The Ghost and the Darkness tells the story of the man-eaters of Tsavo as they terrified railway workers in 1898. Did it really happen? Let’s find out.
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About the movie The Ghost and the Darkness
One of the joys I have in creating this podcast is not only diving into history, but seeing how some of our favorite movies are connected to each other. That’s why I try to connect some of the dots here in the introduction of each episode, sharing some fun facts about the movies along the way.
Today’s story is no different.
If you’re like me, you love the classic film The Princess Bride. As great as it is, do you know who wrote that movie? That would be none other than the Oscar award-winning screenwriter William Goldman. Since writers often don’t get the same sort of spotlight as the actors who recite the lines they write, you’ll get a pass if you didn’t know. I’m right there with you—I didn’t know that until researching this episode.
Despite hitting a home run with a cult classic like The Princess Bride, William didn’t win an Oscar for that movie. He won it for a couple other classic movies you’ve probably seen. In fact, two movies that are based on a true story—All the President’s Men, which is the story of the Watergate scandal and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, one of the true Hollywood classics.
And then there’s the movie we’re going to be looking at today. 1996’s The Ghost and the Darkness might not be seen on the same level as some of William Goldman’s other films for most people, but it’s still something that is crazy to me—the same mind that wrote one of the best feel-good movies I loved as a kid in The Princess Bride also wrote one of the most disturbing movies I saw as a kid.
Could something like that really happen?
Let’s find out.
Learn the true story behind The Ghost and the Darkness
Our story today opens with a scene of golden fields of long grass blowing in the wind. It’s the kind of grass you might expect to see a lion hiding in. Or, I guess, the kind of grass you won’t see a lion hiding in until it’s too late.
Instead of seeing lions, though, we hear a slight growl as we see the title of the film: The Ghost and the Darkness.
After this, the camera cuts to a building and there’s a bit of text on screen to let us know we’re in London in the year 1898. The door opens and walking through the dark halls is a man in uniform. He’s walking with his back to the camera as we follow him down the hall, so we can’t really see his face.
As he walks, we hear a voiceover explaining that this is the most famous true African adventure. It’s famous because what took place at Tsavo had never happened before. As the voiceover continues to explain, a brilliant engineer named Colonel John Patterson was there when it began. Then the voice concludes its monologue as it introduces itself as Samuel—a character played by John Kani in the film.
Finally, we see the man’s face as he finishes his walk down the hall and reaches his destination. It’s Val Kilmer’s character who happens to be Colonel John Patterson.
The scene we see next is one where Robert Beaumont, a character played by Tom Wilkinson, tells Colonel Patterson that he’s building the most expensive and daring railroad in history. All of it for the glorious purpose of beating the French and Germans in the colonialism of Africa. Or, as Robert explains it, in saving Africa from the Africans. And their ability to beat the French and Germans hinges on Colonel Patterson being able to do what Robert Beaumont has hired him to do—build a bridge across the river Tsavo.
After this introduction to Colonel Patterson’s boss, we meet his wife at the train station as she bids him farewell. She’s pregnant, but he must leave. In theory he should be back before she has the child, but challenges come—they always do. She understands. It’s alright, because that just means she can come to Africa with their newborn child when he’s born.
And with that, our opening sequence is set. All of those scenes are made up, but there are bits and pieces of truth in there.
Robert Beaumont wasn’t a real person. He’s more of a composite character to portray the committee in London in charge of the Uganda Railway. The purpose of that committee was, as you can probably guess, to build a railway across the sub-Saharan plains of Africa.
Colonel Patterson, on the other hand, was a real person. He was commissioned, like the movie implies, to build a bridge on the Tsavo river for the Uganda Railway committee. More specifically, they’d already built a temporary bridge that the workers used to haul equipment across the river, but Colonel Patterson’s job was to build the permanent bridge and also the railway for 30 miles on either side of the bridge.
For a bit of geographical context, the Tsavo river is on the eastern side of Africa. In 1898 when our story takes place that was known by the colonizing British as simply British East Africa, but today we know it as Kenya. That’s between Somalia to the north and Tanzania to the south.
Another little difference in this opening sequence is with Colonel Patterson’s wife, who is cast as Helena Patterson. She’s played by Emily Mortimer in the film. In truth, her first name was Frances. Helena was her middle name. The two were married in 1895, so the movie is correct in showing them married in 1898.
However, it’d be a bit of a stretch to assume that they had their son around the timeline of the film. He was born in 1909, so unless she had one of the longest pregnancies ever, I doubt she was pregnant in 1898.
Something the movie doesn’t mention, though, is that Frances Patterson was an amazing woman in her own right. She was the very first woman to receive a law degree in the British Isles.
Going back to the movie, Colonel Patterson arrives in Africa to meet a few new characters. First there’s Angus Starling, the camp supervisor that’s played by Brian McCardie. Together, we see Starling and Patterson take what Starling calls the best seat on the train—a wooden bench positioned outside the train on the very front. From here, the two take the trip from Mombasa to Tsavo.
That’s not really accurate.
