Paramount // 1954 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // October 14th, 2005
One man claimed the land. Two men claimed the woman who lived there.
What do you call a movie that takes the trouble to go all the way to exotic Ceylon and then bogs down in a run-of-the-mill soap opera love triangle? Elephant Walk.
When humble London book shop owner Ruth (Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra, The Flintstones, Ivanhoe) marries wealthy tea plantation owner John Wiley (Peter Finch, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), A Bequest to the Nation) she leaves her old life behind and follows him to his extensive plantation in British Ceylon. Upon her arrival, she finds her new home dominated by two major forces. The first is the memory of John's father Tom, the founder of Elephant Walk plantation, known to his friends and admirers as "the Governor." Since the Governor's death, his friends and loyal servants have constructed around him a creepy cult of personality. Chief among the keepers of Tom Wiley's legend is Apuhamy (Abraham Sofaer, Chisum, The Naked Jungle), who prays daily at the old master's grave, continues to order the old master's favorite liquors and cigars, and views the new Mrs. Wiley as a threat to Elephant Walk's traditions and way of life.
The other major force, lurking just beyond the walls of the plantation's swanky bungalow, is the elephants themselves. Tom Wiley defied nature by building his palatial home squarely in an ancient elephant right-of-way leading to the local water supply -- the "elephant walk" which gives the plantation its name. The elephants have menaced the sprawling plantation ever since, and the masters of Elephant Walk have relied on their loyal native servants to drive the beasts away should they ever get ornery.
Ruth lives as a complete outsider in the world of Elephant Walk, ignored while her husband carries on with his cronies and his father's, engaging in drunken revelry and indoor, bicycle-mounted games of polo. She finds a sole friend in Dick Carver (Dana Andrews, The Best Years of Our Lives, Crash Dive). Carver is an American, a friend of John's and a trusted manager of the plantation. However, Carver has no time for the hoodoo surrounding the Tom Wiley's sainted memory. Ruth and Dick grow close, and clearly harbor feelings for each other, forming a love triangle in the midst of the madness of Elephant Walk.
Elephant Walk is one of Elizabeth Taylor's lesser-known films, and with good reason. This potentially interesting jungle romp drowns in a dishpan full of sudsy, generic parts. There is one particularly good scene, however. (Spoiler-averse readers may want to skip this part.) The destruction of the grand plantation bungalow by rampaging elephants is one of the more creative scenes of mass destruction I've seen in a while. Unfortunately, it's not enough to save this surprisingly conventional and uninteresting drama. After all, this is a film about personality cults and elephants with grudges, and it spends most of its running time on a conflict between Ruth and her new husband who still wants to be just one of the boys. Not helping matters is the score by Franz Waxman that makes the film sound like one long Star Trek episode, complete with the faux-ominous "danger horns" and various other appallingly un-subtle flourishes.
Taylor's breathy, pouty, stiff performance does little to enhance her image as a legendary actress and movie star. Instead, she rather disturbingly comes off as a brunette version of Marilyn Monroe, her hair color and accent preventing a descent into total vapidity. Granted, the spats over domestic issues like menus and supply purchases give her precious little to work with, nor does the predictable love triangle subplot do her any favors. Her leading men don't do much to upstage her, turning in one-note performances that could just as well have been delivered by Western Union. Dana Andrews is stolid and likeable as usual, but seems bored with the whole affair. Peter Finch does passably well in his thankless role, but fails to convince the viewer of his character's passion for the family plantation.
Paramount has released Elephant Walk as part of its "Full-Screen Collection." Information is sketchy, but this appears to be the original aspect ratio; the IMDb lists an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, but this seems unlikely given the movie's vintage. Elephant Walk may be a nearly-forgotten film, but that does not excuse the appalling technical quality on display on this DVD. The picture suffers from numerous source defects, including many nicks and scratches, a generally dirty appearance, and discolored film elements. Other problems may be the fault of the source print or carelessness in the transfer process. The image is often very soft, taking on a gauzy or foggy look. Backgrounds show headache-inducing strobing and flickering. Some surfaces, such as Taylor's white silk robe show distracting shimmer and crawl. Worst of all, colors flicker and shift frequently, usually in the background, but often (as in Chapter 6) in flesh tones of actors in medium shot. Topping it off is a mono audio track demonstrating considerable hiss at all times.
As if all this weren't bad enough, there are exactly zero (0) special features in evidence.
There are so many tantalizing bits to this movie: the personality cult of Tom "Governor" Wiley, the threatening presence of the elephants, John Wiley's mercurial behavior towards his wife, the exotic location, the waning days of British colonial influence. One can only imagine what a director more skilled in intrigue and suspense could have done with the material. Hitchcock, for example, would have had a field day with this story -- he would have injected a far more sinister sensibility and made both the memory of the elder Wiley and the pent-up rage of the elephants truly menacing. In the right hands, Elephant Walk's story elements could have made for a tale as creepy and compelling as Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. As it stands, Elephant Walk shortchanges the most interesting elements of the story in favor of a focus on domestic melodrama and red herrings about insubordinate servants.
According to lore available at the IMDb and elsewhere, Vivien Leigh was originally slated as the female lead in Elephant Walk and can still be seen from the back and in some long shots. (I couldn't pick her out, but then again I didn't exactly try that hard.) Apparently the burning of Atlanta was sufficient mayhem for Ms. Leigh, and she missed out on its bizarre, elephant-engineered counterpart.
Guilty! This tedious jungle soap opera manages even to suck any enjoyment out of its imaginatively destructive climax. Paramount has given this film exactly the lousy DVD it deserves.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated