A screenplay by Bart Gavigan and André Pieterse
Fort Denver, Colorado, 1871
Henry Stanley crashes from his bunk as he wakes from a vivid nightmare. In his twenties, he is still haunted by a traumatic childhood and his experiences during the American Civil War.
As a journalist for the New York Herald, Stanley photographs the lynching of an American Indian by a troop of Union soldiers. The saloon brawl that follows tells that no love is lost between Stanley and his racist hosts. Bruised and barely conscious, Stanley is "banished" from the Fort and rudely deposited on a river ferry.
New York Herald Building, New York
James Gordon Bennett, Stanley's editor, does not share Stanley's concern for the American Indians. He has another, more newsworthy assignment for the journalist: Go to Africa and find the "missing" British missionary explorer, Dr David Livingstone, whom he suspects has evidence of Britain's collusion in the East African slave trade. Stanley is not keen on the idea at first. His childhood experience of clerics left him hating them with a vengeance. Bennett insists, and as Stanley is not in a position to be choosy, he agrees to go, determined to pursue his own agenda of exposing Livingstone - "the greatest missionary since St Paul" - as a fraud.
Maryland, United States
Stanley's first lead is Martha Foxton, the fiancée of Livingstone's son Robert who was killed fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Martha tells Stanley of the animosity between Robert and his father, brought on by Livingstone's severe neglect of his family. When Stanley hears that for all his fame as a missionary, Livingstone had yet to make a single convert in Africa, the journalist sees a scoop in the making. He also sees a unique opportunity to vindicate his convictions concerning men of the cloth. As he leaves, Martha gives him a published copy of David Livingstone's Private Journal - Volume I which he starts to read aboard ship to Africa.
Kuruman, South Africa, 1841 [flash-back]
After a five week journey, a young Doctor David Livingstone arrives by ox wagon from Cape Town. Lodging with the resident missionary, Rev Robert Moffat and his family, David's naive optimism is soon in contrast with Moffat's realism. David contends that the local population is too sparse for successful evangelism, and that the tribes to the north would present a better mission field.
David is attracted to Moffat's daughter Mary; however, she argues with him over the cultural factors that make conventional missions difficult in Africa. Suddenly their discourse is interrupted by a howl: Mujaji, the Moffats' young servant girl, has gone into labour - but there are complications. David tries to help Mujaji where she lies in grass hut, but he is attacked by several African witches who believe mother and baby should be left to die, as the complications show that they are cursed. Susi, a trusted convert of Moffat, comes to David's rescue when the witches set the hut on fire. David delivers the baby and carries mother and child through the flames. However, when Mujaji rejects her own child, David becomes poignantly aware of the incompatibilities between Europe and Africa. The scene closes as David, cradling the infant in his arms, proposes to Mary Moffat.
Stanley arrives by boat at the East African island of Zanzibar to prepare for his expedition in search of Livingstone. The panorama before him is horrific and the noise at the slave market is deafening as a multitude of African slaves are treated like cattle by their Arab captors. Stanley loses his cool when Sewji, an Arab slave trader, whips a young boy. In the ensuing stand-off, Stanley is rescued by John Kirk, British Consul to Zanzibar.
Amidst the commotion, Stanley sees a baby being taken by force from a newly captive slave girl and given to a young white woman. Again trying to intervene, Stanley hears from Kirk that the woman is Kirk's daughter Alice and that she is in fact saving the baby from being "simply thrown overboard as soon as the slave ship leaves Zanzibar's harbour".
As Stanley and Kirk leave the Sultan of Zanzibar's palace after Stanley's reception (who pretends to be a botanist), the Sultan instructs Tippu Tib, his sinister subaltern and controller of the slave trade, to ensure that Stanley does not live long enough to reach David Livingstone. The Sultan knows that should the journalist publish the evidence gathered by Livingstone, the result would devastate his lucrative slave industry.
Lodging at the British Consulate, Stanley learns from Alice Kirk that Europe cares little for the 40,000 slaves that leave Zanzibar for the Middle East every year. Later, a hooded figure enters Stanley's bedroom by the window. Waking with revolver in hand, Stanley realises his visitor is Susi, David Livingstone's loyal African servant and friend. Stanley hears that Livingstone is alive and is accepting supplies from Tippu Tib. Fired by this news, Stanley goes about assembling supplies and transport for his expedition, trusting that Susi will lead him to Livingstone and that exposure of the cleric will follow.
