`MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON'' is an epic in the old style: It's big. It's colorful. And it cares as much about its scenery as it does about the story. As a bonus, the story is true. It starts in England during the 19th century, when much of the world was unexplored, and the most adventurous profession you could choose was - of all things - geography. The heroes are two rugged geographers who want to find the source of the Nile River, a dangerous job that has defeated many explorers.
Adding to the challenge is the difference between the men themselves. Richard Burton (no relation to the late actor) is a serious scholar who's driven mainly by a thirst for knowledge. The other, John Hanning Speke, can't help also thinking about the fame and fortune a successful discovery might bring him. Together they journey into what was still called the ``dark continent,'' facing every hazard from bizarre illnesses to unfriendly natives. But the ultimate hurdle turns out to be back in England, where their different views of scientific accuracy lead to disagreement, argument, and tragedy.
The filmmakers spent months on African research for the picture. Their work has paid off: The settings always seem authentic as well as exotic. The movie also does a good job of bringing us into a bygone time - when the world appeared to be more mysterious than it does today, and the last frontier wasn't space or nuclear physics but the other side of the globe itself.
In light of these assets, people who enjoy old-fashioned stories and picturesque settings are going to love ``Mountains of the Moon,'' and I won't be surprised if it becomes the biggest hit so far this year. That doesn't mean I think it's a good movie, though. One huge problem is with the acting. Burton, the main character, is played by a British actor named Patrick Bergin, who's very handsome but also very stiff - more like a stolid Victorian than an exciting new star for the '90s. As the other hero, Iain Glen also makes little lasting impression. The rest of the cast is adequate, but nothing to get enthusiastic about.
The screenplay has difficulties, too. Especially in the first half, there are little scenes that promise excitement but don't go anywhere - they're in the movie to grab your attention, not to make the story more complex or interesting. And then there's the relentless music. Every time there's a hint of emotion in the film, it gushes out to make sure you don't miss the point.
The movie was directed by Bob Rafelson, whose other films include ``Five Easy Pieces'' the 1980 remake of ``The Postman Always Rings Twice,'' and the wretched ``Black Widow.'' Roger Deakins, a gifted cinematographer, did the camera work.