Musings About Music In Film

The Ghost and the Darkness

By Karol Krok still-of-michael-douglas-and-val-kilmer-in-the-ghost-and-the-darkness-(1996)-large-picture

As the cliché expression goes, fact is stranger than fiction. And that is the case with real story that inspired William Goldman into writing The Ghost and the Darkness script. Back in 1898, two man-eating lions killed over a hundred people during the construction of bridge in Tsavo region of Kenya. Quite a idea for an suspense/adventure Hollywood production, to be sure, and it inspired several filmmakers over the years. In this 1996 production, Val Kilmer plays John Henry Patterson, the actual person who hunted down those two notorious beasts, while Michael Douglas portrays the entirely fictional hunter Charles Remington. And while it works for the most part, there is a weird sense Stephen Hopkins’ film tries too hard to be too many things at once - a historical account, Hollywood buddy movie and a… horror. See a problem there?

The outdoor adventure genre is a perfect vehicle for Jerry Goldsmith’s talents. The way in which he manages to conjure a sense of epic is, to this day, unmatched in Hollywood. While his style became more streamlined in the 1990’s, The Ghost and the Darkness inspired him to once again create a significantly denser and more layered music. As film itself struggles to find its identity, the seasoned composer combines all disparate elements into one coherent narrative. Not an easy feat, by anybody’s standards.

The score, perhaps quite unsurprisingly, mixes the synthesisers, orchestra with certain ethnic elements. It’s something that would become a cliché many years later but Goldsmith was clever enough not to strive for too much “authenticity”. His music combined African, Indian and Irish influences into one interesting mix but it never really tries to push far enough into either direction (hence, cliché is avoided). The use of chanting choirs helps to achieve many things. One one hand, it creates a sense of setting and the its beauty (‘The Claws’). But, at the same time, those repeating hypnotic incantations add a sense of mystique to two notorious beasts and the bloody sacrificial ritual that ensues. This latter use of voices is particularly effective when enhanced with synthetic effects and tribal percussion.

Thematically, The Ghost and the Darkness is more diverse than a typical Jerry Goldsmith score. Two main characters have their own musical identities: Patterson himself receives an Irish jig that first appears in ‘Train to Catch’, while Remington is illustrated with a noble, if somewhat bitter, idea for a seasoned hunter (heard in ‘Prepare For Battle’). There is also a broad Jarre-like theme for Africa and British colonialism that can be heard in ‘The First Time’. This epic melody receives a truly redemptive and epic extended statements in the finale (‘Welcome to Tsavo #2 – Revised’). Lions themselves are often associated with sampled choral chanting, as well as two-note motif for low brass (‘One Shot’). This chilling effect incorporating orchestra’s low registers is not completely dissimilar to the one used in composer’s score for The Edge just a year later (where it would represent a bear).

Another interesting connection can be found in ‘The Cave’ and ‘First Kill (Alternate). In those two pieces, Spock/V’Ger material from Star Trek: The Motion Picture makes a surprising appearance. In that film, this thematic material would underscore the quest for understanding and pure logic. Here, it stands for something completely opposite: ferocious and an almost otherworldly nature of two beasts that apparently kill only for pleasure. An curious contrast, to be sure.

While there The Ghost and the Darkness is filled with epic horns and broad gestures, there is also a lot of moody and dark suspense music, based around lower registers of brass, heavy ethnic percussion and ever-present sampled vocals. Normally, that kind of sounds might become slightly tiresome and aimless after a while. But in the hands of a master like Goldsmith, they never become simply a lazy compositional crutch. Also interesting is the use of synthesisers. Usually, the composer inserts them very upfront into the mix, often risking becoming cheesy and dated. Here, they’re only a part of a larger design and they're clever incorporation helps to create a truly timeless sound (not quite unlike Hans Zimmer's The Lion King).

The latest album is truly packed with goodies. Apart from the final film mix of complete film score, it also contains alternate and unused versions that Goldsmith recorded over the long recording process (that forced him to leave Star Trek: First Contact for his son Joel to finish). Casual listener might not be that interested in different incarnation of various cues but it’s nevertheless a fascinating insight into the creative process of film scoring. The Intrada set also gives us the original 1996 out of print disc that presents yet another set of mixes, created specifically for that listening experience. In any case, this is an extremely comprehensive release worthy of anyone's attention. One of Goldsmith’s most intriguing entries into the canon of outdoor adventure genre is a devilishly intelligent romp that manages to match the adrenaline rush and steady heartbeat of two murderous beasts.

The Ghost and the Darkness is out now from Intrada