Stanley, Alice Kirk, Susi and the boy Lazarus (who had been whipped in the slave market) arrive at the Bagamoyo Orphanage on the African coast, across the Strait of Zanzibar. Run by the eccentric French Father Laval, the orphanage cares for children orphaned by the slave trade. It is to be Lazarus' new home. Here Stanley meets the Faithfuls - a dozen Africans who had accompanied Burton and Speke on their expedition, and whom Father Laval had arranged to now accompany Stanley.
Back in Zanzibar and quite optimistic about his mission, Stanley is waylaid in a dark alley and forced to witness a bizarre and violent ritual involving a female seer, Sewji and an Egyptian cobra. Tippu Tib oversees this event - clearly intended to dissuade Stanley from his planned expedition. But Tippu's "dissuasions" have no effect.
As the Sultan of Zanzibar reads a very impressive list of Stanley's provisions, it appears that he has more than he needs, except bearers - he needs several hundred to carry all his goods. Tippu Tib counsels that the Sultan should arrange bearers for Stanley so that Tippu can kill him in the jungle once he has left Zanzibar.
In the meantime, Lazarus has vanished from the orphanage - another of Tippu's "warnings"? Before Stanley leaves Zanzibar, he and Alice appear romantically involved and she tells him of her admiration for Livingstone. He leaves her a letter to read after his departure.
A column of awesome proportions creeps towards the jungle from the coast. Hampered by torrential rain, near impassable rivers and skulduggery concocted by Tippu Tib, Stanley is irritated but not deterred. As he traverses the wilds of Africa, Stanley's motives become more evident: He wants to prove that Livingstone - like all who call themselves Christian - is a hypocrite and a fraud. In the process, Stanley's atheism contrasts with the superstition of his travel companions - superstition which is fertile soil for Tippu's continuing mischief.
During their arduous trek, Stanley's column come across a group of injured and abandoned slaves - with Lazarus among them - orchestrated by Tippu Tib to delay Stanley. Suddenly Mirambo, a fearsome tribal chief, and his warriors come on the scene and Stanley must negotiate an extremely delicate stand-off. After an evening feast of grand proportions, Stanley believes he has secured assistance for the injured slaves from Mirambo and that the expedition should proceed with haste. Susi disagrees, and the tension between him and Stanley shows that Stanley's drive to find Livingstone outweighs his compassion for the injured Africans they encountered.
Meanwhile, Tippu Tib is in surreptitious pursuit of Stanley's column, but he too is hampered by the terrain. Tippu's complete lack of compassion becomes increasingly clear in the process.
Delirious with some tropical fever, Stanley again suffers a nightmare flash-back to his childhood trauma. He is tended by Susi, who tells Stanley of David Livingstone's journey with his family through the Kalahari Desert.
Kalahari Desert, Southern Africa [flash-back]
David and Mary Livingstone, their baby daughter, their son Robert and Susi face a vicious sandstorm and intense heat as they attempt to cross the desert northwards by ox wagon. Only Susi's ingenuity saves them from dying of thirst when he uses their oxen's instinct to find water. However, their baby daughter does not survive the ordeal and the scene ends with the survivors gathered round a tiny grave on the bank of a broad river. Through it all, Robert has been regarding his father with growing antipathy.
Stanley's Expedition (continued)
At Susi's insistence, Stanley decides to return to the village to see if chief Mirambo has kept his word. They arrive to find the village deserted and the injured slaves slaughtered. Lazarus seems to be the sole survivor. Stanley struggles with feelings of guilt for not heeding Susi's warnings concerning Mirambo.
Stanley's column, less a number of deserters, arrive at the fortified city of Simbamweni (the Lion City). The city is ruled by the Sultana, a woman of epic proportions. She has imprisoned some of Stanley's deserters as spies and requires a ransom to prevent their execution.
It is night in Simbamweni. The Sultana's warriors are preparing to unleash swarms of flesh-eating driver ants near the prisoners who have been buried up to their necks and honey poured over their heads. Stanley and his comrades devise a makeshift plan to rescue the hapless men from a horrible fate. Their scheme succeeds and has the added benefit of deifying them in the eyes of Simbamweni's inhabitants. After their departure, Tippu Tib arrives at the city and is furious that Stanley continues to elude him.
Back at Bagamoyo Orphanage, Alice Kirk has read Stanley's letter in which he reveals his quest to expose Livingstone. She is angry at him for leaving her and disillusioned with the news of his motives. Despite Father Laval's attempt to persuade her to stay, she decides to call it a day and go back to London.
