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Elephant Boy (1937)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

A young Indian boy introduces himself as Toomai of the Elephants, though explains that until recently he was known as Little Toomai, as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather all shared his name and were all mahouts, or elephant drivers. He starts to tell his story...

Little Toomai shares his life with Kala Nag the elephant. Big Toomai, his father, tells him that the English hunter Petersen is arriving in the village of Melkote in search of recruits for his latest wild elephant drive. He proposes to offer him Kala Nag, and grudgingly agrees to let Little Toomai accompany them.

Petersen discusses his plans with the local British Commissioner - he seeks forty tame elephants to help corral a group of wild elephants which are rumoured to have headed north for a great herding. Machua Appa, Petersen's head tracker, explains that this only happens once every hundred years.

The mahouts arrive with their elephants, and Petersen inspects them, rejecting one after he sees its feet have been chained, indicating that it might be temperamental. However, he is impressed by both Kala Nag and Little Toomai and agrees to take both on the elephant drive.

In the jungle, the hunters, mahouts and elephants set up camp and build a stockade. Days pass, but no wild elephants appear. Petersen suggests giving up, but Machua Appa persuades him to wait for one more moon.

The other hunters mock Little Toomai for his ambition, saying that he will only become a true hunter when he sees the elephants dance. Petersen and Machua Appa privately acknowledge that the story of the dancing elephants is a myth.

A tiger circles the stockade, and Big Toomai warns Petersen, who grabs his rifle. Petersen fires, and Big Toomai, believing it to be dead, rushes forward...

The shots wake the rest of the camp, who rush to see what has happened. Little Toomai faints in horror as he sees his father's dead body carried in on a stretcher.

After the body is burnt in a traditional funeral pyre, Machua Appa warns Petersen that the grief-stricken Kala Nag may break his chains and run amuck. Petersen is more concerned about Little Toomai's fate, and suggests that he be sent home, suggesting that the newly orphaned boy stay with the village schoolmaster.

Kala Nag is beaten by his new master Rham Lahl, and reacts angrily, knocking him to the ground. Hearing the commotion, Little Toomai runs back to find the elephant wreaking havoc. While he is calming the situation, Rham Lahl points out that there is an automatic death sentence for an elephant who tramples a man. Petersen pleads with him for clemency, offering a hundred rupees compensation, which is initially rebuffed - until Petersen says that Rham Lahl will also be expelled from the camp, with the tiger's mate possibly prowling outside. Rham Lahl grudgingly accepts.

Unaware of these negotiations, Little Toomai flees the camp with Kala Nag. When they become temporarily separated, Little Toomai stumbles across a herd of wild elephants and ducks into the undergrowth to hide. He sees Kala Nag and mounts his back. They watch the wild elephants dancing.

At daybreak, Toomai is unsure whether what he witnessed was a dream, and asks Kala Nag to confirm. He sees the wild elephants bathing in the river. A search party finds them, and Toomai throws himself at Petersen's feet, offering to show him the elephants if he'll spare Kala Nag's life. Petersen confirms that he never had any intention of killing Kala Nag.

Toomai shows the party the elephants. Petersen gives orders and the hunters disperse. A combination of horn-blowing and shooting into the air drives them in the right direction, egged on further by torch-wielding runners. Eventually, the elephants are herded into the stockade and imprisoned.

Petersen summons the entire party and asks the hunters to fulfil their pledge - since Toomai has witnessed the elephants dance, he must now be considered a hunter like them. Machua Appa says that he will take him under his wing until he reaches adulthood. Little Toomai is now formally known as Toomai of the Elephants, and the elephants themselves roar their assent.