Mountains of the Moon

A handful of you may remember Mountains of the Moon (1990). It was quickly lost in the blockbuster shuffle and faded into cinema history. Along the way, it gathered enough critical acclaim to make Roger Ebert’s top ten films of 1990.

Nowadays, nobody remembers it. I happen to own it. I unearthed it from the bottom of a bargain bin of discarded DVDs at the Hollywood branch of Amoeba Music. I carried the never-been-opened DVD like a precious bundle in my lap all the way on the metro. When the bus took a detour in the middle of Koreatown, I took the DVD out of its meticulously wrapped package and exclaimed over the clever tagline:

“Two strangers made friends by a strange land. Two friends made enemies by the civilized world.”

Doesn’t that just blow your mind? It blew my mind so much that I forked over $7.99 and journeyed over the four-corners of downtown L.A. just to experience what those two sentences meant.

I went to Amoeba with a mission: to find Mountains of the Moon. I first heard about the film by way of a romance novel–Jude Deveraux’s The Duchess (1991) to be exact. Stumbled upon by accident at the local library, The Duchess was my first foray into the area of romance. Ignoring the standard romance novel formula, the story appealed to me in terms of its relation to reality. After several hours of furious Amazon clicking, I’ve discovered that the story’s hero, Trevelyn Montgomery (A.K.A. Captain Frank Baker: Victorian explorer and ladies man extraordinaire) was loosely based on real life Victorian explorer Sir Richard F. Burton. A real life connection to my favorite romance novel! I must explore further…

More internet clicking ensured. Sir Richard Francis Burton: fluent in nineteen languages, translator of the Kama Sutra and The Arabian Nights, master of disguise, and the darling of the Royal Geographic Society… explorer, rake, madman. Jude Deveraux had done her research. The question is: what were her sources?

There were several colorfully titled biographies on Burton: The Devil Drives by Fawn McKay Brodie and A Rage to Live by Mary S. Lovell. Jude Deveraux would have skimmed through all these, but surely, she must have seen the movie.

The movie is not a romance, but a gunpowder-loading adventure that transports the reader into the crater-scarred Sahara desert (hence the name “mountains of the moon”) in search for the true source of the Nile. As the tagline suggests, the plot centers on the relationship between Richard Burton and his partner (“explorer partner” not “sexual partner,” although some scenes may suggest otherwise) John Hanning Speke. Two complex characters, bound by extreme circumstance, torn apart by civilization. It doesn’t get any better than that!

However, the movie is slow in parts and some scenes verge off on a tangent and never return. But the heart of the story–the foil between Burton and Speke–is rock solid. It’s a completely different approach than The Duchess, which focuses on Burton’s dastardly adventures in love.

For those of you who scoff at the simple-minded girl who reads romance novels, this romance novel has lead me to do extensive research on Victorian exploration, read two massive biographies, and uncover one highly overlooked film.


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