Meanwhile, Stanley's bearers are deserting hand over fist and morale is low as they tortuously cut their way through the jungle. The next moment, in complete juxtaposition typical of Africa, they come upon a lake village inhabited by beautiful pearl-diving women. Some of Stanley's companions, notably Able Seaman Charles Shaw (whom Stanley enlisted in Zanzibar), proceed to misbehave, but Stanley's Winchester rifle quickly reforms them.
Suddenly, as Stanley and Shaw are settling their differences, the village is attacked by Tippu Tib and his band. Stanley and a small number of his men escape, but Shaw is killed, as is Bombay - one of the Faithfuls - who takes a bullet meant for Stanley. The battle is short but hectic and spectacular.
Stanley presses on - depressed, fevered, fatigued and plagued by diverse insects, crocodiles, near impassable jungle and still more desertions. He is clearly driven by something more than a journalist in search of a story. In the scenes that follow, Stanley's psyche ranges from selective compassion to driven fanaticism. His childhood trauma again surfaces as his mettle is tested by a very hostile environment. He proceeds to read further in Livingstone's journal, determined to learn as much as possible about his "prey".
Chonuane, Southern Africa [flash-back]
The Livingstone family have lived among King Sechele and his people in the village of Chonuane for six years. David is exasperated with his lack of missionary success and wants to go north in search of a river which he believes holds the key to unlocking the door of Africa so that the light of the gospel and European civilisation can enter Africa's "dark" hinterland. David, Susi and Robert go north.
Mabotsa, Southern Africa [flash-back]
Livingstone and Susi have been told of a man-eater lion that has been terrorising the area surrounding a small village. They go in search of the lion. Suddenly the lion leaps from a thicket and attacks David and Susi in turn. The young Robert watches in horror. Although the men are badly injured, both survive, with David owing his life and the use of his arm to Susi's urinating into his wounds to stave off infection. Young Robert is caught between antipathy and fear that his father may not survive.
A severe drought has been ravaging the Chonuane area, and when Mary's desperate appeal for rain is followed by a cloudburst, she is hailed as the tribe's new "rain doctor" and showered with gifts. Just then, David and Susi return from their Mabotsa reconnaissance mission. David's arrogance and lack of compassion is evident as he berates his wife for not refusing the gifts and rather giving God the glory for the rain (which in fact she had done, moments before David arrived). The event has the effect of adding to the growing resentment Robert feels for his father.
King Sechele then comes to David to be baptised and to repent of his polygamy. Livingstone pompously accepts his confession on behalf of God Himself. When Sechele later reverts to his old ways, David decides to leave Chonuane with his family, shaking the dust from his boots as he steps over Sechele's prostrate body. A pregnant Mary would have preferred to stay in Chonuane. Instead, Livingstone sends his family back to London to be cared for by the London Mission Society.
Stanley's Expedition (continued)
Of the almost 200 men that left Zanzibar, barely 30 utterly fatigued souls remain in Stanley's motley company and it seems the jungle will succeed where Tippu Tib has failed. To add to their trials, Stanley's band is decimated by a herd of stampeding elephants driven by Tippu Tib and his men. Only Stanley, Susi and a handful of men escape.
Caught even as they were fleeing the elephants, Stanley and his few companions are held in the prison of Kwihara, a village inhabited by Arab-African settlers. Mirambo is waging war against the settlers in the region. Thani bin Abdullah, leader of the Arab-African settlers, believes that Tippu Tib will come to his aid against Mirambo.
Thani is visibly shaken when Stanley informs him that Mirambo and Tippu are in league. Stanley then offers to help defend Kwihara against Mirambo, and in exchange requires his freedom and Livingstone's supply caravan which has been waylaid in Kwihara for months. Thani agrees the terms and Stanley proceeds with an ingenious plan to defend Kwihara.
Amidst the activity, one of Tippu Tib's female spies very nearly succeeds in poisoning Stanley, but thanks to the vigilant Susi, the danger is turned to opportunity.
Mirambo's warriors commence their attack on Kwihara while he and Tippu Tib watch from a safe distance. It is a surreal battle scene of epic proportions as Stanley's ingenuity pays off handsomely. Aided by fireworks and a bagpipe and so capitalising on the superstition of the enemy, Stanley and his men leave Kwihara for Ujiji - where Livingstone is. Again Stanley reads in Livingstone's journal.
