Mountains of the Moon (1990) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

History can be fickle and arbitrary in its selection of winners and losers. For some reason, both Sir Richard Burton and this movie about his life have been consigned to obscurity, and neither consignment seems justifiable.

Burton was one of the greatest geniuses of the 19th century. Like Isaac Asimov, he wrote scholarly books on several completely unrelated subjects. In addition, he translated books from the diverse languages of several continents, and wrote original poetry. Altogether he published 73 books and 100 articles, and wrote far more which remained unpublished. He spoke 23 distinct languages, a number which increases to 40 if obscure dialects are included. And in his spare time, he was perhaps the greatest adventurer of the Victorian Age. His combination of talents allowed him to do things no other explorer could have duplicated. His knowledge of the Middle East was so detailed, and his ear for languages was so good, that he entered Mecca by passing as a native of one of the Afghani tribes. Moreover, his drawing skills were strong enough to reproduce what he had seen in detail, allowing Christian society its first detailed look into the sacred sites of Islam.

Yet Burton seems to have been unjustly slighted by his own time and largely forgotten since, even though adventurer/explorers were the popular swashbucklers of that century, as aviators and astronauts were in the 20th. There are several reasons for his ongoing obscurity:

  • His own time consigned him to relative obscurity because he was considered to be charming, but also a dangerous, reckless, outspoken, and sexually obsessed man. He was a notorious "free thinker." In a time of completely repressed sexuality, he was obsessed with the erotica of the Middle East, and he once told some ministers that he did not return promptly from an African expedition because he preferred the company of the whores of Cairo to that of the citizens of England. His various reports on the sexual customs of the Middle East and the polygamy of Utah featured non-judgmental and dispassionate scientific accounts. His personal qualities are, more or less, the opposite of the characteristics and skills which were needed to be an acceptable role model in Victorian times. Polite society lionized Burton's fellow explorers and associates who had more normal and/or Christian inclinations. (Livingstone was a missionary)

  • His wife destroyed part of his legacy. She was so dedicated to cleaning up his image after his death that she burned his translation of The Perfumed Garden, which he spent 16 years working on. This was fruitless for many reasons, not the least of which being that Burton was already known as the translator of other Middle Eastern erotica, which even included an earlier edition of the The Perfumed Garden. In fact, Burton's translation of The Arabian Nights is still the standard volume known to English readers in our day, a century and a half after it was written (although children read Andrew Lang's expurgated versions). In a further attempt to remake her husband's image, Isabel Burton also burned his personal diaries and journals - 40 years of daily first person observations about the life of one of the century's most interesting men. These bonfires occurred twice, once after Richard's death, and again after Isabel's, performed according to her instructions.

  • Burton committed the heresy of insisting that England could learn much from ancient cultures. That was the wrong position to hold in an imperialist Kipling world where the "white man's burden," the obligation to civilize the world and remake it in England's image, was almost universally taken for granted.

  • Victorians never really embraced him because of his "foreignness". He was born in Devonshire to a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army, but the British never fully accepted him because of his adolescence in France and Italy, and his religious and political incorrectness, all of which made him seem non-British.

  • His name is familiar to us, but is not associated with a dashing 19th century explorer. Rather, it happens that the same name belonged to an equally dashing, bellowing, perennially inebriated 20th century actor with a memorable voice, several Oscar nominations, and a famous on-again off-again romance with Elizabeth Taylor.

We should not be too harsh to condemn the Victorians for having slighted this genius. To tell the truth, I think that we would probably treat him no more kindly in our own time and place. Imagine, if you will, an American in our time combining the most poetic feats of Steven Hawking and John Glenn. What potential he would have for fame and glory! But what if that imaginary pastiche of scholar and adventurer also had the sexual obsessions of Larry Flynt, and published a magazine a lot like Hustler, except for people with high IQs. Would we embrace him, or would we treat him as an eccentric and a pariah?

Mountains of the Moon concentrates on one of Burton's more dashing adventures, his search for the source of the Nile, which consisted of two expeditions with John Speke into portions of Africa theretofore uncharted by Europeans, and unseen by any save those who lived there.

Burton's contribution to the expedition was consigned to secondary status at the time because Speke was the only one who actually saw Lake Victoria (Burton was ill at the time), and was the one who got back to England first. Speke met with the scientific societies and took the credit, in sweeping generalizations, for having found the source of the White Nile. Burton, on the other hand, believed that the river probably had multiple sources, and that Speke, even if correct, had not based his conclusion on proper scientific evidence. The English wanted Speke to be correct for political reasons - it was more impressive to say an Englishman had discovered the source of the Nile than to say that the contest was still open.

The movie follows Speke and Burton together and apart - their expeditions, their friendship, and the subsequent ill will between them. As the film wraps up, the former friends had been scheduled to debate each other publicly when Speke died in a "hunting accident." That really happened. Well ... maybe. Just before the debate was to take place, Speke had determined that other people had been lying to him about certain rancorous things which Burton had allegedly said. Speke had also come to an independent conclusion that his own findings were not scientifically supportable, so there was some speculation that he committed suicide to avoid public disgrace. This is speculation.

I have written that director Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) managed to defy all odds by creating a movie (The King of Marvin Gardens) which has been forgotten despite being beautifully photographed and starring Jack Nicholson. Rafelson managed to defy the odds again with Mountains of the Moon, which is a better film than Marvin Gardens, is also beautifully composed, and has also been consigned to obscurity. It is familiar to few, yet respected and cherished by those few.

This is an example of biopic done correctly. Rather than creating a superficial treatment of the entire life of a great and complex man, the scriptwriter stuck to a small and highly cinematic portion of Burton's life which consisted of a tangible goal, an identifiable crisis, and an epic adventure. Focusing narrowly on the Nile adventure made for a film which is rich in detail, while maintaining a balance of accuracy and entertainment. I'm led by various IMDb comments to believe that the historical and anthropological details are accurate in the main, although certain elements (like the evil publisher played by Richard Grant) are fictional.

The movie also looks great.

If the subject interests you at all, this is a very enjoyable movie.


Where the hell does the Nile come from? The word slide at the end of the movie says that Speke was proven correct 12 years later. Not true. Given that he never saw the outflow from the lake, Spake was indeed fortunate to be proven correct that the Victoria was a source of the Nile. It is not, however, the sole source. We can forgive the author of the word slide for that mistake, however, since many textbooks still hold this politically correct but geologically incorrect position. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica still propagates this Imperial fantasy! While the Encyclopedia states that the White Nile flows out of Lake Albert, and admits that Albert is fed by multiple sources (including Victoria), it still insists that Victoria is the "real" source of the White Nile.

Burton's complex view was actually far more correct than Speke's simple one. The Nile flows out of Lake Albert, but Lake Albert has many other sources besides Victoria, including the Semliki river, which flows out of Lake Edward, not out of Victoria, and which is further swollen by spill-off from the rain-soaked Mountains of the Moon. Even though the Semliki's path from Lake Edward to Lake Albert was traced by Stanley in the 1880's, it still does not appear on many modern maps! Lake Edward, in turn is fed by the Rutshuru river. On the Victoria side of the equation, Lake Victoria is fed by the Kagera River, which in turn is fed by the Ruvyironza River.

It is most accurate to say that the Nile originates from two mountain rivers, the Ruvyironza and the Rutshuru, one of which passes through Victoria, while the other does not.

Interestingly, in 150 A.D., the Greek Alexandrian Ptolemy drew a fairly accurate Nile map, and identified the snow-capped Mountains of the Moon (now known as the Ruwenzori Mountains), as a source of the Nile. Since those rainy mountains feed the nearby lakes and rivers, especially the Semliki river, Ptolemy proved to be approximately as correct as Speke, and managed to do so 1700 years earlier, without actually going there!


DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • Making-of featurette

  • Trailer



Fiona Shaw plays Burton's wife, Isabel, who is seen naked in two very dark sex scenes.

The Critics Vote ...

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Maltin 3.5/4.

Miscellaneous ...


The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.1,
  • With their dollars ... it was a financial disaster. I couldn't find the budget, but it was obviously a costly epic movie constructed in a grand scale. Unfortunately, it grossed only $4 million, despite excellent reviews, and never made it to more than 153 theaters. So it goes.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B. Very good film, both entertaining and educational.

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