Like Beaumont, the character of Angus Starling is a fictional one.
Although it is true that Colonel Patterson made his way to Tsavo through the port city of Mombasa. As Colonel Patterson measured it in his book, that’s about 132 miles, or 212 kilometers, to the north of the coast. The movie speeds it all up quite a bit, though. He was in Mombasa for about a week before getting his official orders to head to Tsavo.
While it is true that the train from Mombasa to Tsavo is the one that Colonel Patterson took, according to his memoirs he made a very specific point to talk about the wildlife he saw on the train ride to Tsavo through the windows—so not on the front of the train.
Although, it’s not like Patterson took the trip from Mombasa to Tsavo alone. Joining him on the ride was a man named Dr. McCulloch.
It’s worth mentioning that, generally speaking, as much as the trip to Tsavo was a job for Patterson, any time off he’d have from building the bridge would be spent hunting wild animals.
And their hunting started right away. Not with a lion, but rather with Dr. McCulloch and Patterson being amazed at a beautiful ostrich running alongside their train. So, Dr. McCulloch shot it. For sport, of course. Just because it was there. They then got the train to stop and back up so they could pick up the slain ostrich.
Back in the movie, after Patterson arrives in Tsavo we get to meet a couple more characters. The first is John Kani’s character, Samuel. He’s the guy who did the voiceover in the beginning.
Finally, the last main character we meet here is David Hawthorne. He’s played by Bernard Hill and as the camp doctor, greets Colonel Patterson by saying he’s brought some bad luck. There’s been a lion attack. Don’t worry, Colonel Patterson reassures Dr. Hawthorne, I’ll sort it out.
All of that is made up, including all those characters—they’re fictional. There was a doctor at the camp, but we already learned about him. He was none other than Dr. McCulloch who arrived in Tsavo with Patterson.
Back in the movie, after arriving in Tsavo, Val Kilmer’s version of Colonel Patterson gets right to work sorting it out. He and Starling climb up a tree that night to hunt the lion.
After plenty of waiting and a few tense moments, Patterson manages to kill the lion with a single shot—quite a feat! Back in camp the next day, everyone celebrates Patterson for freeing them of the terror of lions at night.
Of course, if you’ve seen the movie before you’ll know that’s going to change.
But historically, none of that happened.
While it’s also not true that Colonel Patterson hunted down a lion on his first night at the camp, that’s a bit nit-picky since the hunt for man-eating lions began just a few days after his arrival. It’s worth pointing out that when Patterson arrived at the camp in March of 1898, there were thousands of workers, mostly Indians who had been imported by the British to do the backbreaking work for a measly sum of about 12 rupees a month. That’s roughly about $1 in today’s US dollars. So, I think it’s safe to say their pay was a pittance—just enough to avoid being tagged as slave labor.
With thousands of workers, what I’m referring to as the “camp” was technically several camps spread out across a rather wide area—a few miles or so. There’s the one Colonel Patterson was in, then a half a mile away or so another camp. The hospital would be three-quarters of a mile away from that, and so on.
It’s also worth pointing out that not all the workers were under Colonel Patterson’s command, like the movie seems to imply. While there were a few hundred under his command to build the bridge and the 30 miles of railway on either side, the rest were tasked with the railway outside of Colonel Patterson’s job. So, mile 31 and beyond.
Because of the size of the camp, when the first two men were dragged away in the middle of the night by what witnesses described as a pair of lions, Colonel Patterson didn’t believe them. He chalked it up to a disagreement among the workers and a lion attack was the cover story. So, he didn’t do anything.
That would soon change.
Going back to the movie, after Val Kilmer’s version of Colonel Patterson kills a lion right after arriving in Tsavo, things seem to be rather uneventful for some time. There’s a bit of text on screen that says it’s seven weeks later, and one night we see Patterson go to sleep in his tent. Across the camp, the construction foreman, Mahina, goes to sleep in his tent.
By the way, Mahina is played by Henry Cele in the movie.
Of course, there’s quite a bit of difference in the sleeping arrangements. Patterson gets a bed in a tent of his own while Mahina sleeps on the floor with at least six other men that I could count in the frame. Most of them are lying with their heads in the center of the tent with their feet near the edges.
After settling in for the night, across the camp there’s silence.
All is quiet.
Then all of a sudden, there’s a scuffle as we see Mahina’s leg get pulled. He’s dragged out of the tent, startling him awake. As he looks up, there’s a massive black shadow above him—a lion.
Mahina screams. The lion responds with a growl of his own as he clamps down on Mahina’s leg and starts to drag him into the tall grass nearby. Back in the camp, a commotion starts as people start screaming, “Simba! Simba!” or “Lion! Lion!”
The next day, Patterson, Starling and Samuel find the remains of Mahina’s body in the grass.
None of that is true. Although Mahina was a real person—he was Patterson’s gun-bearer. In fact, the character of Samuel in the movie was a fictional one and, in truth, it was Mahina who was Patterson’s right-hand man in the hunt for the man-eaters moreso than anyone else.
As his gun-bearer, anytime Colonel Patterson went hunting in the African wilderness, which he did often as a break from building the bridge, Mahina would likely be at his side. What’s not true about this, though, is that Mahina died as a result of a lion attack like we see in the film. In fact, Mahina was one of the men who bade farewell to Colonel Patterson when he finally went back to England toward the end of 1899.
But that’s getting a bit ahead of our story.
Even though Mahina didn’t die during the timeline of the film, there was an event that was similar to what we saw.
About three weeks after Colonel Patterson arrived in Tsavo, one of his officers, a man named Ungan Singh, was dragged out of his tent in the middle of the night and eaten.
If you remember, up until this point the real Patterson didn’t really believe the previous reports of night-time killings being lions. He thought they were probably scraps between the workers that were being blamed on wildlife. When Singh was killed, the witnesses said it was a lion attack. This time, though, Colonel Patterson investigated the disappearance. He came to the same conclusion as the witnesses—the prints were clear in the sand along with the marks of where Ungan was dragged off into the brush.
Going back to the movie, after Mahina is killed there’s more deaths. Each night, Val Kilmer’s version of Colonel Patterson climbs a tree to kill the lion. They build bomas, or thornbush enclosures that are meant to keep the lion out. And yet, each night it seems, the lion evades Patterson as someone else is dragged off.
Things get so bad that we see Tom Wilkinson’s character of Robert Beaumont make his way to the construction site. When he arrives on a train, he mentions that Patterson is two months behind—and he wants answers.
After hearing about the 30 or so men that have been killed, Beaumont says he doesn’t care about the men who have died—all he cares about is his knighthood. Get the job done. But then he offers to hire Michael Douglas’s character, Charles Remington, to take out lion.
That’s not true.
As we learned before, Beaumont wasn’t a real person so it’s probably not too much of a surprise that that never happened. Although it’d be logical to assume that if the character of Beaumont was supposed to be a personified version of the Uganda Railway committee that maybe some folks of the committee came out to degrade Patterson at the site.
Of course, who’s to say what happened in the undocumented conversations, but building a railroad in the wilderness came with its fair share of hardness. No one likes them, but delays are a part of the job.
Still, it’s safe to say none of that happened.
That brings us to Charles Remington. He’s also a fictional character. There was a man named Mr. Whitehead that Patterson wrote to for assistance in killing the lions, but he was the District Officer in the region, not a big game hunter like Remington was in the movie.
And that right there probably tells you how historically accurate much of the movie from here on out was since he’s one of the main characters.
And we’ll come back to Mr. Whitehead in a moment.
As a little side note, you’ll notice that when recounting what happened in the movie I’m using the term “lion”, singular. In the movie, at this point, Patterson didn’t know there were two lions.
To be honest, I don’t really know if that’s true or not. I couldn’t find anything that verified that Patterson thought there was only one lion at the beginning until seeing the two side-by-side at one time. In his book, Patterson almost always refers to them as “the lions” from the very beginning—plural. But that brings up a great point. Patterson’s book called The Man-Eaters of Tsavo was published in 1907, so about nine years after the events took place.
Can you remember everything you did nine years ago to write down every detail? I know I can’t.
And therein lies the conundrum of stories like this that rely so heavily on the experiences of only one man. Stories like this one or others like The Revenant, Lawrence of Arabia, Sargent York and so on. Stories that are often conflated either out of misremembering, honest mistakes or just the desire to make their stories sound more exciting than they actually were.
Oh, sure, there were other people there, but not people who wrote down their stories. And oral histories are even more unreliable. This is all important to keep in mind, because due to the nature of Patterson being the only one who really provided documentation of many of the events by way of his book, we pretty much have to assume its details are true. But I still think it’s worth pointing that out from time to time.
Back to our story today, even though Beaumont never came to Tsavo because, well, he’s not a real person, the basic idea of Patterson trying to hunt down the lions almost immediately after his arrival was true.
In his first few weeks at camp, even after the very first of the workers was dragged away in the middle of the night, Colonel Patterson was determined to get rid of the lions. He’d perch in the trees at night near a recent kill—even getting to the point of leaving a victim’s body where it was found after being dragged off in hopes that the lions would come back for the remains. Instead, while hanging out on a perch, which usually consisted of a board between four posts, Patterson would hear a commotion in a camp a half a mile away. The lions eluded him yet again.
That was a common occurrence. Remember, there used to be people spread out across multiple camps. When they’d guard one camp, another would get attacked. Initially, they’d sometimes be successful in scaring the lions off by making a lot of noise—gunshots, banging things together. But as the nights wore on, the noises stopped having an effect on the lions. They grew more and more bold as they entered tents, grabbing someone in their sleep and dragging them to the outside of the camp where they’d both feed on the poor soul.
What made things even worse was that the thousands of men started to shrink as the railway made progress. Remember earlier when we learned that not all of the workers were tasked with building the bridge under Colonel Patterson? Well, as the workers who were working on the railway itself beyond the bridge made progress, that meant more and more workers were moving away from the Tsavo encampment.
Left behind were the few hundred workers tasked with the bridge. That meant the camps weren’t nearly as full as when Patterson arrived, making things seem even more eerie as the already depleted numbers dwindled more with each night someone was taken from their tent by the lions.
Going back to the movie, with the deaths piling up, we see one of the Indian workers named Abdullah get into a big argument with Patterson. Angry words are thrust back and forth along with what some might consider threats.
Then, just as things start to get really heated, Michael Douglas’s character, Charles Remington, comes into the picture and places a gun to Abdullah’s head. Finally, things calm down a bit.
Well, we already learned earlier that Charles Remington wasn’t a real person, so that part isn’t true. But it is true that the Indian workers revolted against Colonel Patterson. In fact, it was quite a bit worse than what we saw in the movie—even down to a plot to murder Patterson.
There was a lot of stress in the camp, not the least of which because of the lions. But then there was another key factor that seemed to be the last straw in Patterson’s leadership for many of the workers.
None of this is in the movie at all, but as Patterson was overseeing the stone for the base supports for the bridge, he called on the masons of his workers to help. It didn’t take long for him to realize that many of his masons didn’t know the first thing about stone-work.
It’d seem that masons made 45 rupees a month while regular workers only made about 12. So, plenty of people signed up to be masons. When it came time to prove their work, they failed.
As we learned earlier, 12 rupees is equivalent to about $1 in today’s US dollars. On the other hand, 45 rupees in 1898 was roughly about $34 in today’s US dollars. So, neither is really a high salary by any means…but there’s quite a difference.
After Patterson found this out, he decided to cut the pay of anyone who couldn’t prove they were actual masons. Then, trying to appease those who were masons, he’d offer them a little above the 45 rupees.
Well, this drastic pay cut for many workers didn’t really make them happy.
On September 6th, 1898, Colonel Patterson started along his normal morning routine from the trolley line to a quarry to check on the workers there. He’d heard rumors of a mutinous plot but didn’t think a lot of it—he didn’t believe they’d actually carry it out, he just thought it was an intimidation technique.
Well, it was more than that. He found out about that when roughly 160 or so men armed with crowbars and hammers cornered Patterson in a remote gully. It had to have been like a scene in a movie—except not this one. Suddenly, one of the men charged at Patterson.
Patterson dodged, causing the man to dive past him and straight into a nearby rock. That caused enough of a pause from the rest of the workers to give Patterson the time to jump up on another nearby rock. From there, he addressed the workers who, somewhat surprisingly, listened.
He pointed out that if he were killed, the nearby government wasn’t going to be likely to believe that he’d been dragged off by a lion. The punishment for killing him would be hanging for any man involved. Not only that, but they’d just replace him with a new task-master. How did they know who that new boss would be? Maybe he’d be even worse of a boss—not as fair as Patterson was.
He promised anyone who was unhappy could leave without question. Anyone who stayed, though, would have to stop their plots against his life. In return, he wouldn’t mention it to his own bosses.
Back in the movie…actually, before we move onto the next scene, let’s clarify something because the movie gets the timeline a little backward.
In particular, the timing of the work stoppage. In the movie, we see a little later on a scene where Abdullah and hundreds of Indian workers climb aboard a train to leave Tsavo in the wake of one of the worst attacks yet. I’m speaking of the one on the hospital, of course. But we’ll get to that a bit later.
So, in truth, all of those workers really did leave Tsavo…but it wasn’t later like we see in the movie. Remember, the plot against Patterson’s life was in September of 1898.
By the time December of 1898 rolled around, things had gotten so bad that, like the movie implies, there was indeed a halt in the work. Hundreds of workers threw themselves in front of a passing train, forcing it to stop. When it did, they hopped on and left. Anyone who stayed behind stopped working on the bridge and railway. The only thing they’d build was what they thought were lion-proof buildings. These were structures that stood atop anything they could find—water tanks and roofs. Anything to get them off the ground at night.
The work stoppage would end up lasting three weeks.
But the thing I wanted to point out here was how the movie change the timeline, because in truth the workers left before Patterson’s help came. That help wasn’t Remington, of course, but rather the District Officer in the region, a man named Mr. Whitehead.
And Mr. Whitehead was nearly killed upon his arrival to the camp. His train, which was scheduled to arrive on December 2nd, the day after the mass exodus of workers took place, came in late at night. It was so dark that seeing anything was almost impossible, but Whitehead had an assistant carrying a lamp behind him, so they could see their path from the station to the camp.
Then, out of the darkness a lion jumped down on the pair, tearing into Whitehead’s back with his claws. Startled, Whitehead shot his weapon. It seemed to work—the lion froze just long enough for Whitehead to back away. Then, a split second later, the lion pounced on Whitehead’s assistant, a man named Abdullah, and dragged him off into the darkness.
He was never seen again.
As the sun started to rise, Whitehead managed to run into Patterson who, in turn, was looking for Whitehead, since he was supposed to have arrived the night before. Whitehead and Patterson made their way back to camp where Whitehead’s injuries were tended to.
Then something else happens that’s not quite in line with what we saw in the movie.
Remember when Michael Douglas’s character, Charles Remington, arrives in Tsavo in the movie? He came with a tribe called the Masai to hunt the lions down. We already learned that Remington wasn’t a real person, but the Masai was a real tribe that Patterson met during his time in Africa.
But it wasn’t them who came with Mr. Whitehead.
In the movie, Remington is called by Beaumont. Something I didn’t really mention earlier in the scene with Beaumont, but one of the things he mentioned specifically was his reply to Patterson’s request for soldiers. He denied it.
That’s interesting, because in truth, since there was no Beaumont, it was Patterson himself who requested assistance hunting the lions.
Well, the very next day after Mr. Whitehead arrived in Tsavo, some soldiers arrived under the command of a man named Mr. Farquhar. He was the Superintendent of Police in a nearby region, so he arrived with forces to help in the killing of the two man-eating lions.
It was that night, on December 3rd, when they finally caught one of the lions.
Back in the movie, we see a rather ingenious contraption that Val Kilmer’s version of Patterson cleverly calls…well, his contraption.
It’s basically a box car that’s been modified with wooden boards inside to create two compartments. On one side, three workers are to spend the night as bait. On the other side, a door is left open for the lion to enter. When it does, in theory, it’ll hit a tripwire that’ll slam the door down behind it. That’s when the armed workers are to open fire on the lion, killing it.
And, according to the movie, everything seems to go well at first. The trap works, and the lion makes its way in, knocking down the door behind it. Then, the workers start to panic. They keep shooting, but never seem to hit it. One of those shots hits the door behind the lion, damaging the door—which allows the lion to escape.
Surprisingly, that’s pretty close to what happened. Well, there were only two people set up in the trap as bait. And they weren’t workers, they were soldiers from Mr. Farquhar, who had arrived that same day.
As other soldiers positioned themselves in trees all around the camp for the night, Patterson and Mr. Whitehead took up positions near the trap with the human bait inside.
For a while, all was quiet. At about 9:00 PM, one of the lions fell for the trap and wandered inside. The door came slamming down, making quite a ruckus. Patterson breathed a sigh of relief—that’s one lion down!
Except…not quite so fast.
When the lion entered, the soldiers who served as bait were so terrified they didn’t shoot. They froze. Finally, after a few minutes, they opened fire. Not very accurately, though, and just like the movie shows they managed to hit just about everything but the lion. Oh, there was a little bit of blood they found afterward that implies the lion was slightly injured, but nothing major.
One of the bullets though did manage to hit a bar on the door, completely blowing it away. And just like we saw in the movie, that left a hole in the door big enough for the lion to get away.
Back in the movie, Remington orders Bernard Hill’s character, Dr. Hawthorne, to move the hospital. He says the smell of blood and sweat are only going to attract the lions.
That night, we see Dr. Hawthorne and Patterson swap weapons for a hunt the following day. As the movie explains it, Dr. Hawthorne tells Patterson that his gun is more powerful than Patterson’s and he’s just going to be tending to the hospital transfer, so the more powerful gun will do Patterson more good on his hunt than it will Dr. Hawthorne.
Then, the next day, Patterson, Remington and the Masai tribe head off for a hunt. They manage to corner one of the lions, but just as Patterson has the shot—his gun misfires. The lion gets away.
The misfire happened, but that’s not at all how it happened.
Obviously, we already know Remington and the Masai weren’t there.
In fact, Mr. Whitehead and the soldiers from Farquhar weren’t there either. On December 9th, just a couple days after Mr. Whitehead and Farquhar’s soldiers left, Patterson was going about his morning routine when he heard a warning cry.
In a rush, Patterson grabbed the closest rifle he could find. It was a heavy rifle that Farquhar had left behind for him, just in case it would be of any use. But Patterson couldn’t track down the lion, so he decided to head back to camp and get some help. He enlisted some of the workers to help make a bunch of noise.
In the movie we see the Masai fill this role as they hoot and holler to scare the lion in a direction they want it to go.
Well, in truth it was some of the railway workers who made as much noise as they could as Patterson snuck around to find a good position to hit the lion. When he found the lion, he raised his rifle and…click. Misfire.
There was a temporary moment of panic where Patterson just stared at the lion. Then, the workers’ noise came closer and scared off the lion. Good thing, too, because if not then Patterson might’ve been a goner.
A bit earlier, I mentioned that Mr. Whitehead and Farquhar’s soldiers had left. They didn’t stick around for long. Since Patterson’s assistance had left by this point, that probably gives you a good idea of how accurate the next major scene is in the movie.
I’m talking, of course, about one of the biggest scenes in the film. At least, it’s the one that disturbed me the most when I saw the movie for the first time. As Patterson and Remington hole themselves up in the old hospital. They spread blood all over the place, pieces of meat and even a couple cows in an attempt to attract the lions to them.
We see the lions sniff at the blood, but then they disappear.
Then we see the lions again. They start attacking the helpless sick and injured in the new location of the hospital—ripping apart the men. One of those who dies is Dr. Hawthorne.
