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In Pursuit of a Dream : Director Bob Rafelson's 'Mountains of the Moon' fulfills a screen obsession

February 18, 1990|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Having traveled from the bazaars of India to the forbidden Muslim city of Harer, Capt. Richard Burton's reputation as an adventurer would be secure even if he hadn't led an extraordinary 1854 expedition in search of the source of the Nile.

Still, it's this perilous odyssey--and the unsettling bond between Burton and fellow explorer Lt. John Speke--that forms the core of Bob Rafelson's new film, "Mountains of the Moon," which opens Friday. It's an $18 million fevered cinematic dream that the adventurous director has been trying to bring to the screen for nearly a decade.

"To call this an obsession would be an understatement," said Rafelson, a Hollywood maverick blessed with steely self-confidence and a prickly intelligence. "When I was still in college, I had run across Burton's translations of Indian and Arabic erotic literature. Then I discovered his anthropology books about all sorts of obscure tribes and cultures. And only later still did I realize he was an explorer too."

Rafelson laughed. "So I guess you could say I became obsessed with him in stages."

It's easy to see why Rafelson, whose films explore moody eroticism ("Black Widow") and social anthropology ("Stay Hungry"), views Burton as a kindred spirit.

What the two men share most is a lust for adventure. Despite all his incredible feats, Burton could never boast that he broke his arms on a sheet of ice in Nepal or brought back poison hunting darts from a remote jungle in South America.

Those achievements belong to Rafelson, a restless character who prefers Africa's desert savannah to any Bel-Air back yard. He is certainly the only Hollywood director who once went so far up the Amazon that when he arrived in a tiny village, all the locals stopped to gawk, having never seen a white man before.

Rafelson's travels, which include a trek to Kashmir and a 1,500-mile walk through West Africa, prepared him for the rigors of making "Mountains of the Moon," which was largely shot on location in Kenya's arid wilderness. But they also came in handy when he shot a series of scenes with the Turkana tribe that inhabited a remote patch of African grasslands.

"None of the tribesmen really understood English, so I'd work through a translator," Rafelson said, lighting up the first of many cigarettes. "But I'd been there several years before and actually taken in by someone in the tribe.

"When I was giving them instructions, I told them how much hospitality I'd received when I'd been there before--and suddenly a man in the back of the crowd stood up and said, 'That was me. I remember taking you in!' So I immediately cast him as the king of the tribe."

Rafelson wagged his head. "To be honest, it probably wasn't really him. But how could I refuse--he looked perfect for the part."

An engaging guy with blunt features and the lean, sinewy build of an aging tennis pro, Rafelson drives a gray 1970 GTO and has a Hollywood Hills home crowded with artifacts from his travels ("Almost all bargained for, not bought" he says proudly). At 56, he's one of the sturdiest survivors of the Hollywood outlaw generation that spawned Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and Harry Dean Stanton.

After youthful stints as a rodeo rider and jazz drummer, he ended up in Los Angeles in the late '60s, where he teamed up with producer Bert Schneider to present the original "Monkees" TV show (they also co-produced "Easy Rider" and "The Last Picture Show").

Given a chance to direct, he made "Head," a surreal cult film starring the Monkees (and co-written by Nicholson) that led to "Five Easy Pieces," which won an Oscar nomination in 1970. In 1976, he directed "Stay Hungry," which introduced American audiences to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But Rafelson's career has been plagued by long dry spells. He only made two films in the '80s, "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Black Widow." At the beginning of the decade he was slated to direct "Brubaker," but conflicts with Robert Redford forced him off the project. More recently, Rafelson spent several years unsuccessfully putting together a film version of Peter Matthiessen's "At Play in the Fields of the Lord." (He also developed a film called "Air America" that was interrupted by the 1988 writers strike.)

"Bob is full of complexities," an old studio-executive pal explained. "He's bright--but not in an effete way. He's incredibly tough. When you give Bob a free rein he can really make magic--look at the movies he's made. His only problem is he hasn't made enough of them. He'll get completely fixated on one thing and then when the project falls through, he's at a loss of where to go next. He's not the type of guy who'll just take an assignment."

It's possible Rafelson lost out on some projects because of his reputation as a stubborn perfectionist. But he may have missed opportunities simply because no one could find him.

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