rafelson appears to have called it a career, instead opting to remain busy in his emeritus years as an interview subject. Rafelson dabbled in various genres, demonstrating a particular affinity for noir as he got older, but MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON remains his most unusual, and in many ways, most personal project.

Because of Speke's introverted personality, a very effective Glen turns in the more internalized performance of the two stars. Glen has stayed consistently busy as a character actor on British TV and in films like LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER (2001) and a couple of RESIDENT EVIL entries, and is probably best known for his current gig as Jorah Mormont on HBO's GAME OF THRONES. But MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON should've made a star of Bergin, and for a while, he was being groomed for the A-list, with Newsweek even declaring him "the next Sean Connery." The Dublin-born Bergin was relatively inexperienced when Rafelson cast him, with supporting roles in a pair of barely-released Irish films (1988's TAFFIN and 1989's THE COURIER), but Rafelson rightly spotted something in the actor that made him perfect for the larger-than-life Burton. Bergin is absolutely magnetic in the role--alternately dashing, heroic, pompous, romantic, funny, and later, utterly devastating in the scene where he kills Mabruki--and while MOUNTAINS may have been a commercial bomb, it got him on the map with Hollywood executives and industry insiders. He struck gold shortly after when he was cast in 1991's SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY as the psychotic stalker husband of Julia Roberts, just coming off of consecutive Oscar nominations in STEEL MAGNOLIAS (1989) and PRETTY WOMAN (1990). He then co-starred with Harrison Ford in PATRIOT GAMES (1992), but other than that, Bergin's Hollywood launch was stalled by one troubled production and box office disaster after another: the comedy/horror film HIGHWAY TO HELL hit a dead end in a handful of theaters in 1992 after three years on the shelf; Lizzie Borden's S&M thriller LOVE CRIMES (1992) was disowned by pretty much everyone involved and earned Bergin's combative co-star Sean Young a Razzie nomination; and the epic MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART (1993) was taken away from director Vincent Ward, re-cut by Harvey Weinstein and dumped by Miramax. Bergin did star in a pair of well-received TV movies--he had the title role in Fox's ROBIN HOOD (1991) and played Dr. Frankenstein opposite Randy Quaid's monster in TNT's FRANKENSTEIN (1992)--that did little for his big-screen career. By the time MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART was playing to empty arthouses, Bergin's career momentum was already at a complete standstill.

Some have blamed it on his hateful character terrorizing America's then-sweetheart Roberts in SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, and others have blamed it on the laughable LOVE CRIMES and his on-set clashes with the notoriously volatile Young. Whatever the cause--bad timing, bad movies, his mustache--Bergin was flatly rejected by American moviegoers in one of the quickest flameouts of a Next Big Thing in Hollywood history. The very industry that was grooming him for stardom now wanted nothing to do with him. By the mid-1990s, he was already a straight-to-video fixture with only occasional theatrical releases like the inane LAWNMOWER MAN 2: BEYOND CYBERSPACE (1996). When he turned up in a supporting role in the Ewan McGregor/Ashley Judd thriller EYE OF THE BEHOLDER (2000), it was actually a surprise to see him on the big screen. In 2002, he had the title role in the low-budget Italian TV miniseries DRACULA. In the years since, Bergin has appeared in some truly awful movies, many of which have never even been commercially released and, of course, was reduced to starring in an Asylum production with SyFy's spoofy SHARK WEEK (2012).  Like Michael Madsen and Tom Sizemore, but to a lesser degree, Bergin's IMDb page shows him appearing in several movies a year, but the last one anyone saw or was even vaguely aware of was when he was 15th-billed in the 2004 Anne Hathaway vehicle ELLA ENCHANTED. What happened to Patrick Bergin?  One look at his work in MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON and it's clear he had what it took to be a major star. Did SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY typecast him and ruin his career? Did he burn some bridges along the way? Did Alan Rickman get all of his roles? How do you go from "the next Sean Connery" to LAWNMOWER MAN 2 in five years?  Whatever the reason, will somebody give this guy a good part? How has he not played a Bond villain by now? How has he never played an eccentric detective on a CBS police procedural?

With a 1999-issued DVD long out-of-print, MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON was recently brought back into the spotlight with an airing on Turner Classic Movies. Nearly 25 years after its release, it's amassed a fervent cult following and has come to be regarded as a forgotten masterpiece. It's one of the last great films of its kind, a relic from a bygone era of grand, majestic, epic adventures in the tradition of David Lean (there's even a brief cameo by Omar Sharif). Reviews at the time compared MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON to Lean's LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) and John Huston's THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975), but despite significant acclaim and raves from those moviegoers who did manage to see it, it simply couldn't overcome the apathy of the executives at Tri-Star. Like other 1980s epics such as Sydney Pollack's OUT OF AFRICA (1985) and Roland Joffe's THE MISSION (1986), MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON showcased arduous location shooting in exotic places in the years just before CGI became the new way to do things. They don't make them like this anymore, and they were rarely making them like this then. With Carolco's CUTTHROAT ISLAND bankruptcy issues, Rafelson isn't even sure who owns MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON (though, if it's anything like other Carolco titles from that era, it's most likely Lionsgate, though the logo at the end of the TCM airing indicates that Paramount at least controls the television rights), but 2015 would be the perfect time for a 25th anniversary, special edition Blu-ray release of this tragically neglected film.

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