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ELEPHANT WALK(director: William Dieterle; screenwriter: from the novel by Robert Standish/John Lee Mahin; cinematographer: Loyal Griggs; editor: George Tomasini; music: Franz Waxman; cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Ruth Wiley), Dana Andrews (Dick Carver), Peter Finch (John Wiley), Abraham Sofaer (Appuhamy), Abner Biberman (Dr. Pereira), Noel Drayton (Planter Atkinson); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Irving Asher; Paramount Home Video; 1954)
“Nothing more than a mundane soap opera melodrama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

William Dieterle (“Volcano”/”Fog over Frisco”/”From Headquarters”) directs this leisurely paced romantic drama without giving it much spark. After shooting on location in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) for several weeks the film’s original leading lady, Vivien Leigh, married to Laurence Olivier, had an affair with co-star Peter Finch and suffered a nervous breakdown. She was replaced by Elizabeth Taylor at double the salary. It’s based on a novel by Robert Standish and the dry screenplay is by John Lee Mahin.

Wealthy middle-aged Ceylon tea planter John Wiley (Peter Finch) comes to England to take back a bride. In a brief two week romance he woos the beautiful Shillingworth-on-Thames book shop clerk Ruth Wiley (Elizabeth Taylor) and the strangers marry. Ruth in Ceylon suffers from cultural shock as she discovers that she’s the only white woman in the vast mansion. She also discovers that the opulent house was deliberately built forty years ago by John’s stubborn adventurer father Tom, affectionately called “the Guv’nor” by his fawning admirers, across an “elephant walk” and the elephants, who never forget, are still angry. They would tear down the place, except for the native guards who keep them on the move when they approach the grounds. Tom, in his vanity, is buried with a splendid gravestone on the front lawn, while his wife who couldn’t stand Ceylon is buried in England.

Ruth might not have any more money problems, but she does have problems other than in just dealing with the bad vibes from the elephants and the household that is dominated by passionate memories of her dead father-in-law. To her dismay, she finds the exotic tea plantation is filled with sexless good ole boys from England, permanent guests of the master, whom he drinks and plays games with every evening. The dedicated head servant Appuhamy (Abraham Sofaer), who is in charge of the many servants, yearns for the past and makes Ruth feel like an outsider. The one man Ruth meets who is sensitive, the American overseer, Dick Carver (Dana Andrews), has a nice chat with her but leaves the next day to work in Paris. Dick has fallen in love with her on first sight and he tells her to write if she would ever need his help.

Ruth grows increasingly bored as hubby ignores his trophy wife for work and to play childish games with his planter guests. One evening, John fractures his leg while drunkenly playing bicycle polo and is confined to his bed. This gives Ruth the excuse to bring Dick back, and the two find each other alone when out checking the tea leaves. She plans to leave with Dick to Paris as soon as her hubby recovers and could run the plantation by himself.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

In the third act, things finally explode in the steamy jungle. Cholera breaks out and the native villages must be burned down for hygienic reasons. Then the elephants, taking advantage of the absence of the native guards to push them back, march down their old stomping grounds. Ruth, who was working as a nurse, is asleep from exhaustion in the deserted mansion when the angry elephants tear down the plantation walls and rush the house. This causes a fire to erupt; John finishes burying the natives dead from cholera and heroically rescues Ruth, as the rain starts. Elephant Walk burns to the ground, but John and Ruth embrace and vow to start over again in a new place. Why they should start over is not all that clear to me, since they showed no chemistry for each other and her love for him seems more maternal than wifely.

It’s nothing more than a mundane soap opera melodrama. Despite the mostly bad reviews, the film did surprisingly well at the box office.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”