Such were the strange fortunes of Alejandro Jodorowsky in the 70's that he went from the mind bending Holy Mountain to the abandoned multi-million dollar production of Dune to directing Tusk, his 1980 film adapted from a children's book about a girl and an elephant born on the same day on a plantation in British controlled India. In the film, the elephant, known as Tusk grows up to be a powerful and intelligent beast of some renown. Elise who has matured into a head strong and determined young woman secures Tusk's freedom from the plantation but with their fates entwined, danger looms for both of them from hunters and poachers...
Tusk is a difficult film to approach. The film has little of the transgressive imagery of El Topo, Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre and has inevitably been dismissed as a minor footnote in Jodorowsky's career. Even the director himself disowned the film due to producer interference. All this has done a great disservice to a film which is actually a very fine piece of work and in many ways a very worthy Jodorowsky film. In terms of pure visual technique, Tusk is one the director's best looking films - Jodorowsky soakes up the Indian landscapes, and his camera steals some remarkable shots - the opening 3 minute tracking shot which rises and swoops over an elephant corral is one of the director's most visually arresting sequences.
While the film may not be a pure auteurist work, it does has some resonance within the context of Jodorowsky's more personal films - there's some slapstick comedy courtesy of two boozed up poachers (somewhat similar to the bandits from El Topo), an Indian mystic who magically transforms himself into a chicken (a simple but startling effect), and a strange, surreal dream sequence where Tusk battles another elephant in defense of Elise. And of course elephants would feature strongly in Jodorowsky's next film Santa Sangre. As well as the lush visuals there's an excellent eclectic soundtrack which fuses traditional Indian music, Shades of Joy style jazz and some wild prog rock.
It's been said that the film was aimed at children and while most of the film is kid friendly (there is however one sequence where Tusk is pierced and his blood collected and drunk from a glass, which sensitive children may balk at!), the film can be enjoyed as a simple allegory, with Tusk representing the very soul of India rebelling against the authority of its colonial masters. Difficult to judge the performances watching the French dub 1, but the cast includes Anton Diffring (who was in Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451) playing Elise's kind father, and Christopher Mitchum (son of Robert, and probably best known to Euro Cult fans for his appearance in Jess Franco's Faceless), playing a benevolent hunter.
Tusk has had an unfortunate history - it was rarely seen on it release and briefly appeared on French home video in the early 80's - which is where the current (fullscreen) bootleg of the film is sourced from. Be warned the quality of this version is rough (see the screenshots), but watchable considering the film is so elusive nowadays. For serious Alejandro Jodorowsky scholars the film is required viewing and well worth tracking down.
1. The French dub is interesting in itself. The film was shot in English, but one of the characters, the wicked wife of a powerful Indian who drinks Tusk's blood, is dubbed by a man, lending her a strange and sinister presence, and well suited to Jodorowsky's usual oddball characters.