Unformatted text preview: Black Studies 171
4) Analyze, with requisite subtleties, the relationship between the discourses of exploration,
enduring mythicization of Africa, and the narrative dynamics of Mountains of the Moon.
Much too often we see Africa and Africans portrayed incorrectly due to the Western
imagination and idealization of the continent. The untamed African wilderness and the tribal
savages who endure it are mythicized and looked at through the eyes of an outsider, a nonAfrican film director. In Bob Rafelson’s Mountains of the Moon, landscapes are exaggerated,
stock narratives are used to add to the Western exploitation of Africa, and fantasies of an
adventureland are juxtaposed with the notation that Africa is not a place for man, but for wild
animals. The East Africa shown in the film is inaccurate and what non-Africans believed African
scenery and life is truly like.
Mountains of the Moon uses the safari as a narrative device. Amy Staples tells us how
directors piece together their films with this narrative technique:
The journey (or safari) frames the overall narrative structure of films that unfold
as a series of sequential (at times disjointed) events along the traveler's route -encounters with African animals and peoples, celebratory scenes of arrival and
departure, dangerous crossings and natural obstacles, touristic detours and side
This blanket statement about a safari being used as a narrative device matches the plot in
Mountains of the Moon almost perfectly. Richard Burton and John Speke go on what seems like
an adventure to find the source of the nile. Throughout their journey, they run into wild animals
in large grasslands, walk through treacherous desert land, and dodge obstacles. Burton and Speke run into many problems such as beetles burrowing into ears, brutal tribes, and swollen legs that
needed to be cut open. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said the film “gives Burton the stature of a
hero who could walk twice across Africa or cut open his own swollen leg to ease a crippling case
of cellulitis”. Burton was given the role of the hero, the adventurer.
A large result of Safari films is that the African culture is belittled and stereotyped into a
colorful and exotic people. In one scene, Burton and Speke meet a new tribe and trade materials
with them to be able to cross their territory. One of their traditions was the spit a milky white
substance in each other’s faces. This only adds to the mythification of an artificial Africa. In
another scene, Lord Ngola shot his loyal assistant without hesitation and Burton made him seem
like a monster for it, like the British wouldn’t do something as horrid as he has done. In one
instance, Speke told Burton, “I heard tribes in this area castrate their victims,” making African
men look like violent savages. The tribe looked barbaric and uncivilized. Safari filmmaking is a
way to promote moral and technological superiority over the African people (Staples 401). Africa
is shown as a dreamland of some sorts; it is both a dream and a nightmare in this narrative that
has beautiful landscapes and scenery but wild animals and disease as well. The safari narrative
makes Africa look like a place of adventure and escapades, not a place for a man to live in.
Africa was portrayed as a playground for civilised, adult men to play in while African
men seem to be unwelcome in their own home and viewed as “the other.” Africa is an artificial
entity, invented and conceived by colonialism. Exotic cultures have always been popular in
Hollywood (or Western films). Africa is quite frequently staged; barely any realities of it are
shown. The African landscape became critical in spiking the adventure in the narrative of the
film. Exploration was essential to the myth making of Africa. Africa functioned as an obstacle or
challenge. The explorers created the image of the dark continent; Africans were “troubled” and demonized. “Safari filmmakers rediscovered and reinvented African landscapes, peoples and
animals for popular film audiences,” (Staples 401). Big game hunting in Africa is a very well
known stereotype across many Western films and media. In Mountains of the Moon, Speke and
Burton tried to prove their masculinity by surviving tribal threats and standing up to lions and
Africa is also romanticised, but this is just as problematic as making it out to be a “no
man’s land.” The audience sees simple natives and become one with nature; complex realities are
seen as fictional. The ad pitch for this film says, “ Two strangers made friends by a savage land,
two friends made enemies by the civilized world.” This storyline is idealized and unrealistic. The
Western imagination plays with Africa and makes it into a getaway, somewhere friends make
amends and all is well. Sometimes stereotypes lie by fixing fantasies and fear; the fantasy of
being held by savages has always been in the narrative of Africa. Africans struggle to survive,
even if it means hunting and gathering for themselves. “These people lead a hard life, but the
narration consistently romanticizes every aspect of their existence,” (Sara Shier 19). Turning
Africa into a realm of adventure and realm of the exotic may seem flattering but actually belittles
We must examine the complex issue of Western filmmakers not being able to balance
their artistic vision with the responsibilities of portraying people of different cultures (Shier 3).
Africa shall not be deemed as an artificial entity conceived only by colonialism. Africa in cinema
should be less about stock narratives and characters and more informative of a widely skewed
image of an Africa that does not exist (specifically East Africa in Mountains of the Moon). Africa
has always been inferiorized- colonialists go, discover, and conquer the land on their own terms.
The enduring mythicization of Africa is infused with fantasy and myth. Until filmmakers can properly put Africa in the light, we will continue to have false histories, stock narratives, and
films based on fantasies and myths. Works Cited
Dunn, Kevin. “Lights...Camera...Africa: Images of Africa and Africans in Western Popular Films
of the 1930s.” African Studies Review, vol. 39, no. 1, 1996, pp. 149–175. JSTOR, JSTOR,
Shier, Sara Ann. The Depiction of Indigenous African Cultures as Other in Contemporary,
Western Natural History Film. Thesis. Montana State University, 2006. N.p.: n.p., n.d.
Staples, Amy J. "Safari Adventure: Forgotten Cinematic Journeys in Africa." Film History, vol.
18, no. 4, Dec. 2006, pp. 392-411. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?
Travers, Peter. "Mountains of the Moon." Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 23 Feb. 1990. Web. 6
Nov. 2017.< ;. ...
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