The word ‘outlaw’ is one that conjures various associations. One definition describes a career criminal, but another a non-conformist; popular culture tends to employ the term romantically – outlaws are the likes of Robin Hood and Jesse James. So it is that Tyke Elephant Outlaw (2015) tugs on the heartstrings before it’s even started and continues to do so long after the credits have rolled. Clearly pitched as a partner piece to Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s hugely successful Blackfish (2013) – most evident through a recent back-to-back slot on BBC Storyville – this is a an engaging, but far less adept portrait of the cruelty heaped upon a troubled animal.
Captured in Mozambique as a calf, it was twenty years of chains and performing tricks before one day in 1994 Tyke snapped, killing her groom and trainer before marauding out of a packed circus and onto the streets of Honolulu. For the majority of its runtime, Elephant Outlaw recounts these events combining harrowing archive footage with the recollections of circus-goers and various trainers and employees whose overlapping accounts paint a picture first of the distressing rampage, and then of the history of a long-distressed animal. “She was an unhappy camper,” claims one former handler, Sally Joseph, whose testimonies arguably prove the most intriguing and complex.
Directors Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore do a good job of splicing together news footage and first person accounts of the attack in the big top, and the subsequent race through the city streets. “She was shot 87 times” reveals one contributor to suitably shocking effect and the archival video shows scores of people weeping on the streets as they watch the horrifying events unfold. However, Elephant Outlaw then seems to struggle with where it wants to direct the audience’s resultant outrage. Indeed, it is only fairly late in proceedings that animal rights activism is properly introduced and even later that someone asserts that elephants should not be in captivity at all. Even as a shot of wild elephants marching across the plain recalls The Jungle Book (1967) a title card reverts attention back to the criminal brutality of the unscrupulous Hawthorn Corporation who owned Tyke.
While Tyke’s former owner John Cuneo Jr. declined to be interviewed, a lot of time is spent with Tyrone Taylor, her former handler. He and many others pre-empted Tyke’s outburst and had warned the owners that she was not fit to continue working in the circus. Rather than questioning the premise of captive performing elephants, though, the film dwells on the violent training techniques that dominated the field during the nineties – which are rightly abhorred – but fails to build momentum into something as persuasive or impassioned as Blackfish. Joseph claims that there will be a special place in hell for her, given her treatment of those elephants – despite her later remorse – but Tyke Elephant Outlaw never quite manages to expand its horizons in the same way. Still, it remains impossible not to be moved by Tyke’s fate, however mechanical its presentation.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson