May 7, 2009

filmsgraded.com:
Elephant Walk (1954)
Grade: 81/100

Director: William Dieterle
Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Finch, Dana Andrews

What it's about. Elizabeth Taylor, a confidant bookstore owner and a hottie brunette, marries the wealthy and somewhat older Peter Finch following a whirlwind romance. Finch owns a huge coffee plantation in tropical Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka, an island near India), and Taylor moves into his luxurious mansion.

But the romance is quickly imperiled by Finch's neglect of the new bride, in favor of cavorting with his freeloading fellow English plantation owners. Taylor is apparently the only white woman on the island. She is lonely, but finds comfort with Dana Andrews, Finch's overseer. Andrews understandably falls for Taylor, but she remains loyal to Finch, at least until he slaps her. Taylor then agrees to leave with Andrews, but she keeps finding excuses for postponing their departure, such as a cholera epidemic and a drought.

How others will see it. Elephant Walk was not well regarded upon release, and time has hardly improved its reputation. The plot moves slowly, the elephants look tame, and it is mildly racist. None of the Ceylonese have as much as a single speaking line, save for the venerable head servant, with the exception of the occasional man shouting 'Master!'

Women like the film more than do men. This is unsurprising, since the film is a romance and is told from the perspective of the female lead, whose actions are honorable.

How I felt about it. Elephant Walk has many plot elements in common with Rebecca, made 14 years before. The lead is a gorgeous but comparatively poor English woman who marries an older, wealthy man who lives in a lavish estate with many servants. The head servant is obsessively loyal to a dead person important to the past life of the husband, and even maintains that person's room, exactly as it was before the death. One could say that the mansion is haunted by this dead person. There is, finally, a happy ending that confirms the love between husband and wife, but only after the mansion is destroyed by fire, and the loyal head servant dies.

Of course, there are differences as well. There are no sinister villains, unless the angry bull elephant counts, and Taylor is more outspoken than the lovely but mousey Joan Fontaine. The 'ghost' of the mansion is the stepfather instead of the first wife. The irony of the story is that Elizabeth Taylor shows much more loyalty to her husband than she would in real life. By 1954, she had already divorced her first husband, hotel heir Conrad Hilton, Jr., with six additional divorces yet to come.

Vivien Leigh was originally selected for the lead in Elephant Walk, and filming began with her in the role. She apparently had a nervous breakdown, and was ably replaced by Taylor. Other critics have wondered why Peter Finch would prefer to carouse every night with fellow plantation owners instead of spending quality time with his hottie young wife. He must have regarded her as a decoration for his mansion, like a statue to be set somewhere, then put out of mind. Or perhaps he had political ambitions, like his dad the 'governor.' Or perhaps he's simply an alcoholic, and he drinks with his buddies since Taylor clearly disapproves.

I liked Elephant Walk considerably when I first saw the film some ten years ago. Now that I've seen it again, I like it even better, even though hardly anyone else (then or now) shares my view. Besides Taylor's pouting presence, the movie has a certain suspense, a feeling of doom. As the courtly Appuhamy (Abraham Sofaer) confides to the late master, "She does not belong at Elephant Walk," and her presence there makes the local Gods angry.