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Thursday, 21 April 2011

Water for Elephants - An Impression by Jim Stockley

Water for ElephantsImage by LiuTao via Flick
It's been three years since "The Legend of Salt Sauce" was published. Since then I have noticed circus elephants appear in the media on a few occasions. This year sees the release of the movie "Water for Elephants", a Hollywood adaptation of Sarah Gruen's circus novel of the same name. I haven't seen the film yet, but my cousin, a wild animal trainer in South Africa, got to see the film before its release in the US and UK. Here is his "impression" of the film. I think it provides a rather unique insight given that his respective backgrounds include a background in traditional circus (both Jim and my family were working on circuses during the Prohibition era the film is set) and a strong working knowledge in the film industry.  


The film opened last night in South Africa and we went to see it. Its a very difficult film to review, I was watching it first as a circus person, second as a film animal supplier and only thirdly as a regular film goer. I have no idea what our local public will make of it, have to wait and see what the professional reviews say.

The parts they got right were great, the parts that were wrong were laughable. It isn't really a 'circus film' ...... it's a love triangle set against a 1930s Prohibition era circus background. As a film goer I thought all three lead actors were good but didn't feel that the love triangle worked ...... I didn't feel drawn to the characters but I may have still been watching for all the other circus stuff I also thought the story thread about Auguste killing off the tentmen by throwing them off the train was poorly explained and a lot of the train scenes were dark and poorly lit.

Witherspoon does very well with the elephant, Gary Johnson's prep time with her was well spent.

The colour, texture and feel of build up of the circus, the canvas tent being pulled over grass on an early sunny morning, the horse drawn wagons and the first show are great. On the big screen it is beautifully filmed and worth the price of admission for that alone. The state of the cookhouse tent top looked like something familiar ...... those of you that were tenting in the 60s and 70s will know what I mean!

I got dirty looks from the people in our row when I laughed (out loud) at the big elephant beating scene! The hero elephant Rosie (bloody good job by Gary Johnson and Tai) is standing in a railroad car, Auguste (the circus owning psycho) enters with a big bullhook, door of rail carriage is closed to keep other circus workers/public/lead characters out. Doors open to reveal elephant laid flat out on her side, unconscious? with blood streaming from her wounds ! Jakob the Vet gets her a bucket of whisky which fixes her problems and she makes the night show without a limp or a mark on her ;-) Hollywood, huh?

SPOILER ............
The end scene where all the animals are turned loose is a bit of a mess. Jet Shaw had Brian McMillan's giraffe 'Stanley' on set and he is duplicated in CGI so many times, you would swear that the show had a whole herd of giraffes. Rosie the elephant has already been established as a docile, calm, well-trained performer yet, in amongst all the chaos, she is standing rock-still in the middle of the ring, chained to a stake (this is vital to the plot, that she is chained to a stake, as she has to pull out the stake to kill 'Auguste')

ON A POSITIVE NOTE ...........
Aside from the evil Auguste character, everyone employed by the circus is good with the animals and no big moral point is made out of the use/keeping of animals as they used to in the 1930s. That's how it was and they are the backdrop. The closing minutes of the film are devoted to Rosie Elephants further career with Ringlings (provoked 'Oooh's and Aaaahs' from the audience ;-) ............. and her subsequent happy retirement, along with the show's horses. If anyone tries to use the film as an anti-circus poster then I think our counter is that most of us are like Jakob the Vet ............. not Auguste the Psycho Circus Owner (don't answer that).

I came away with mixed emotions but wait with interest to see what all of you think of it ......... and how it fares with the general public in the UK & USA.

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Wade G. Burck said...

I enjoyed your comments, from someone who was/is involved with both worlds of circus and the movie industry.
The "beating" scene, with the type of wounds, eventual unconsciousness and the subsequent revival with whiskey were most perplexing to me.
My mentor told me years ago, about the old practice of adding whiskey to a warm bran mash, in the wintertime to ward off chill's and cold's, which was given to the elephants, instead of their normal grain/sweet feed ration. I don't ever recall him saying whiskey was also used as an antibiotic against infection, or as a smelling salt for revival. Given the author has stated that her source's were circus fan's, I can only assume, like so many aspects of the movie, it is an example of a jackpot taking on a life of it's own.
Wade Burck

Jamie Clubb said...

I still haven't seen the film yet and I am a bit restricted of late with my cinema visits. From what I have read and seen so far I think the film is a positive thing for traditional circuses and has come at a good time.

Interestingly brandy was used by Dennis Fossett on Salt the elephant in an attempt to aid her recovery in 1952. He is even pictured giving it to her in the local paper.

Wade G. Burck said...

My gut feeling it will have a nil affect on the circus industry, neither harmful or beneficial. As we seem to be sitting in the pub at the moment LOL, the daughter of a well known elephant trainer from the Colonies, now deceased , told me the other day, that her father suggested to her using whiskey as a "bait" to lure a reluctant to load in the truck elephant inside. She said she didn't have to as the elephant loaded on it's own, but that years later she wondered if it would have actually worked.
Wade Burck