Reclaiming Nature’s ‘Right of Way’ | Sunday Observer

Reclaiming Nature’s ‘Right of Way’

The British tea planter is made into a legend which is amplified and symbolically personified by the impressive plantation bungalow he built, intentionally blocking the ‘elephant walk’ of the local pachyderms as a display of his might to impose his will over nature

Movies set in the days of British colonial rule are in the majority set in India. The ‘exotic east’ of the colonial empire that was best exemplified to the western anglophone world was found in the ‘jewel of the British crown’, which the colonists called ‘British India’. Set in the days when the British colonial plantation economy was blossoming, ‘Elephant Walk’ is a movie directed by William Dieterle adapted to the screen from the novel of the same name by Robert Standish. Released in 1954, it is not a movie set in India but Sri Lanka or ‘Ceylon’ as called back then.

Starring Hollywood screen siren Elizabeth Taylor as Ruth Wiley and Peter Finch as her husband John Wiley, this movie by Paramount Pictures shows the picturesque Sri Lankan hill country in which the story of John Wiley’s late father’s legacy unfolds much to the disquiet of Ruth, who leaves her home in England just after marriage and enters a new and exotic world centred on Elephant Walk bungalow, a palatial tea plantation bungalow that sits with obstructive imperiousness on a route used by a herd of migrating elephants since time immemorial.

John’s late father, whose larger than life character is depicted through the stories of John’s colleagues, works as a symbol of classic imperious colonial rule that heartlessly exploited man and nature in the colonies. Reverentially referred to as ‘The Governor’ the British tea planter is made into a legend which is amplified and symbolically personified by the impressive plantation bungalow he built, intentionally blocking the ‘elephant walk’ of the local pachyderms as a display of his might to impose his will over nature. Therefore, at the heart of this story is a discourse of how the occident seeks to dominate over both man and nature in the lands he has colonised. But woven in this story is a vein of romanticism of how nature proves to be a force that triumphs over any manmade barrier. This point is being very dramatically depicted and driven in to the mind of the viewer at the very end.

The debate of culture versus nature and colonist verses ‘native’ takes on a very strong and impressionable facet in Elephant Walk. It is thus a film which I believe will prove fit for cinematic and literary discourse analysis on the lines of studying colonialism and its depictions in the arts.

Elephant Walk shows ‘Ceylon’ in the light of a laidback island with an ancient culture with facets of religious rituals and archaeological ruins that become exotic to the western newcomer shown through the character of Ruth Wiley who is both charmed and captivated by her new world as well as intrigued and disconcerted at times.

The film’s creators do not appear to have been concerned with giving factuality its full length in certain instances, the principal of them being how Ruth on horseback together with the plantation’s manager Dick Carver played by Dana Andrews, travels from the Elephant Walk bungalow in Nuwara Eliya to Polonnaruwa, and returns that very same day.

There is I believe somewhere around 180 kilometres in distance between these two locations and it is practically inconceivable that one could accomplish a journey from Nuwara Eliya to Polonnaruwa and back, in the course of a day, on horseback. That was an element which I believe was directorially decided as ‘passable’ to a white western audience back in the 1950s. That particular part of the movie also creates space to bring the ‘exotic ancient island’ element into a cinematic work which by and large sees Sri Lanka through colonial eyes.

The end of the movie where the elephants reclaim their ‘right of way’ by rampaging en masse against planter Riley’s celebrated bungalow, demolishing the impressive mansion and causing it to consequently be reduced to ashes, shows an impressive cinematic feat. Despite the obviousness to any person who is familiar in knowledge about the behavioural difference between a wild elephant and a tamed one, when the four legged giants encounter humans, the final scene was clearly a ‘mammoth task’ to accomplish in an era where film directors did not have the facilities of computer generated images (CGI). I believe, the animal coordinators and stunt directors of this film must be applauded for enabling a scene of that scale to be pulled off for the camera despite the behaviour of the elephants appearing not as actions of ‘credibly wild’ elephants. Regardless, it is still a scene worth watching and deserves applause.

Today’s audiences of the younger generation may find this vintage movie somewhat theatrical and frozen in its time as far as performance and cinematic movement is concerned.

But what Elephant Walk offers as a work of cinema goes into the matter of how man must respect the awesomeness of nature and also perhaps rethink the ways of plantation colonialism. 

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