None of that happened. Nor did the real camp doc, Dr. McCulloch die during any of this. He ended up surviving and returning home safe and sound.
According to the movie, after this is when we see Abdullah and the hundreds of Indian workers pile on the train and make their way out of Tsavo. While I can’t say I blame them in the context of what happened in the movie, we already learned about how the movie changed the timeline for that.
So, let’s hop back to the movie where the next major plot point happens when they’re able to finally take down one of the two lions. This happens after Colonel Patterson builds a rather precarious-looking platform. The plan is to have him sit up there out of reach of the lions, while a baboon is tied beneath the platform as bait.
In the dead of the night, one of the lions arrives. Patterson shifts around, trying to get a good angle for a shot. Then, suddenly, a bird swoops down on him. Unsurprisingly, this makes Patterson lose his balance on the very thin board. He falls to the ground, sending his rifle a distance away in the process. Just then, the lion pounces on Patterson—he manages to roll away in the nick of time.
Pulling his pistol, he unloads it into the lion.
Finally, one of the lions is killed.
That’s pretty close to what happened. Even down to the very precarious platform that Patterson erected to hunt atop.
Here’s an excerpt from Patterson’s book where he described exactly what happened:
But no; matters quickly took an unexpected turn. The hunter became the hunted; and instead of either making off or coming for the bait prepared for him, the lion began stealthily to stalk me! For about two hours he horrified me by slowly creeping round and round my crazy structure, gradually edging his way nearer and nearer. Every moment I expected him to rush it; and the staging had not been constructed with an eye to such a possibility. If one of the rather flimsy poles should break, or if the lion could spring the twelve feet which separated me from the ground … the thought was scarcely a pleasant one. I began to feel distinctly “creepy,” and heartily repented my folly in having placed myself in such a dangerous position. I kept perfectly still, however, hardly daring even to blink my eyes: but the long-continued strain was telling on my nerves, and my feelings may be better imagined than described when about midnight suddenly something came flop and struck me on the back of the head. For a moment I was so terrified that I nearly fell off the plank, as I thought that the lion had sprung on me from behind. Regaining my senses in a second or two, I realised that I had been hit by nothing more formidable than an owl, which had doubtless mistaken me for the branch of a tree—not a very alarming thing to happen in ordinary circumstances, I admit, but coming at the time it did, it almost paralysed me. The involuntary start which I could not help giving was immediately answered by a sinister growl from below.
After this I again kept as still as I could, though absolutely trembling with excitement; and in a short while I heard the lion begin to creep stealthily towards me. I could barely make out his form as he crouched among the whitish undergrowth; but I saw enough for my purpose, and before he could come any nearer, I took careful aim and pulled the trigger. The sound of the shot was at once followed by a most terrific roar, and then I could hear him leaping about in all directions. I was no longer able to see him, however, as his first bound had taken him into the thick bush; but to make assurance doubly sure, I kept blazing away in the direction in which I heard him plunging about. At length came a series of mighty groans, gradually subsiding into deep sighs, and finally ceasing altogether; and I felt convinced that one of the “devils” who had so long harried us would trouble us no more.
As soon as I ceased firing, a tumult of inquiring voices was borne across the dark jungle from the men in camp about a quarter of a mile away. I shouted back that I was safe and sound, and that one of the lions was dead: whereupon such a mighty cheer went up from all the camps as must have astonished the denizens of the jungle for miles around.
Back in the movie, after the first lion is killed we see Patterson, Remington and Samuel all celebrating with a drink around the fire that same night. Conversation turns to families, and before heading off to bed Remington tells Patterson that the next time he sees his son, he should hold him high.
That night, Patterson has a dream. It’s a good dream where his wife and newborn son visit him. Then, it turns to a nightmare as the remaining lion mauls his wife to death while he watches helplessly from a distance.
Val Kilmer’s version of Colonel Patterson awakes from the nightmare with a start. He goes to splash his face with water, and that’s when he notices it. Remington’s tent. It’s empty. It’s more than empty—it’s in shreds. Remington is gone.
Rushing out into the brush, Patterson and Samuel come across the remains of Remington amid blood-stained grass.
Then the camera cuts and we see Patterson and Samuel standing around a blazing fire. They’re burning Remington’s body out of respect. Patterson grabs one of the logs from the fire and starts lighting the tall, dry grass ablaze. Samuel follows suit, and the fire quickly eats up the long grass.
None of that is true. There was a moment where Patterson set a fire while he was in Tsavo, but that was much later and due to a plague that was in the area—he was trying to get rid of the sickness and did so by setting fire to many of the buildings in the area. A sacrifice, but it worked to get rid of the illness. But it had nothing to do with the lions.
After this, in the movie, we see how the second lion is killed. The evening after Remington is killed, Colonel Patterson is walking along the unfinished bridge when the lion surprises him. Shocked, Patterson stumbles back and drops his shotgun. It clatters between the wooden boards, falling uselessly away.
