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Elephant Walk

Elephant Walk, the most familiar film after Bridge on the River Kwai, continues to provide an entertaining cinematic experience – in peerless Technicolour that enhances the Island’s glorious hues.

A 1954 American drama film produced by Paramount Pictures, directed by William Dieterle, and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Dana Andrews, Peter Finch and Abraham Sofaer.

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 Ceylon.

It was originally intended to star the husband and wife team of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. But Olivier was already committed to another movie. Leigh was enthusiastic about the role and continued in her husband’s absence, but she was forced to withdraw from production shortly after filming began.

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. According to Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide book, Leigh can be seen in some long shots that were not re-filmed after Elizabeth Taylor replaced her.

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.

Cast

  • Elizabeth Taylor as Ruth Wiley
  • Dana Andrews as Dick Carver, the manager of the plantation
  • Peter Finch as John Wiley, Ruth’s husband
  • Abraham Sofaer as Appuhamy, handyman of John’s father Tom
  • Noel Drayton as Chief Planter Atkinson
  • Abner Biberman as Doctor Pereira
  • Rosalind Ivan as Mrs. Lakin
  • Edward Ashley-Cooper as Planter Gordon Gregory
  • Barry Bernard as Planter Strawson
  • Philip Tonge as Planter John Ralph
  • Leo Britt as Planter Chisholm
  • Mylee Haulani as Rayna
  • Henry Carr as Servant
  • Delmar Costello as Native Patient
  • Eddie Das as Servant
  • Jiva Raj De Alwis as Servant
  • Charles Heard as Planter
  • Maureen Hingert as Dancer
  • Victor Millan as Koru, a servant
  • Adolfo Ornelas as Car Servant
  • Satini Paula as Foreman
  • Jack Raine as Norbert
  • William Benegal Rau as Servant
  • Rodd Redwing as Servant
  • Carlos Rivero as Tomas, the chauffeur
  • Reginald Lal Singh as Servant
  • Leslie Sketchley as Planter
  • Norma Varden as Shop Customer

The movie is based upon the novel Elephant Walk by “Robert Standish”, the pseudonym of the English novelist Digby George Gerahty (1898–1981). In 1952 Paramount Pictures purchased the rights of the novel.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Bevis Bawa in Bevis Bawa’s Brief (2011)

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.

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.

Filming Locations

  • Ratmalana Airport
  • Kiri Vehera, Polonnaruwa
  • Hantana
  • Kandy
  • Sigiriya
  • Matale
  • Chatsworth
  • Los Angeles
  • California

With many sections filmed on location, it features several true life insights into the operation of tea plantations and the tea-making process within factories. It also looks at native ceremonies and beliefs. Most of the movie centres upon the Elephant Walk Bungalow and the production of Elephant Walk Tea.

Credit – Wikipedia, Serendib Magazine, IMDB

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