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Timeless Scenes Offer a Window On Lives of Lions

THREE lions lap water at the edge of a pool in Africa. Ominous music swells as narrator Boyd Matson's voice, dark with forboding, is heard: ``Their boldness rips through the night as they drink for the first time from the richness of a forbidden paradise.''

Later, when the lions are seen ranging afield, the narrator says, ``Like gallant knights in medieval legend, the lions of darkness stake out their territory.''

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If a nature film's credibility can survive purple flourishes like those, it must be good, and this one is. ``Lions of Darkness,'' an impressive two-part documentary, opens the 10th season of National Geographic Explorer on TBS, airing Aug. 21 and 28 at 9 p.m. (please check local listings).

Three young male lions, siblings, take over a territory in Botswana's Chobe National Park, winning a harem of females and siring many cubs. Their story has been carefully constructed out of powerful and authentic scenes culled from masses of footage by the renowned filmmakers Derek and Beverly Joubert.

The result is a stirring example of what happens when animal observers with high integrity are allowed artistic freedom in the pursuit of good storytelling. We've come a long way from the days of Disney's early nature films, those gleeful entertainments that used ``creative'' editing and narration to superimpose silly plots on scenes of animal life. I can still see scorpions ``square-dancing'' and prairie dogs acting like residents of a small Midwestern town.

The best nature films these days may employ a story line, but without a concocted scenario. The palpably real drama in a film like ``Lions of Darkness'' grows from the material itself. The Jouberts demonstrated this with memorable success in their earlier film ``Lions and Hyenas,'' a stark, elemental study of ancient enemies that traced a clear story line through its footage.

Naturalist Cynthia Moss once told me that the lives of elephants can be ``a soap opera.'' In her brilliant TV film ``Echo of the Elephants,'' she likened elephant herds to a big family reunion, where individuals experience joy, concern, and sometimes even a wistful memory of ancestors. Many would see misleading human analogies in such interpretations, but lately some animal behaviorists have acknowledged the legitimacy of a controlled and insightful anthropomorphism.

In ``Lions of Darkness,'' an epic with quasi-human overtones, the obvious realism handily overcomes any such concerns. It also makes up for melodramatic music and gushy narrative (well-read by Matson, the new host of the series), because the material itself is so true and and so hard-won. With admirable patience and insight, the Jouberts have shot some 1 million feet of film, beginning well before their work for this program. They set up life in the bush 13 years ago and at times live for days in their customized land cruiser.

Viewers learn this from little scenes within ``Lions of Darkness'' that deal with the Jouberts' filmmaking. As we follow them on their treks after dark, they are accompanied by the resonant-voiced Matson, a little touch of show business in the night. These behind-the-scenes looks put us at several removes from the engrossing subject matter itself: At times we're watching Matson watch the Jouberts as they set about watching lions. Yet these sections are useful, reinforcing the respect viewers will feel for the Jouberts' commitment to their calling.

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The meat of the film, though, is the lions' story, made up of struggle, domination, life, and death. You watch engrossed, for instance, as the old male loses control of his domain and then hangs about in the distance, a decrepit figure posing a threat to new cubs and trying haplessly to reassert dominance. Before the film is over, you realize you're witnessing a myth - one that you feel somehow you already knew and are now seeing ritually acted out. It's an experience not easily put out of mind.

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