I’ve made mention on this blog in the past that I have a fondness for the historical era that stretches roughly from the end of the American Civil War to the end of World War I. I won’t repeat the details other than to say that I find it to be a period where the world was still very recognizable to the one we live in today but it was also a time when much of the world still remained a mystery to the West. I find that mix of the unknown and modern very captivating. Political correctness aside, there’s something about the explorations of this era that speaks to me and I enjoy delving into the accounts of the gentlemen explorers who placed so much of the world on Western maps.
It will come as no surprise then that when I heard about a film entitled Mountains of the Moon; I made it a priority to watch this movie at the first opportunity. Last night, I had that chance. Based on the novel, Burton and Speke by William Harrison, Mountains of the Moon depicts the 1857-58 expedition of Captain Richard Burton and Lt. John Speke to discover the headwaters of the Nile in central Africa. During that expedition, the men faced hardship in the form of disease, hostile tribes, the loss of equipment, flesh-eating beetles, and the desertion of their bearers. The expedition led to the discovery of Lake Tanganyika by the Western world and, although Burton was ill and unable to complete the final leg of the journey, the location of Lake Victoria, which we now know as the origin point of the Nile River.
Although the film takes considerable license with the historical events that it depicts, largely due to Harrison’s novel upon which it is based, it does provide a picture of a time when the West made icons and heroes of those men who faced the unknown to expand the field of scientific and geographical knowledge. It also shows the darker side of this elevation of explorers and the rivalries that often overshadowed their accomplishments in the field.
Like The Lost City of Z, Mountains of the Moon is an excellent resource for referees and players about to embark on a campaign centered on expeditions into the unknown corners of the world. Such easily overlooked challenges as hiring dependable bearers, negotiations with aggressive native tribes, the trials of prolonged journeys away from civilization, and the dangers of giving gifts of great power to the locals are all touched upon in the film. The more I read about and am exposed to it, I think that my own campaign world needs some sort of analogous Royal Geographical Society to serve as starting point for adventures and to provide the characters with a chance at some respectability in a career otherwise overrun with scoundrels and riffraff. The scene where David Livingstone and Burton meet for the first time could easily be an encounter between two longtime adventurers meeting in a tavern.
While the film is not quite as pertinent to a “green hell” campaign, as the journey through central Africa is mostly savannah and mountainous terrain, there are enough similar details to make the film worth watching for those of you running such a game. Likewise, although the film is a bit early for even a Cthulhu by Gaslight game, there’s plenty here for a Keeper to use. Even the general glimpse into the obsessions and manias that seem to grip explorers is useful as a lens in which to look upon adventurers of any ilk.
If you happen to come across the film, take the time to watch it. It provides just as much inspirational material as the usual sword & sorcery fare while providing a nice break from that genre.