Review of the movie "Elephant Walk" (1954) starring Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor is the ravishingly beautiful young bride of a fabulously wealthy tea plantation owner in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

She is overwhelmed by the beauty and the majesty of the place, but soon learns a disturbing fact. The main house where she and her husband live was built directly on a path which the elephants have used for hundreds of years to get to the water. The elephants want their walk back!

Elizabeth Taylor

She learns another disturbing fact. Her new husband, played by Peter Finch, is completely dominated by the memory of his late father, who built the house and the tea plantation. Everything must be done because that is the way his father did it.

Soon, a love triangle develops when her husband's overseer, played by Dana Andrews, makes a play for her. At first Taylor resists, but not very hard. She soon asks him to take her to Paris. They try to escape from the plantation, but are stopped because the plantation has been placed under quarantine. A cholera epidemic has broken out on the plantation. Nobody is allowed to leave, for fear of spreading the disease.

One by one, her husband's faithful servants start dying. Others escape over the wall or through the jungle. Soon, almost no one is left on the plantation except for Taylor, the husband, the overseer and the late father's faithful servant, Appuhamy (which means "cooking man" in Sri Lankan).

By this time, there is an affair going on between the overseer and Taylor. The husband knows about it. "The quarenteen is almost over. Then, you both can leave," he wryly remarks.

The elephants see their chance. Because of the cholera epidemic, all the servants and plantation workers who used to defend the house from the elephants are now gone. The elephants are wild with thrust because of a drought. Over a hundred elephants attack the house, knock down the walls, start a fire and bulldoze the house, all this with Elizabeth Taylor inside.

The husband arrives just in time and, amidst blaze, smoke and wild rampaging elephants, barely rescues Taylor.

The movie has a happy ending, because the destruction of the house also destroys every remembrance of his late father. Even the father's devoted servant has been killed by the elephants. Now, Taylor and her husband can build a new house some place else and start a new life together.

The overseer realizes that he has no further role to play in this and leaves for Paris.

This movie had great potential. It could have been one of the all time great movies. Included is the fantastic scenery of Sri Lanka, the same scenery which was used in the movie "Bridge on the River Kwai" to such powerful effect. Elizabeth Taylor is a marvelous actress. The plot is great. There are hundreds of authentic Tamil tea pickers as extras. There are marvelous dancers from Kandy, in Central Sri Lanka.

However, sadly, this movie does not really make it. The male leads are wooden and unconvincing. The love story is also unconvincing. It is not explained why Elizabeth Taylor falls for the overseer, or even if she falls at all. This movie was made in 1954. Were it made today, there would probably be one scene with them in bed or almost in bed together.

Why does Taylor allow the overseer's advances? A woman does not quickly leave a devoted and extremely wealthy husband for a mere overseer, without a compelling love story, which is lacking here. As far as we can tell, she goes with him only because he is willing to take her to Paris. This is as good a reason as any, but, if this is the only reason, that should be explained.

Another missed opportunity involves the elephants. In the prologue to the movie, it is explained that the main bull elephant is angry because the husband's late father killed the elephant's mate. The head elephant does not only want his walk back. He wants revenge as well. This should have been explained in more detail. Instead, this point is forgotten.

When Elizabeth Taylor is trapped in the fire and surrounded by rampaging elephants, we know that she is going to get out. We are not the slightest bit concerned for her safety. The rescue and escape scene could have been more convincing. On the other hand, the elephant's destruction of the house is magnificant and, at the time this movie was made, was probably a landmark achievement in film making.

My children watched the movie with me. My children did not have any idea what the movie was about or what was going on. My same children watched "Bridge on the River Kwai", another movie filmed in Sri Lanka, and understood everything about it, even though the plot is deeper and more complex there.

Had Alfred Hitchcock or some other movie magician directed Elephant Walk, it would have become a spine chilling thriller. This had the potential to become one of the greatest movies of all time. Instead, it is a mere footnote, a movie barely remembered.

Perhaps there is hope. Remaking this movie would be ridiculous. There will never be another performance equal to that of Elizabeth Taylor here. Also, the war in Sri Lanka precludes a redo.

However, with computer generated images, perhaps the movie could be sharpened and the plot thickened. It could become the great movie it has the potential to be.

