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Elephant Boy (1937)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Elephant Boy (1937)
35mm, black and white, 82 mins
DirectorsRobert Flaherty, Zoltán Korda
Production CompanyLondon Films
ProducerAlexander Korda
ScriptJohn Collier
Original StoryRudyard Kipling
CinematographyOsmond Borradaile
EditorCharles Crichton
MusicJohn Greenwood

Cast: Sabu (Toomai), W.E. Holloway (Father), Walter Hudd (Petersen), Allan Jeayes (Machua Appa), Bruce Gordon (Rham Lahl), D.J. Williams (Hunter), Hyde White (Commissioner)

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A young Indian mahout (elephant driver) has ambitions to become a great hunter, and has the chance to achieve them when he charms an Englishman into letting him join his ambitious expedition.

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The last British film made by the great American documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty, Elephant Boy was originally commissioned by Alexander Korda in 1935 after the latter decided that Rudyard Kipling's 'Toomai of the Elephants' would provide the perfect framework for Flaherty's proposal to make a film about a boy and an elephant.

When the film opened two years later it was a big financial success, though this belied numerous problems that befell its production. Working with a bigger budget than he'd ever had access to before, Flaherty spent a year filming on location in India (the Maharaja of Mysore, profusely thanked in the opening credits, granted him access to his land) before the footage was unceremoniously taken out of his hands and intercut with new material written by John Collier and shot by Korda's brother Zoltán at Denham Studios in six weeks.

Unsurprisingly, and despite a Venice Film Festival award for Best Direction, the end result falls somewhat awkwardly between the twin stools of documentary and drama, but the film's trump card was its casting of the title character. One of the Maharaja's stable boys, and also the son of a mahout (elephant driver), the 13-year-old Sabu turned out to be a natural performer, his onscreen relationship with the elephant Kala Nag displaying a chemistry that professional actors would envy. His sheer charisma, too, more than compensated for what was then somewhat shaky English.

The narrative generally plays second fiddle to Flaherty's location footage, the most memorable sequences being barely relevant ones involving a morning reverie with a monkey, an elaborate scene of Kala Nag being washed in the river and Toomai's cheeky appropriation of a melon using a well-trained trunk. The more ambitious set-pieces, such as the tiger attack, an enraged Kala Nag running amuck and the elephant dance are generally less successful because the joins between location and studio footage are a little too obvious for comfort.

As for the human content, while both the British and (other) Indian characters rarely rise above the stereotypical, with the Indians (many played by Britons in blackface) fawning over their white masters at every opportunity, the film does at least give the hunter Petersen (Walter Hudd) the chance to show genuine concern for the welfare not just of both his human and animal charges but also the government funds with which he has been entrusted for his wild elephant round-up.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Petersen's recruitment (3:05)
2. Our new leader! (2:56)
3. Kala Nag's rampage (3:20)
4. The elephants dance (2:35)
Original Poster
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Crichton, Charles (1910-1999)
Flaherty, Robert (1884-1951)
Hyde-White, Wilfrid (1903-1991)
Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)
Korda, Zoltán (1895-1961)
Sabu (1924-1963)
Korda and Empire