Cambridge University, England [flash-back]
David Livingstone is on a public speaking tour of England to drum up support for his Zambezi River expedition. Spurred on by standing ovations and basking in public support, David takes serious liberty with the facts in claiming that the entire Zambezi River is freely navigable and that he has an antidote for malaria. Mary and Robert are in the audience, listening in disbelief.
Afterwards, Mary meets David in the university library. When he discovers that she has turned to alcohol in her distress and reprimands her for it, she indicts David for abandoning her and his family in London where they are dependant on the charity of others while he cares only for Africa. His fame as an explorer has replaced his calling as a missionary.
Stanley's Expedition (continued)
Stanley finally arrives at Ujiji and meets Livingstone with the famous greeting' "Doctor Livingstone, I presume". The Doctor, knowing the endurance and cost involved, can hardly believe that Stanley's sole purpose was to find him. In the scenes that follow, Stanley's preconceptions about Livingstone are barely veiled by a veneer of journalistic craft. Determined to vindicate his private notions, Stanley calmly places the evidence of Livingstone's failures before the old man with calculated cruelty. Finally Livingstone acknowledges his failures and starts to recount the most painful of all - his Zambezi expedition.
Zambezi River Expedition [flash-back]
Livingstone's consuming passion to find an artery so that European "blood" may flow into Africa's "heart of darkness" has put him on a collision course with a topographic reality: The Zambezi River is by no means navigable along its entire route.
As he, Mary, a younger John Kirk and the rest of his vaunted expedition try to free their small river steamer from a mud bank, the tone moves from problematic to pathetic. Tropical heat, mosquitoes, malaria, obstacles in the river and hostile natives all conspire to create a nightmare scene in which Livingstone's stubborn arrogance appears increasingly irrational.
Arriving at their destination upstream - a village where they were to meet missionaries whom he had arranged to come overland - Livingstone's party encounters only death and decay. The area is not habitable and all the missionaries have died of fever. Still, Livingstone refuses to accept that he has made a terrible mistake by not reconciling his dreams with reality. When Mary dies of fever later that day, David seems to finally come to his senses.
As Livingstone relives the tragedies of the Zambezi, Stanley continues with his private agenda, not swayed by the old man's obvious remorse. However, that night Stanley struggles with his conscience.
Suddenly, violence erupts in Ujiji as Tippu Tib enters the village in search of Stanley and to collect more slaves. A stand-off ensues when Livingstone and Stanley obstruct Tippu's purpose, with Stanley risking his life to save the slaves. All seems lost as Stanley is disarmed and most of Ujiji's population is herded away as slaves. Livingstone is given an ultimatum to release the rest of the villagers to Tippu Tib by the next morning.
As a last resort, Susi runs through the night to Kwihara to seek help from Thani bin Abdullah. Susi and Thani arrive the next morning - not a moment too soon. Tippu Tib and his raiders are utterly destroyed by a herd of stampeding elephants driven by Thani and Susi. Tippu dies as he is run through by the tusk of an enraged bull elephant.
Stanley prepares to leave Ujiji and tries to persuade Livingstone to come back to England. Livingstone elects to remain in Africa and to continue his mission of assisting the sick and destitute.
Stanley has published Livingstone's documented reports of the ongoing East African slave trade. Many in London, especially those with vested interests, refuse to accept these reports. Even Alice Kirk shuns Stanley when he first approaches her.
As Stanley makes his acceptance speech at the American Embassy where a medal of honour is to be bestowed on him, he confesses his real motive for going to Africa. He also confesses that he is not an American citizen but the son of a Denbighshire prostitute, raised in an orphanage by unscrupulous clerics.
Instead of vilifying Livingstone, he exposes himself as the fraud and hypocrite and extols Livingstone's compassion for the people of Africa and suggests to a stunned audience that he, Livingstone, be given the medal! Interspersed with Stanley's speech are gripping scenes of Livingstone's embalmed body being carried for nine months and a 1,000 miles out of Africa by Susi and other of the Doctor's loyal African companions so that David Livingstone may be buried in the land of his ancestors.
As Stanley leaves the embassy, Alice follows him; and despite Stanley's warnings of an uncertain future should she wish to join with him, Alice kisses him.
Amidst a 21-gun salute, a ship arrives at Southampton Docks bearing Livingstone's body. All of London is gripped by the event of Livingstone's funeral at Westminster Abbey.
As they stand outside the Abbey amidst a crowd of mourners, Stanley and Alice hear newsboys scream that the Royal Navy has closed Zanzibar's slave market in honour of David Livingstone. Inside the cathedral, Susi places a cup of tea beside an open grave.