This is a good adventure movie about the age of British exploration, but its main interest to me is in the extremely deep and moving homosexual love story it tells. However, this aspect is presented with such subtlety that I think most people could see the movie without having the slightest idea that it is present. None of the reviews on the IMDb mention it at all. My primary purpose here is to describe what I see as the homosexual love story, and kind of “reclaim” it as one of the main subcurrents of this film.
The film takes great liberties with the facts in order to shape the events into a narrative that tells a shapely story, but they do such a good job you don’t really care. In the film, Speke accompanies Burton on an early expedition, and ends up saving his life when they are suddenly attacked. Back home, a short scene with Richard E. Grant’s Larry Oliphant [a British publisher] being a little too enthusiastic in his rubbing of Speke’s injured legs establishes both Speke’s homosexuality and Oliphant’s attraction to him.
Later, Burton and Speke go on another expedition, to discover the source of the Nile, which takes up the majority of the film. During this section it appears that as Burton and Speke are growing closer as friends, Speke is falling more and more in love with Burton. Burton is married to Isabel Burton, and shows no interest in return. It’s all reasonably subtle—until the scene in which Burton is sick and delirious. As Speke holds the half-unconscious man in his arms, he plants a kiss first on his cheek, then directly on his lips.
There is friction between the men as Speke is arrogant and impulsive, while Burton is open and gregarious, but serious about their explorations and findings. Near the end, Speke is sure he has found the lake that is the source, but Burton insists that he check his findings and recalculate.
SPOILERS > > >
Speke returns to England, where Oliphant, both because of his feelings for Speke, and the fact that Speke is British while Burton is not, pushes him to publish his findings and take credit for the entire expedition. When Speke refuses, Oliphant tells him that Burton did not credit Speke with saving his life on their first expedition. This makes Oliphant the true villain of the piece.
Speke goes ahead and publishes his findings, taking the majority of the credit for the expedition and success. Burton returns later and is stunned by Speke’s betrayal. The two are set up as rivals, and soon a debate between the two is arranged. Neither wants the debate, Speke because he knows his evidence will not stand up to Burton’s scrutiny, and Burton because he doesn’t want to do that to his friend.
Just before the debate, it is revealed to Speke that Burton had in fact credited Speke with saving his life. Oliphant lied in order to manipulate him. Paralyzed with remorse that he betrayed the man he had such powerful feelings for, yet too ashamed to go to him and make amends, Speke shoots himself.
< < < SPOILERS END.
This is a great story, very weighty and moving, but it has been heavily shaped from the facts. I read both the book Mountains of the Moon by William Harrison [also the screenwriter of the film], the historical novel written from Burton and Speke’s own diaries that served as the inspiration for this film, and a biography of Burton. I don’t recall all that much of the Harrison book, except that Speke’s homosexuality was much more well-known and established; he was not a shy closet case like he was in the movie. Also, though Speke and Oliphant seemed to be having a full-blown affair [not the implied yearning for Speke Oliphant exhibits in the movie], the major force behind the snubbing of Burton was simply the fact that he wasn’t British, and Speke was. And the major reason for Speke’s poor writing and findings was that he seems to have been dyslexic.
In reality Burton and Speke may have formed a grudging respect, but it seemed from the book that they pretty much hated each other from the first, and never altered their opinions. The entire ending with the betrayal causing the suicide is all fiction. Oliphant doesn’t come out as a great character in the book, but he is nowhere near the villain he is in the movie.
The movie is good, has great photography, Patrick Bergin is hot, Fiona Shaw is great as usual, and it’s very interesting. Unfortunately not much happened career-wise for Patrick Bergin, he was the bad guy in Sleeping with the Enemy, then appeared in a bunch of lesser-known stuff including hideous ridicu-fest Eye of the Beholder with the noxious Ashley Judd. Iain Glen pretty much disappeared until he showed up, surprisingly, in the first Tomb Raider, and again in the second Resident Evil, seemingly now pegged as the sniveling evil British guy.
Anyway, if you like adventure movies, or want to see a good historical gay love story, check out Mountains of the Moon.
Yes, it’s good, you’ll like it.