Water for Elephants
Special to The History Place
Essentially, this is a retelling of the standard love-triangle tale: the circus owner cum ringmaster (Christoph Waltz) has a beautiful wife (Reese Witherspoon), who is hopelessly attracted to the new kid on the circus train (Robert Pattison). We know from the start that there will be blood. “Whose blood?” provides the dramatic tension that propels the story. Waltz is brilliant, reprising the mercurial monster that nearly won him an Oscar in Inglourious Basterds” (2009), also reviewed in this space. Witherspoon is delicious and vulnerable. Pattison buries fears that the Twilight bloodsucker was the best he can do.
Conceding these three outstanding performances, still it must be said that the real star of this film is the circus, circa 1930. Buffs of the Big Top’s history will drool over this recreation of a Depression-era three-ring traveling carnie. What a contrast to the Ringling Brothers – Barnum & Bailey extravaganza that turns up annually in big-city arenas! The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth relies on a small army of roustabouts, collectively capable of putting up and tearing down the Big Top and all the complimentary side shows, games of chance and food stands surrounding it, roughly once every 48 hours.
And, remember, this was the Great Depression. If the townsfolk failed to turn out, the circus went into debt. Expenses had to be slashed. To owner/ringmaster August this means dispatching his goon squad through the cheap seats on the train and “red lighting” (tossing off) a dozen or so of the roadies. Being hurled from a moving train was tantamount to a death sentence for most of these unfortunates. Those lucky enough to stay onboard still might wait three or four weeks to get paid. Like a ship’s captain of the same hard-scrabble era, August is the god of his rolling empire.
Into this mélange comes Rosie, a performing elephant. At 53, Rosie is way past her prime. Failing to perform up to expectations, she’s brutally beaten by August. Jacob (Pattison), the troop’s unlicensed veterinarian, restores her with whiskey and TLC. Himself of Polish background, he discovers that she responds to commands in his native tongue. After that, Rosie becomes the show’s headliner.
Predictably, just when Rosie is packing them in, all debts are settled, and all back wages put paid, August discovers Jacob’s passion for Mariena (Witherspoon) and her reciprocal attraction to the young vet. He sends his henchmen to detrain young Jacob. The star-crossed lovers escape to a brief night of bliss in a local hotel, only to be waylaid by the relentless goons.
Mariena is hauled back to the circus to continue putting Rosie through her paces. Jacob pursues on foot. Meanwhile, friends of some of the recently red-lighted roustabouts plot revenge. The climax comes on a sunny afternoon, when the Big Top is bulging with a record crowd. Who will die? Who will live… happily ever after or otherwise? And what will become of the lumbering, lovable old cow, Rosie?
All is answered in a violent tragedy, which remains famous to the day, decades later, when the aged Jacob (played by Hal Holbrook) tells this tale to a modern-day circus owner, who subsequently saves him from repatriation to a nursing home.
If circus history and/or the Great Depression fit into your areas of interest, this film recreates both with careful, gritty detail. Take away the midway and the elephant, and the yarn is unoriginal. Still it is engaging and suspenseful, and you care about what happens to the main, and even a few of the minor, characters. In 1931, on a roaring locomotive crammed with acrobats, freaks, African animals and a half-mad ringmaster, what can happen to any of them is, quite simply, darned near anything.
And, if none of this catches your fancy, well, there’s Rosie, who will win you over, if you’ve ever liked an animal in your life.
Rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content.
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Jim Castagnera, a freelance journalist and practicing attorney, is the author of 18 books, including Al Qaeda Goes to College (Praeger 2009) and Ned McAdoo and the Molly Maguires (Amazon 2011).