Out of America: Rafelson’s ‘Mountains of the Moon’
Bob Rafelson was a part of the American counterculture of the ’60s, and he made movies about that consequential moment in time: “Five Easy Pieces” and “Easy Rider,” both of which captured the restlessness and societal dissatisfaction of that era’s youth; “Head,” which used the Monkees to portray the giddier side of the ’60s, the music, humor and psychedelic look.
The movie closest to Rafelson’s heart, though, was set in the ’50s — which makes a kind of sense, as Rafelson was born in 1933, and came of age in the ’50s. What surprises is that the film which Rafelson calls “the most personal” he ever made was set in the 1850s. And it was set continents away from the hidden American corners where Rafelson placed most of his stories.
But “Mountains of the Moon” was centered around Sir Richard Burton, an Irishman who Rafelson worshipped in a way that, a century later, people would idolize Jimi Hendrix and Allen Ginsberg.
“Why?” Rafelson, who has lived in Aspen for 50 years, asked one recent afternoon at The Aspen Times. “Because when I was 12, locking myself in a closet with pornography, the author was always Richard Burton: ‘The Kama Sutra,’ ‘The Perfumed Garden.’ He was a pornographer; late in his life he was tried for pornography. I experienced him the way people might experience Henry Miller.”
Those contributions to pornography — what would now more likely be called erotica — were not all about Burton that excited Rafelson. Burton spoke 26 languages, and translated dozens of books from Persian and Arabic into English. He was an iconoclast: “He was totally disliked by the establishment — partly because he was Irish,” Rafelson, whose movies almost always centered on outsiders, said. And Burton’s motivations tended toward purity: “He learned and he shared,” Rafelson said. “In so many ways, Burton influenced my life.”
“Mountains of the Moon” touches on Burton’s facility with language, his anti-authority stance and his idealism. But mostly what the film, released in 1990, examines is Burton’s desire to explore the world. Rafelson, who directed and co-wrote the film, focuses on Burton’s travels in Africa, in 1857-’58, searching for the source of the Nile River. With his beloved partner, Lieutenant John Hanning Speke, and a crew of Africans, Burton walks a thousand miles, enduring injury and disease, hostile tribes, drought and a spear through his face. Rafelson notes that, in its depiction of adventure, travel and physical hardship, “Mountains of the Moon” is “an Aspen movie. It’s a trek movie. It’s a campsite movie.”
Aspenites will have a rare opportunity to experience the film. On Thursday, May 9, as part of its Farewell to Film series, the Wheeler Opera House will screen “Mountains of the Moon” from a 70mm print, the only such print that was made. Rafelson will appear for a post-screening conversation. He is also planning to watch the film — a rare occasion of Rafelson rewatching one of his old films. He says he has seen the film more than enough times — he viewed each of the 100 or so prints, beginning to end, that were made when the film was released. But he won’t pass on the chance to see “Mountains of the Moon” in the 70mm format.
“It’s the last time I’ll be able to see it in film,” Rafelson said, noting the industry switch from film to digital. (The Wheeler moves to digital projection with its renovation this fall.) “Digital is a slightly different tonality. I prefer the old. And so does Steven Spielberg. Martin Scorsese. But what are we going to do?”
Among the things Burton did for Rafelson was inspire his move to Aspen. In the early ’60s, Rafelson, who had been a devoted traveler since his teens, found himself immersed in the Los Angeles film business.
“I felt a desperate need for a break from city life. And instead of remote, hostile places, I wanted one place I could get to know well,” he said. “So in 1963 I came to Aspen. Burton urged me with his own life to explore.”
Rafelson settled in Aspen, but it was hardly the most settled existence. He made films in Texas, the Pacific Northwest and Atlantic City, and when a project was finished, he’d take off for the great unknown. “I’d pack climbing gear, go to the airport, then decide where to go,” he said. “‘Turkey? I don’t know anyone in Turkey. F*@#uck — go.’ Eight hundred miles in Turkey. Travel had an inherent appeal, but it was very much sponsored by Burton.”
One night in the mid-’80s, sitting by his fireplace reading Burton, Rafelson was struck by the thought of making a film about his idol. And with that thought came terror: “‘You don’t know how to do this. You’ve never shot English people. Your creative life has been narrowed to people in the backwaters of the U.S.: Atlantic City, Birmingham, Alabama.’ Those were my domain, and I dared not step outside.”
After Rafelson wrote his script, and trekked from the Indian Ocean to Uganda to connect with Burton’s experience, the film industry was hardly encouraging. The only excitement came from people who thought the Richard Burton in question was the actor married to Elizabeth Taylor, not the 19th- century explorer.
Rafelson eventually arranged a modest deal that allowed for a 15-week shoot that spanned 10 countries. He worked with British actors who were mostly little-known then, including Patrick Bergin as Burton. Commercially, “Mountains of the Moon” made little impact, but critics were impressed. The late Roger Ebert called it “completely absorbing.” Still, Rafelson says it is the most ignored of his films; even the DVD has no distributor. “It’s a picture that has yet to be discovered,” he said.
In a way, Rafelson was out of his element, shooting in Africa with British actors and working in the epic-adventure genre. But “Mountains of the Moon” also has themes familiar from Rafelson’s work: a fraternal relationship, characters outside the mainstream, idealism. And the film gets to the spirit of exploration.
“The accounts of these explorers — Burton, Speke, Dr. Livingstone — were in theater, newspapers, books,” Rafelson said. “People were dying to find out what lie beyond the shore — in the same way Dennis Hopper had to leave Kansas. To see what was beyond the horizon.”
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.