Elephant Walk (1954): Dieterle’s Melodrama Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Finch, and Elephants

Vivien Leigh, the original leading lady of William Dieterle’s adventure melodrama, Elephant Walk, had to be replaced due to sickness by Elizabeth Taylor, when the film was well in production.

Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

Elephant Walk
Elephant Walk 1954.jpg

Theatrical rerelease poster

It is based upon the 1948 novel Elephant Walk by “Robert Standish,” pseudonym of the English novelist Digby George Gerahty (1898–1981).

It was originally intended to star the husband-and-wife team of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, but Olivier was already committed to The Beggar’s Opera. Leigh remained enthusiastic, but she was forced to withdraw from production shortly after filming began in Colombo, Ceylon, as a result of bipolar disorder.

Colonial tea planter John Wiley, visiting England at the end of World War II, weds Ruth and takes her home to Elephant Walk Bungalow, the plantation house built by his father in Ceylon.

They are stopped by a bull Indian elephant on their way to the house, which the angry John frightens away with gunshots. Ruth soon discovers John is still dominated by his dead father, “The Governor,” and that John’s mother was never happy at Elephant Walk. In fact, she left John’s father shortly after their marriage but returned to give birth, and eventually she died.

Ruth has a strained relationship with Apphuamy, the principal servant, whose real master continues to be the late “Governor.” The large portrait of “The Governor” is kept in his room, which has not been changed since the old man died; it’s always kept locked.

Elephant Walk is so named because his father, Tom Wiley, deliberately built it across the path of migration used by a herd of elephants to reach a water source. The elephants continue to attempt, but they are kept out by the walls and the servants.

Ruth’s initial delight with the tropical wealth and luxury of her new home is quickly tempered by her isolation as the district’s only European woman; by her husband’s imperious arrogance and angry outburst; by Appuhamy’s polite but insubordinate attitude toward her; by a mutual physical attraction with plantation manager Dick Carver; and by the ominous menace of the hostile elephants.

When the district is hit by a cholera epidemic, she makes herself indispensable as a relief worker. Appuhamy confesses to “The Governor” that he was wrong about the new mistress.

However, Ruth tells John that they must leave, as long as they stay at Elephant Walk, he will continue to be dominated by his dead father instead of becoming his own man.

The decision is made for them when the elephants manage to break through the wall and stampede onto the grounds, killing Appuhamy. Elephant Walk Bungalow is smashed and catches fire. The portrait of the Governor is seen burning, a symbol of the old regime.

John and Ruth escape as the house collapses around them. Dick Carver sees them together, finalky realizing that Ruth will never be his.

As John and Ruth look down upon Elephant Walk burning to the ground, it begins to rain. “I’m sorry”, she says. “I’m not”, he replies. “Let them have their Elephant Walk. Ruth, we’ll build a new place – a home – somewhere else!”

In the film’s last image, the bull elephant on the road (the beginning of the film) raises his trunk, and gives mighty trumpet call.

The climactic stampede, however, was disappointingly shot on a studio interior set, failing to qualify as a thrilling climax.

The saga offers some insights into the operation of tea plantations and the tea-making process.

Even so, the movie was popular at the box-office, solidifying Taylor’s status as a major star of the decade.

Gay Reading

Burdened with sexual symbolism, Elephant Walk has become sort of a cult movie among some gay male viewers, who perceive it for what it is, a glossy–and occasionally campy–soap opera.

Cast
Elizabeth Taylor as Ruth Wiley
Dana Andrews as Dick Carver, the manager of the plantation
Peter Finch as John Wiley, Ruth’s husband
Abraham Sofaer as Appuhamy, handyman of John’s father Tom
Noel Drayton as Chief Planter Atkinson
Abner Biberman as Doctor Pereira
Rosalind Ivan as Mrs. Lakin
Edward Ashley-Cooper as Planter Gordon Gregory
Barry Bernard as Planter Strawson
Philip Tonge as Planter John Ralph
Leo Britt as Planter Chisholm
Leslie Sketchley as Planter
Norma Varden as Shop Customer

Credits:

Directed by William Dieterle
Written by John Lee Mahin, based on Elephant Walk, 1948 novel by Robert Standish
Produced by Irving Asher
Cinematography Loyal Griggs
Edited by George Tomasini
Music by Franz Waxman

Production and distribution: Paramount Pictures

Release date: April 21, 1954

Running time: 103 minutes
Budget $3 million

DVD: July 12, 2005