It starts innocently enough: a handsome, charming man meets a beautiful bookstore clerk, and the two fall in love and marry. They have an exotic honeymoon before returning to the man’s marble palace in Ceylon. Unaware that she had married a millionaire, it appears that all of the lovely bride’s wishes have come true–that is, until the elephants show up.
So begins William Dieterle’s drama Elephant Walk, released by Paramount in 1954. Soon after John Wiley (Peter Finch) brings his new bride, Ruth (Elizabeth Taylor), back to his family’s wildly successful Ceylon tea plantation, she discovers that the house was built in the middle of the “Elephant Walk,” the path that the elephants in the region use to get to their water source. John’s father stubbornly (and cruelly) built the house in its location, knowing that he would be disrupting the elephants’ path to water. Although the senior Wiley passed years before her arrival, Ruth is constantly haunted by his lingering presence. A study devoted to his memory remains locked at all times, barring entrance to anyone other than his loyal servant, Appuhamy (Abraham Sofaer). As if that were not unsettling enough, Appuhamy continues to speak to his former employer daily at his grave, which is located directly outside Ruth’s window.
Known for being a ruthless and unfeeling man, the elder Wiley even went so far as to leave a large sum of money to be used to hold festivals annually at the estate for the villagers to pay tribute to him through song and dance. Ruth is nearly driven mad by her husband’s devotion to his deceased father’s strict standards for running the estate. When her new husband begins neglecting her as a result of his will to maintain the plantation as his father would wish, Ruth is drawn to the charming Dick Carver (Dana Andrews), her husband’s best friend and second-hand man on the plantation. The two plan to leave Ceylon together until a deadly epidemic of cholera breaks out on the plantation, claiming the lives of many of the tea workers and household servants. Ignoring the ever-looming threat of the determined elephants, Ruth stays behind in order to help her husband manage the estate and aid as many villagers as possible.
Elephant Walk may be remembered today more for the drama behind the scenes than for what made it onto the screen. Interestingly, the role of Ruth Wiley was originally intended for Vivien Leigh, and her then-husband, Laurence Olivier, was considered for the part of John Wiley, though he ultimately passed on making the film. Unfortunately, it was during the filming of Elephant Walk that Leigh suffered a breakdown as a result of mental illness. Although Taylor took over the role (and did so beautifully), some of the long shots used in the film are still of Leigh. I can’t help but wonder how Leigh’s presence would have changed the film. Leigh had the ability to be so defiant yet fragile in her character portrayals. It is no surprise that she was originally cast to play Ruth, a beautiful yet isolated character. It’s almost as if Taylor is too strong and confident for this role. When John neglects and abuses Ruth, it’s hard to imagine Taylor’s version of the character realistically staying with him.
Elephant Walk has been recently released on MOD (manufactured on demand) DVD through the Warner Archive. Though typically bare-bones like most MOD releases, this edition of the film does provide a scene selection option, and subtitles are available in English. Though the disc boasts no extras, it features a fine print of the film which highlights the breathtaking Sri Lanka landscape, brought to vivid life through the wonders of Technicolor.
Overall, Elephant Walk is a truly enjoyable film. The story is intriguing, and the acting–particularly by the lead trio–simply superb. It is nearly impossible not to feel for both the animal and human suffering depicted within the film. Several of the sequences throughout the film are beautifully composed; the destruction of the marble palace (as detailed on the back cover of the DVD–spoiler alert!) is particularly powerful, and greatly reminded me of the burning of Manderley in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca–fitting, as Elephant Walk ultimately shares a similar “haunted by the past” theme.
True Classics thanks Warner Archive for providing a copy of Elephant Walk for the purposes of this review.