Born at exactly the same time in colonial era India an elephant called Tusk and a young English girl named Elise (Oriole Henry) grow up sharing a strange mystical bond. When Elise's father, John Morrison (Anton Diffring), removes Tusk from his mother so he may learn to serve as a beast of burden on their plantation, the child protests that wild elephants should be free. Some years later, a now grownup Elise (Cyrielle Clair) returns home from an English boarding school. Her devotion to the Indian way of life vexes her father's stuffy English friends but she earns an admirer in American elephant hunter Richard Cairn (Christopher Mitchum). Unfortunately Richard and John aim to earn big bucks trapping elephants for sale overseas. Needless to say, this does not sit well with Elise who encourages Tusk to escape into the wild.
Cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky earned international notoriety off the back of his off-kilter epics El Topo (1971) and The Holy Mountain (1973). Yet by the time Tusk went into production he had not made a film in seven years following his failed attempt to get an ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert's science fiction saga Dune off the ground. For his fourth film Jodorowsky sought to simplify things with what he himself described as a fairytale for children. Loosely adapted from the novel "Teak-Wallah" written by British author Reginald Campbell, with the screenplay co-written by such unlikely collaborators as Nicolas Niciphor, co-director of the Roger Corman post-apocalyptic sci-fi quickie Deathsport (1978), and Jeffrey O'Kelly, creator of oddball animated series Doctor Snuggles, Tusk espouses the same philosophy that was the core of Jodorowsky's Panic Theatre movement. Specifically, the idea that by liberating the subconscious mind and surrendering to our base impulses one can shake off society's constraints and become truly free. Which is all well and good if you're an elephant but seems an odd message to impart to children.
Unfortunately for Jodorowsky, for all his good intentions (er, sort of) the experience of making Tusk proved no happier than his last botched project. A clash with French producer Eric Rochat led to the film being removed from his hands and re-cut against his wishes after which distribution difficulties left it almost impossible to see. For the few die-hard Jodorowsky completists able to track down a copy (invariably on grainy, cropped, low-quality TV prints) the film proved a disappointment, lacking the extreme confrontational surrealism of his past work. Yet those less convinced by Jodorowsky's inflated reputation as a cinematic visionary found the film pretty much par for course, albeit with a slightly gentler, lyrical tone. Jodorowsky always talked a good game but despite his undoubted ability to weave indelible images routinely struggled to interweave his disparate philosophies into a cohesive film.
Although Tusk delivers some impressive spectacle (the highlights of which include the grand elephant hunt and the climax wherein the enraged pachyderm runs amuck) it is as messy and undisciplined as other Jodorowsky epics. Underneath its philosophical aspirations lurks a plot as hokey as one would find in an old silent era serial. If only it moved like one. Fleeting moments of poetic genius like the opening cross-cut between the birth of the elephant and baby Elise are offset by lengthy stretches of tedium where the film rambles for ages to make the simplest point beset by inconsistent messages, characterization and costumes somehow mixing period detail with what look like glam rock recreations of Twenties garb. Jodorowsky keeps his camera along with the viewer at a distance and fails to involve us in the drama that veers from overwrought to just plain silly. Freedom is the central theme as the film draws explicit parallels between Tusk and the fate of the Indian people stuck under British colonial rule. While Jodorowsky's intentions are laudable the execution proves laughable as when the sight of Elise wearing a sari at her homecoming party so offends John Morrison's stuffy British guests they spill their champagne, walk out en masse or call her "a horrible little traitor" before Richard starts punching people left and right. In other instances the film is just plain weird. Jodorowsky repeatedly cuts to the inane antics of three drunken, flatulent comedy villains who prove a reoccurring irritant. Richard and John strike up a business arrangement over an arm-wrestling match in a steam room that injects an incongruous homoerotic note. Their first client is the local Maharajah (Sukumar Anhana) whose American wife (described as a former hot dog seller from Las Vegas (!) dubbed with a man's voice for some reason) intends to drink Tusk's blood, again for no clear reason.
While Elise's mysticism manifests through simple empathy and kindness we see little evidence of anything truly remarkable about Tusk. He seems like a pretty normal elephant. Later on Tusk's bid for freedom pits him against not just greasy elephant poacher Shakley (Michel Peyrelon) but the entire British colonial establishment. When Tusk runs amuck he knocks over a police van freeing dozens of convicts. Are these innocent men wrongfully imprisoned for protesting British colonial rule or mere thieves and murderers? Jodorowsky does not tell us but the crowds cheer anyway. Then Tusk derails a train preventing an English priest and his Indian nuns bringing food to the poor while again the crowd inexplicably cheers. "He must be one of those Christian gods sent by the Devil", says the priest in what must surely be a mistranslated subtitle. One would presume given Elise's earlier statement to the British ("Don't try to change this country"), Jodorowsky is satirizing the church as another aspect of colonial oppression, yet some Christian clergymen tended sections of the poor shunned by the Hindu led caste system. Either Jodorowsky is not quite as well versed in the politics of the era or his concept of Indian-ness and liberty is just plain muddled. And where does freedom fit in to the climax when in the rush to get to the villain the angry elephant casually kills an innocent man? Kids love stuff like that, right Alejandro? On a more positive note, the funky prog rock score co-composed by Jean-Claude Petit, Guy Skornik and Martin Pierre is well worth a listen.