June 2013


Elephant Walk: Gold Movie of a Golden Era
June 2013




Elephant Walk was released on April 21, 1954 Photograph above: Detail from a poster for Elephant Walk

Words Richard Boyle


Sri Lanka was first used as a film location in 1925 when Henry Edwards directed the silent romance, One Colombo Night. In 1936, with the advent of sound, Jaws of the Jungle, concerning an horrific attack by "swarms of vicious vampire bats" on a Ceylon village, was directed by Eddie Granemann. And in 1938 the plantation drama Tea Leaves in the Wind was directed by Ward Wing.


This was the beginning of international film production in 
Sri Lanka. But, surprisingly, though the first three films were set on the Island this didn't signify a future trend, despite the number of foreign films shot here in recent decades (albeit many with Sri Lankan participation). In fact, apart from a few German-language productions, the only foreign English-language film - and a major Hollywood one at that - set here since those early days is the plantation drama Elephant Walk (1954). This is a major distinction, though a curious one.


World War II and its austere aftermath curtailed further foreign film production, so it wasn't until the early 1950s that recognised British and American directors arrived in force to make a handful of acclaimed films: Carol Reed's Outcast of the Islands (1951), Ken Annakin's The Planter's Wife (1952), the subject of this article, William Dieterle's Elephant Walk (1954), Muriel Box's The Beachcomber (1954), Robert Parrish's The Purple Plain (1954), and the best-known of all, David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). It was the golden era of Hollywood and British filmmaking in the country.


Elephant Walk, the most familiar film after Bridge, continues to provide an entertaining cinematic experience - in peerless Technicolour that enhances the Island's glorious hues - and has been selected as the SriLankan Airlines Gold Movie for June and July 2013. Apart from its quality, the production of the film caused different footnotes in the history of Cinema. Of the gossipy kind, there was a passionate off-screen romance, probably the most spellbinding to have occurred among stars during the history of location filming in Sri Lanka.


Most significantly, the dazzling female star suffered from bipolar disorder, which became exacerbated in the heady tropics. In case she couldn't last the production background "matte" shots were filmed to replicate those in which she had appeared, so that scenes could be re-enacted by a fresh actor in the studios using back-projection. It was a sensible precaution, for although she completed much of her role she didn't last the schedule. Her replacement never came to Ceylon, so accounts of the making of the film generally concern the tragic drama unfolding within the production.


To begin at the beginning, in 1952 Paramount Pictures purchased the rights of Elephant Walk, a novel by Robert Standish published in 1948. It's an example of the literary genre generated by coffee and tea cultivation in Ceylon, "the plantation drama", which began with William Knighton's Forest Life in Ceylon (1854) and continues to this day. The story is partly based on fact; a history of the Careys, a 19th Century pioneering British coffee-planting family. However, the business collapsed when St George Carey died aged just 28.


Briefly, it's a tale about a bride, Ruth, newly arrived from England, who has to contend with her tea planter husband, John Wiley, possessed with a father complex and an annoying arrogance; her physical attraction to the plantation manager Dick Carver; the fact that she is the only white woman in the district; and the rampages of a herd of elephants caused by Wiley's bungalow being built across their trail (the latter of acute relevance today).


Sir Laurence Olivier received a call from Paramount offering his wife, the awesome Vivien Leigh - winner of Oscars for "Scarlett O'Hara" in Gone with the Wind and "Blanche DuBois" in A Streetcar Named Desire - and himself the lead roles. Olivier was already committed to another project. However, Vivien, then 39, and already showing signs of her disorder, was free and willing. She persuaded Paramount to give the part of her screen husband to her lover the Australian actor Peter Finch (who had travelled in Ceylon as a boy).


Within a week Vivien and Peter Finch flew to Ceylon in January 1953 and were ushered to the Galle Face Hotel where they met the director, German-born William Dieterle, a WWI Luftwaffe pilot who later starred in many films he also directed. A commanding figure, he always wore a large hat and white gloves on set, the latter a mannerism from his days as an actor and director, when he needed to change roles quickly without dirtying his hands.


Luckily several noted Ceylonese documented their encounters with the film production and, of course, with Vivien in particular. Premnath Moraes, 
a production assistant, recounts that the first shots were taken at the Hindu Kovil, Sea Street "to give the film local colour" and at Colombo Airport, Ratmalana, to capture the couple's arrival after their marriage.


"I spent hours in my chair at the Galle Face Hotel where she stayed, which was in the direct line from the lift to the cashier's desk she appeared to visit more frequently than most people," commented Lanka's famed artist and bon vivant Bevis Bawa in Bevis Bawa's Brief (2011). "She fortunately did not trip over my feet but did drop a swizzle stick out of her bag when looking for her traveller's cheques." Bawa rescued the swizzle stick and they became friends for the rest of the production.


From Colombo the production moved to Polonnaruwa for a couple of days of filming before backtracking to Kandy, the base of operations for one month. The many scenes set at the Wiley Plantation were shot at Hantana Estate, where an expansive bungalow had been constructed for the climax of the film, the elephant stampede through the burning building.


The most exotic sequence of the film, staged at the picturesque King's Pavilion, is an extravagant Kandyan dance organised by Wiley for his wife. It features performers of the renowned dance school Madhyama Lanka Nritya Mandala, with the female solo by the specially-trained Hawaiian Mylee Houlani and the male solo by the finest oriental dancer, Ram Gopal.


Vivien's health began to deteriorate and Olivier was asked by the producer to fly to Ceylon as filming had ground to a virtual halt. Oliver obliged in haste. Paramount declared a holiday so that Vivien could meet him at Ratmalana. However, she decided he should come to meet her in Kandy. "So we went for a picnic," Bawa explains. "Halfway through our sandwiches and beer, she said: 'I think I will go down and meet Larry after all.' We arrived in time to see Larry getting into a taxi looking very cross indeed."

The original version was never completed, and Cinema has been left with a film with a remarkable history
Olivier insisted she return to work immediately, but she was defiant. When they reached the Queen's 
Hotel, Kandy, Olivier found that 
Finch was in control of the situation. 
He was superfluous, had wasted his time and energy, and left Ceylon within a few days. The next location was the rock of Sigiriya, where a major scene demanded that a number of elephants should enter a moat from the jungle, swim across it, and try to enter the estate. At this juncture the elephants were supposed to retreat due to noises such as fire-crackers and the blowing of trumpets, but they were confused by a clash of instructions from mahouts and the directorial team. It took revolver shots to solve the problem, but the elephants became frightened, fled into the jungle, and took hours to recapture.


Vivien started having hallucinations. Paramount decided to fly her to Hollywood to rest before resuming work at the studio. But her condition worsened, so Paramount was forced to terminate her contract and find a substitute. This turned out to be Elizabeth Taylor, aged just 21. The long shots filmed in Ceylon with Vivien were used, while the close-ups were recreated with Taylor using those vital "matte" shots. So the original version was never completed, and Cinema has been left with a film with a remarkable history.


Elephant Walk is featured on-board
in June / July In-flight Entertainment, as a Hollywood Gold Movie.

 

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    Elizabeth Taylor in seductive mood

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    The celluloid ghost: Vivien Leigh

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    Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Finch in Hollywood: note that the jungle is a back projection

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    The wrecking of the Wiley mansion, the fitting climax of the film

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    Appuhamy (“butler”) played by Abraham Sofaer

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    Detail from a promotional poster for the film

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    Screen lovers Elizabeth Taylor and Dan Andrews

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