Patterson starts running, climbing down from the bridge in a way that slows the lion’s charge on him. Fortunately, he just barely manages to make it to a nearby tree before the lion gets there.
It stares up at him. Then…the lion starts climbing the tree after Val Kilmer’s version of the Colonel.
Patterson climbs higher, but there’s only so much tree. Meanwhile, we see Samuel climbing another tree nearby. He’s trying to get a good angle on the lion, but he can’t. so, he calls out to Patterson. Getting his attention, Samuel throws his rifle across the gap separating his tree from Patterson’s.
It’s just out of reach! Hitting a branch, it falls to the ground.
For a moment, Patterson considers what to do. The lion is still making its way up the tree. Closer and closer. Then, Patterson jumps from the tree toward the gun. The fall brings him down—almost lying down as he lunges to pick up the gun just as the lion follows him to the ground.
Patterson aims…fires. The lion roars, blood splattering across his face. But he doesn’t stop. He keeps crawling toward Patterson, who scrambles backward. Finally, he steadies himself for a second shot right into the lion’s face.
And with that, the second lion is killed.
All of that…is not at all how it happened.
And rather than trying to retell the story myself, as we did with the first lion, here’s the account of how the second man-eater of Tsavo was killed by Colonel Patterson from his book:
About this time Sir Guilford Molesworth, K.C.I.E., late Consulting Engineer to the Government of India for State Railways, passed through Tsavo on a tour of inspection on behalf of the Foreign Office. After examining the bridge and other works and expressing his satisfaction, he took a number of photographs, one or two of which he has kindly allowed me to reproduce in this book. He thoroughly sympathised with us in all the trials we had endured from the man-eaters, and was delighted that one at least was dead. When he asked me if I expected to get the second lion soon, I well remember his half-doubting smile as I rather too confidently asserted that I hoped to bag him also in the course of a few days.
As it happened, there was no sign of our enemy for about ten days after this, and we began to hope that he had died of his wounds in the bush. All the same we still took every precaution at night, and it was fortunate that we did so, as otherwise at least one more victim would have been added to the list. For on the night of December 27, I was suddenly aroused by terrified shouts from my trolley men, who slept in a tree close outside my boma, to the effect that a lion was trying to get at them. It would have been madness to have gone out, as the moon was hidden by dense clouds and it was absolutely impossible to see anything more than a yard in front of one; so all I could do was to fire off a few rounds just to frighten the brute away. This apparently had the desired effect, for the men were not further molested that night; but the man-eater had evidently prowled about for some time, for we found in the morning that he had gone right into every one of their tents, and round the tree was a regular ring of his footmarks.
The following evening I took up my position in this same tree, in the hope that he would make another attempt. The night began badly, as, while climbing up to my perch I very nearly put my hand on a venomous snake which was lying coiled round one of the branches. As may be imagined, I came down again very quickly, but one of my men managed to despatch it with a long pole. Fortunately the night was clear and cloudless, and the moon made every thing almost as bright as day. I kept watch until about 2 a.m., when I roused Mahina to take his turn. For about an hour I slept peacefully with my back to the tree, and then woke suddenly with an uncanny feeling that something was wrong. Mahina, however, was on the alert, and had seen nothing; and although I looked carefully round us on all sides, I too could discover nothing unusual. Only half satisfied, I was about to lie back again, when I fancied I saw something move a little way off among the low bushes. On gazing intently at the spot for a few seconds, I found I was not mistaken. It was the man-eater, cautiously stalking us.
The ground was fairly open round our tree, with only a small bush every here and there; and from our position it was a most fascinating sight to watch this great brute stealing stealthily round us, taking advantage of every bit of cover as he came. His skill showed that he was an old hand at the terrible game of man-hunting: so I determined to run no undue risk of losing him this time. I accordingly waited until he got quite close—about twenty yards away—and then fired my .303 at his chest. I heard the bullet strike him, but unfortunately it had no knockdown effect, for with a fierce growl he turned and made off with great long bounds. Before he disappeared from sight, however, I managed to have three more shots at him from the magazine rifle, and another growl told me that the last of these had also taken effect.
We awaited daylight with impatience, and at the first glimmer of dawn we set out to hunt him down. I took a native tracker with me, so that I was free to keep a good look-out, while Mahina followed immediately behind with a Martini carbine. Splashes of blood being plentiful, we were able to get along quickly; and we had not proceeded more than a quarter of a mile through the jungle when suddenly a fierce warning growl was heard right in front of us. Looking cautiously through the bushes, I could see the man-eater glaring out in our direction, and showing his tusks in an angry snarl. I at once took careful aim and fired. Instantly he sprang out and made a most determined charge down on us. I fired again and knocked him over; but in a second he was up once more and coming for me as fast as he could in his crippled condition. A third shot had no apparent effect, so I put out my hand for the Martini, hoping to stop him with it. To my dismay, however, it was not there. The terror of the sudden charge had proved too much for Mahina, and both he and the carbine were by this time well on their way up a tree. In the circumstances there was nothing to do but follow suit, which I did without loss of time: and but for the fact that one of my shots had broken a hind leg, the brute would most certainly have had me. Even as it was, I had barely time to swing myself up out of his reach before he arrived at the foot of the tree.
When the lion found he was too late, he started to limp back to the thicket; but by this time I had seized the carbine from Mahina, and the first shot I fired from it seemed to give him his quietus, for he fell over and lay motionless. Rather foolishly, I at once scrambled down from the tree and walked up towards him. To my surprise and no little alarm he jumped up and attempted another charge. This time, however, a Martini bullet in the chest and another in the head finished him for good and all; he dropped in his tracks not five yards away from me, and died gamely, biting savagely at a branch which had fallen to the ground.
By this time all the workmen in camp, attracted by the sound of the firing, had arrived on the scene, and so great was their resentment against the brute who had killed such numbers of their comrades that it was only with the greatest difficulty that I could restrain them from tearing the dead body to pieces. Eventually, amid the wild rejoicings of the natives and coolies, I had the lion carried to my boma, which was close at hand. On examination we found no less than six bullet holes in the body, and embedded only a little way in the flesh of the back was the slug which I had fired into him from the scaffolding about ten days previously. He measured nine feet six inches from tip of nose to tip of tail, and stood three feet eleven and a half inches high; but, as in the case of his companion, the skin was disfigured by being deeply scored all over by the boma thorns.
Oh, and even though I didn’t mention it, the first man-eater measured about nine feet eight inches long and was three feet nine inches tall.
As the movie draws to a close, we see Colonel Patterson’s wife, Helena, arrive in Tsavo. It’s a very similar scene to what we saw in Patterson’s nightmare, except this time there are no lions stalking their prey from the tall grass.
It’s a rather happy ending as Patterson sees his wife and, for the first time, his newborn son—who he raises high just as Charles Remington told him to do before he died.
As happy as that made the ending in the movie, none of that happened. As we learned in the beginning, Colonel John Patterson and his wife, Frances Helena Patterson, didn’t have their only son until many years later—1909.
And, as far as my research indicates, she never visited him in Africa.
But, at the end of the movie, we hear Samuel’s voiceover talk about how Patterson finished the bridge.
And that’s true.
The bridge was finished in February of 1899, not long after the man-eating lions were killed. However, Patterson didn’t return to England right away. In fact, it wasn’t for about a year after the two lions were killed that Patterson stumbled upon their den. We saw Patterson and Remington find their cave in the movie, but that’s not something that happened while the lions were still alive.
While the lions were alive, Patterson spent countless hours searching for their den without success. But it was only after they were killed that he managed to find it—and quite by accident.
The movie did correctly show that there were plenty of human bones in the den. Although, the number of them were played up for effect in the film.
Speaking of which, throughout the movie we hear a running tally of the number of deaths at the hand of the two man-eaters of Tsavo. 10, 20, 30…all the way up to somewhere in the 100s.
How many did the two lions actually kill?
Well, the true answer is that we don’t know. The numbers vary quite a bit, but estimates are as high as 135 people.
As for the two lions, for a little over two decades their skins served as rugs for Colonel Patterson’s home. Then, in 1924, he sold them to the Chicago Field Museum where they were stuffed and reconstructed to mimic the lions they once were.
And that’s where they are today.
Just like the movie indicates at the end, those two lions are currently on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. Of course, it’s their skins stuffed into reconstructions, but in the display they also have the two skulls of the man-eaters.
In 2004, Colonel John Patterson’s son, Bruce, published his theories into the reasons behind why the two man-eaters killed so many.
The prevailing thought was that it was a combination of multiple factors. A perfect storm, of sorts.
First, in 1898 there was a plague that limited the number of animals available in the lion’s normal hunting grounds. In addition to that, quite frankly, there was a lot of slave labor and slave trade in the region at the time. As a result, there were a lot of people murdered and dumped around the area—especially around the Tsavo river, since it was a water supply for slave traders in the region.
Finally, Bruce Patterson studied the skulls of the lions and determined that perhaps there was an infection in their teeth. A lion’s normal prey, zebras, antelopes and so on, would be suffocated from the pressure of the lion’s attack. But with the infection, maybe that same sort of pressure couldn’t be applied without immense pain. So, killing humans that didn’t require the same sort of suffocation would’ve been an easier prey.
Of course, those are all theories.
The truth is…we don’t really know.
KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
- The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) – IMDb
- Tsavo Man-Eaters – Wikipedia
- John Henry Patterson (author) – Wikipedia
- Man-Eaters of Tsavo | Science | Smithsonian
- The Savage Tsavo Man-Eaters and the Man Who Stopped Them
- The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) – Plot Summary – IMDb
- The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) – IMDb
- William Goldman – IMDb
- The Man-Eaters Of Tsavo And Other East African Adventures: Color Illustrated, Formatted for E-Readers (Unabridged Version) – Kindle edition by John Henry Patterson, Leonardo. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
- History of Uganda Railway – Daily Monitor
- The Project Gutenberg E-text of The Man-eaters of Tsavo, by J. H. Patterson