Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Rating (out of five): Elephant Boy - ** 1/2
The Drum - *** 1/2
The Jungle Book - ***
SET - ***
Nowadays, it’s feasible that an eleven-year-old elephant keeper could become a global superstar, provided he was aligned with the right reality TV show or viral video. In 1937, however, Sabu (nee Shelar Shaik) found fame via a more traditional route: by starring in several international box office hits. Sabu was an Urdu-speaking mahout (elephant driver) before he was pulled from obscurity by a location scout working for producer Alexander Korda. The Criterion Collection’s latest Eclipse series pays tribute to three of Sabu’s best-known entertainments.
Just how entertaining they are depends on your tolerance for the schmaltz endemic to many of the films from the era. Elephant Boy (which Zoltan Korda co-directed with ethnographic filmmaker Robert “Nanook of the North” Flaherty) skews more toward the cornball side, complete with plucky, grating Timmy & Lassie-style music and Dr. Doolittle-ish cutaways of animals making silly faces. Amid all of the buffoonery, Elephant Boy has its charms, chiefly the exuberance of its young star.
Sabu plays Toomai, a young man who, along with his father, is selected to accompany a British soldier (Walter Hudd) on an elephant-hunting mission deep in the Indian jungle. The story is taken from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and retains Kipling’s Colonial condescension; the natives are mostly either superstitious dummies or clownish comedic relief.
It’s easy to see why the filmmakers were so taken by Sabu, who didn’t yet have a command of the English language and thus had to deliver all of his lines phonetically, an astounding feat. The film opens with two rather rambling scenes. In the first, Sabu stares into the camera and delivers a disarming monologue explaining the story we’re about to see. The scene is completely unnecessary, taking up an inordinate amount of the film’s scant 82-minute running time. But it achieves the desired effect – instantly endearing the young performer to the audience.
Following this scene is a painfully clunky intro involving a mischievous monkey and Sabu’s favored elephant. It’s not until all this prologue fizzles to a stop that we get to the business of the plot: Colonial India’s herds of elephants have mysteriously disappeared and it’s up to Peterson (Hudd) and Toomai to figure out just where they’ve gone.
I understand that the film is a product of its time (and the imagination of the nauseatingly imperialistic Kipling), but it's hard to sympathize with callous, condescending colonialists hunting for endangered animals. Plot- and character-wise, then, the film is a bit of a nonstarter for me.
However, there are at least two transcendent sequences: a hunt through the jungle for a man-eating tiger is effectively thrilling. The break-out scene, though, is a psychedelic elephant freak out at the film’s climax that is so bizarre and singular, it can almost stand by itself as a piece of experimental cinema. These sequences both achieve the exoticism that Western audiences were no doubt expecting the film.
The film has an impressive pedigree. The screenplay was written by John Collier, who would go on to pen The African Queen, and Charles Crichton, future director of A Fish Called Wanda and The Lavender Hill Mob, is credited with editing the film. Of course, its Flaherty’s contribution that is most evident. His stark black and white photography of the Indian wildlife stands out almost too conspicuously from the middling action. The ultimate significance of Elephant Boy is that it (inexplicably) won directors awards for Flaherty and Korda at the Venice Film Festival and catapulted Sabu into movie stardom.
Next up in the set is The Drum, a military adventure that manages to be the most colonialist film of the bunch while being the most sympathetic to those being colonized. It’s also the best film in the set. A large part of the credit is due to the cinematography by Georges Périnal (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Fallen Idol) and Osmond Borradaile (a longtime Korda collaborator), the story by A. E. Mason, and the presence of one of the greatest actors who ever lived, Roger Livesey.
Livesey plays Captain Carruthers, a British officer who, along with his wife (Bride of Frankenstein’s Valerie Hobson), is stationed in a northern Indian kingdom that’s on the brink of violent collapse. The natives are restless, armed with machine guns, and led by rabble-rousing Prince Ghul (Raymond Massey, in unfortunate brownface).
In an attempt to set himself up as malevolent dictator, Ghul has killed the king. The king’s son, Prince Azim (Sabu), has narrowly escaped with his life. Joining forces with Carruthers, Azim aims to regain control of his kingdom and restore a peaceable relationship with the British Empire.
The Drum does a good job of creating drama out of the complicated political situation without shirking some of the stickier issues. For its time, it was probably downright progressive. A distinction is drawn between the peacefully Islamic Azim and the “few fanatical priests dreaming of a holy war” represented by Ghul. In a few genuinely funny scenes, a British drill instructor hammers into his troops the differences between the cultures, admonishing them to respect their “Mohammedan” subjects.
Most of all, it’s a solid adventure epic. The Drum’s action-packed climax is very well executed and the overall scope is as impressive as Korda’s other Mason adaptation, The Four Feathers. Sabu’s earnest performance is a marked improvement from Elephant Boy’s cute antics and, despite looking like a live action version of Jafar, Massey makes an imposing moustache-twirler.
The last film in the set – an adaptation of Kipling’s The Jungle Book, specifically the Mowgli stories – is charming in a Saturday matinee way. By now (1947), the Korda team had set up shop in Hollywood and, consequently, the film has a very polished, sound-stagey look.
The story is comprised of a series of episodes involving Mowgli, the wolf-weaned human cub who makes his way back into civilization only to find it just as savage as his jungle cradle. He falls for a local girl, fights the prejudice of villagers who claim he’s more animal than man, avenges his father’s death by the paws of Sher Khan the tiger, and gets entwined in a villager’s plot to ransack the treasures of an ancient city.
Sabu had really come into his own as an actor by this point and imbues Mowgli with the feral grace the role needs. His Mowgli is the only real part of an otherwise totally synthetic spectacle. The “Indians” are white folks in brown face, the matte paintings are blatant, the snakes and crocodiles are laughably animatronic, and the filmmakers made no attempt to hide their day-for-night shots. These gaffes are either charming or egregious depending on your tolerance for such things (I’m in the former camp). Korda’s Jungle Book is a bright, splashy thing, ideally viewed on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
Criterion/Eclipse have well served Sabu’s legacy with this set, introducing the unique matinee idol to a new generation of adventure seekers. It would have been great to see some extras that delve deeper into the British-Indian relationships of the time and – most of all – more regarding Sabu himself. The notes accompanying the set answer a few of these questions but only scratch the surface.
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