Sam Sloan

UPDATE: April 2003: Dayawathie Rankoth watched Elephant Walk today on Cable TV. The movie has been vastly upgraded and improved.

Dayawathie recognizes all of the places in the movie, because the movie was shot near Peredeniya Road near Kandy in almost the front yard of her house. The movie shows a foot-path which she used to walk to school every day when she was a child.

Dayawathie says that the reason the elephants go crazy at the end of the movie is because they had been overworked. Dayawathie's elder brother owns an elephant which he caught in the jungle years ago, so she knows a lot about elephants. She says that the elephants only work every day from 6:00 AM to 11:00 AM. After 11:00 AM, they go to the river and take a bath. After 6:00 PM they get out of the river and are ready to work again. The work they do consists of going into the forests and dragging out logs which are used to make furniture. They are not wild elephants. They have regular jobs, just like people do.

However, the people who made the movie did not know much about elephants and so made them work in the afternoon when it was too hot. That is the reason the elephants went crazy and destroyed the house in the movie, says Dayawathie.

Sam Sloan

From: Joe & Penny Simpson
Subject: Elephant Walk movie - some feedback

Dear Sam:

I received your interesting Rootsweb posting forwarded by Victor Melder of the VM Sri Lanka Library in Melbourne. I have many connections with Sri Lanka and was over there last October, including the Pinnewela Elephant Orphanage and Minneriya Game Park. The following exhibit I made for a Sri Lanka elephant protection fundraiser in Victoria, BC, Canada about a year ago, might be of interest to you and your Sri Lankan friend, particularly the Alec Guinness quote.


Joe Simpson
(BC, Canada)

Elephant Walk: Myth versus Reality.

The 1948 novel Elephant Walk by Robert Standish was based partly on the true-life history of the Careys, a 19th century colonial British coffee-planting pioneering family whose patriarch, Lawrence Carey, opened 37 estates in the hill country of (then) Ceylon. The family empire collapsed when his son, George Carey, died at age 27, reducing the Carey holdings to just one estate. Standish (real name Digby Gerahty) used as his central theme for the novel, the utter displacement of the wild elephants from their traditional seasonal migratory paths from the low country into the hills, by the sprawling plantations that replaced the once-lush forests in the hills. This much was true enough, but like many another novelist, Standish deviated rather melodramatically from reality, in his case when it came to describing the revenge・of the old bull elephant in the final stages of his novel. Elephant Walk was later made into a reportedly rather dreadful potboiler of a 1950s movie starring Peter Finch and the young Elizabeth Taylor.


(From the novel, where the Old Bull reaches the massive, deserted Carey plantation bungalow):

As he set to work to batter down the wooden fence, the Old Bull, surveying with his beady little eyes the huge structure he had hated ever since he could remember, uttered a deep-throated trumpet of rage and defiance, which echoed among the hills. It was the work of a few seconds to demolish the fence and, just ahead, was a flight of stone steps which led up to the lights. At the top of these steps his progress was impeded as his shoulders struck the overhanging eaves of the roof. At long last his giant muscles had a task worthy of them. Summoning to his aid every ounce of strength, he heaved. A beam above his head loosened. He lifted his hind legs one step higher and again pressed with all his might. There was a rending crash and, bewildered by the bright light, he stood upon the great verandah of the Big Bungalow・he light from a hanging lamp dazzled the Old Bull. Reaching up with his trunk, he tore the lamp and its chain from the roof beam to which it was fastened, hurling it into the brightness of a lighted room beyond[At this point the Old Bull is shot by Carey, but carries on with his orgy of destruction regardless. The Big Bungalow catches fire・ The Big Bungalow had become a funeral pyre. Already the air was hideous with the reek of scorching flesh, where an Old Bull elephant, narrowly missing death on that same spot more than fifty years previously, had completed the circle・ brute beast who had dealt out justice at the end, as he understood justice・he main room beam, a massive, monstrous thing of teak, crashed down into the holocaust below, sending showers of golden sparks high into the sky


From a letter written by Alec Guinness to Heathcote Williams, 3 September 1988:

The elephant story was told to me by the late Peter Finch, after he had been filming in Elephant Walk・ Elephants were required to run amok and charge through a specially constructed house ・sections and furniture made to collapse easily. Apparently they were reluctant to move in but were eventually goaded. Then the lead elephant spotted a box of Swan Vestas on the floor and stalled; they stopped their rampage and gently stepped over the matches and made their way out of the house without doing any damage.

At 08:29 AM 2/4/99 -0800, Deeptha Gamage ( ) wrote:

In your film review Elephant Walk you have said the word appuhamy means cook. This is totally incorrect.

Appuhamy is the word used at the end of the proper name of a male in higher cast in Sri Lanka. The higher cast is Goigama. For the female the attachment for the proper name is Hamine.

Although the Sinhalese refused to work for the white colonialists at a latter stage of colonial occupation even the higher cast Sinhalese went to work as house servants. Over the time these Appuhamys found out that lower cast Sinhalese slowly joined hands with the colonialist as workers. The lower cast Sinhalese (Harli) became cinnamon peelers to the Dutch. And they were given Dutch/Portuguese name De Silva. So are Fernando's of Karawa or Kevul cast, who became Catholics and turned to occupation such as fisherfolks, because Christ was the big fisherman.

Today, higher cast Kandy aristocrat- Radala- woman who had several servants back in Sri Lanka is a willing house maid in a Beverly Hills residence doing all the menial jobs which she never dreamt of doing in her home country.

Before any Sinhalese, lower or higher cast, the willing servants to lick the boots of the white man were Tamils and other South Indians. They were the Thotakarayas (gardeners) and Kudirakarayas (horse keepers) of the white man. Since Sinhalese were unwilling to work for the white man and fighting against to chase the white invaders the Tamils were willing to work. Thus they got down Tamils from South India to work in their tea estates and other plantations. That was how you find south Indians in West Indies, Kenya, South Africa, Fiji, etc. Like white Americans higher Latinos enmass to do the America's menial jobs.

Appuhamy does not means cook.

Please note this explanation is for your knowledge and do not anyway a write up of caste division in Sri Lanka


Sam Sloan wrote: I just spoke to Rankoth Pedigedera Dayawathie and she still insists that Appuhamy means cook or housekeeper.

Sam Sloan

I do not know who is Rankoth Pedigedera Dayawathie. But I have to tell you at this juncture with due respect to dhobi people, the Pedige last name generally refers to dhobi (washermen) cast and Appuhamys are for Govigama caste. Good example for this is the folk tale Jasaya and Lenchina which later became a popular drama. In Jasaya and Lenchina, the washerman sings "Api wage pedila.." (Pedis like us) who have to wash clothes of Appuhamys. Please note that this argument came out in order to enlighten you the word Appuhamy in your film review of Elephant Walk and not to drag any caste system in Sri Lanka.

You can use any word in your writing and the web site is yours. But I stand by my translation that the meaning of Appuhamy is not cook.


Dear Sir

I just visited your above site and read the note by a prjudiced and bigoted Gamage who therein insults several Sri Lankan castes and attempts to propagate the usual, false superiority claim of the Govi (agricultural serf) caste.

The following link gives brief references from Sri Lankan newspaper to show that the Govi caste was traditionally the lowest caste in Sri Lanka.

Sincerely Silva

At 01:57 PM 5/24/2005 EDT, Richie Chiger wrote:


I saw your website on the movie "Elephant Walk," and thought you may be able to answer my question. I was under the impression that the herd of elephants in the movie were from Ringling Bros. Then, realizing it was fillmed in Sri Lanka makes it somewhat difficult, albeit not impossible, for the herd to actually be from that American circus. Would you have information on from where those elephants actually originated and who was the male who played the old bull. Most male elephants in circuses were killed sooner or later because they were deemed unhandlable; a very sad, cruel and unfair fate to be sure for these magnificent animals.

Thankyou for any information,
Most sincerely,
Richie Chiger

The elephants in the movie were real wild, or semi-wild elephants. They were definitely not circus elephants. My ex-wife, Dayawathie Rankoth, is from Kandy Sri Lanke where the movie was filmed and she knew some of those elephants personally. The walk where they walked was the actual path she walked to school every day when she was a little girl.

The only part of the movie that was fake was the house the elephants destroyed in the end. That house is still there and there are prople living in it today.

She did not know the old bull, however.

Sam Sloan

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