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This film is a kind of mixture between a snuff film and an animal experimentation film. I suppose the film is somewhat interesting due largely to its age and its gruesome subject matter, but that's really about it. Edison made some other morbid films, with people being sent to the electric chair, hanged, shot, etc. I think these were reenactments, but the subject matter is the same. For this reason I don't think Edison was trying to tout his DC current as much as he was trying to cash in on audience blood-lust. As an early film buff, I just had to see it. But one time was enough for me. NOTE: For the morbidly curious, this film is available on Kino's wonderful "The Movies Begin" DVD box set. There is an easter egg on one of the disks that allows you to access this film, along with a few "execution" films and films considered adult-themed at the time.
I would like to just point out that the main reason Edison zapped 'ole Topsy was to show the dangers of AC and scare the public into wanting DC power, which would make him filthy stinking rich. It was just a bonus that the elephant killed some idiot. Also, Westinghouse wouldn't sell an AC generator to Coney Island because he knew that was what it would be used for so they had to buy one from somewhere is South America. Interesting don't you think?
This vicious little film is horrendous. My low rating for it comes for
two main reasons. The first is that it is an animal snuff film and I
find that whole concept so vile it turns my stomach. Filmed over a
hundred years ago, I can only hope that we've evolved into something a
little more humane and compassionate. This film is complete and utter
exploitation, made to cash in on the sensational aspects of the film
and the subject. Historical interest aside, this is something to watch
only if one finds themselves in the grip of morbid fascination.
Reason number two? Look at the way that the camera is set up. It is placed in the best possible location to fully capture the full effect: long march forward of the elephant, perfect view of the electrocution platform and a cold and clinically dispassionate viewpoint of the elephant with smoke coming out of it before it finally collapses. Sickening.
Thomas Edison did many great things for civilization and his talents and intelligence aren't in doubt. Nobody is perfect, but when you realize that this film provided A) an opportunity for him to trump early cinematic competitors with a sensationalist film of an elephant being electrocuted and B) he filmed the execution to demonstrate the greater effectiveness of DC as opposed to AC, you can't help but wonder if the scientist in him was a little TOO dispassionate and cold. Any number of Peter Cushing's mad scientists would be proud. The rest of us should be ashamed and revolted.
in response to the response posted earlier, i think a film like this is
evidence towards the theory that humans can be kinda dumb. yeah, the
elephant killed some people, but that seems more a reaction to its
of being captured and paraded around for slack-jawed coney-islanders. in a
way, this film was the first edition of "when animals attack!" as it
similarly shows the results of animals rebelling against their human
captors. of course, this edison film just shows the electrocution, but the
meaning is the same.
the film can be seen in its entirety in Mr. Death, as the previous guy posted, and also in a PBS documentary about the rise and fall of Coney Island.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Wizard of Menlo Park" was deeply responsible for many things we
take for granted in 2007: even if he did not invent them without rivals
or assistants, he gave birth to the electric light, the phonograph, the
motion picture camera, the electric car battery, the electric power
grid (possibly his most important but least recalled invention), the
pre-fabricated house, and innovations to the telephone and telegraph,
as well as the ticker-tape machine and an early voting machine. The
total number of patents is over 1,000 - far more than any other
But Edison was a ruthless business competitor. He frequently had vast legal fights over the precedence of his inventions over rivals. The best example is the telephone, where he was one of seven or eight rivals with claims against Alexander Graham Bell. Actually Edison's invention here was not the central idea that Bell and Gray had come up with independently of each other in 1876, but an improvement on the sound quality of the phone receiver and transmitter that Bell did not develop. Still it was part of the huge 1888 Supreme Court decision that was the longest U.S. Supreme Court decision (a single volume of their reports!) written by Chief Justice Morrison Waite - which, by the way, killed the poor Chief Justice from overwork within weeks of completing it.
In 1886 Edison found an equally ruthless competitor in the area of electric power grids for large cities. This was George Westinghouse, inventor of the railroad air break. Westinghouse's firm had gotten the assistance of a new inventor, and former Edison assistant, Nicola Tesla. Tesla developed "alternating current", which was a rival system to Edison's "direct current". Edison's system was basically a straight circuit system of electricity. Tesla's system allowed the current to be switched from one circuit to another - actually it was a better, and more efficient system. But Edison was determined to break this rival by a publicity campaign.
It started with electric power lines. Edison early on had his lines put underground, so that they would not be endangered by weather conditions. But Westinghouse was forced to have his lines out in the open - like telephone lines. When there were several accidental deaths by repair linemen on Westinghouse's lines (in particular one incident where the repairman was burned alive in front of hundreds of horrified onlookers in Manhattan's business district), Edison started insisting that A.C. current was far more dangerous that D.C.
One result of all this was Edison helping some subsidiary inventors with getting Westinghouse A.C. generators and dynamos for an electric chair. Edison himself always denied that he invented the electric chair, but he helped several lesser figures along the way - for the complete story read Mark Essig's EDISON & THE ELECTRIC CHAIR (New York: WALKER & COMPANY, 2003).
Edison experiment himself with cats and dogs (experiments he was glad to show the public). In the long run, despite assisting in the invention of a new method of execution, Edison failed to dislodge the public support of Alternating Current. But he never stopped trying.
In 1903 he had an opportunity to combine his campaign against Westinghouse and A.C. with his invention of the motion picture camera. He assisted in "putting down" a well known public elephant ("Topsy") who had killed several men. He did so by electrocuting the poor beast with A.C. But the entire killing is on film - and one can view it to this day. It is a pitiful looking film - whatever poor "Topsy" had done it was a poor beast - not a Machiavellian murderer. The moment we see the explosions of electricity sparks that show the death of the elephant, we are aware it will soon be over, but the sudden collapse of "Topsy" is still an unpleasant sight to view. The film leaves a bad flavor in the mouths of modern movie audiences. Yet, sad to say, it probably made a profit for Edison - his description of the film in his catalog of films shows real pride in his accomplishment here. In 1903 it may have been exciting entertainment for many Americans watching it. One is glad that more people are appalled by it today - sometimes one can sense the human race has improved a little bit.
Boy, talk about a gratuitous documentary. Imagine the pre-production scene
Edison: "Hey, an elephant killed some people, LET'S ELECTROCUTE IT BEFORE CAMERA!"
"Really, Mr Edison, is it decent?"
"WHO CARES! ELECTRICITY! ZAP! ZAP! ZAP!"
Seriously, this is a very odd piece for PETA to use in their campaign for animal rights. I'm not a very PETA-person, but I'm with them on electrocuting elephants, which Edison surely should have been. This is a very disturbing piece of work, especially when you see that the shock did not kill the poor animal.
I saw this film recently and it was fairly disturbing. My previous reviewer has reacted a little violently to the anti-cruelty issue and for no good reason, this is a factual piece of documentary footage shot a long time before Cannibal Holocaust and should not bear any comparison. I'm pretty sure that given the conditions of Coney Island in those days, over packed, rowdy and boisterous, that the elephant was probably provoked. I believe it was fed a lit cigarette, so there you go. This is a fascinating piece however that reveals a time when it was not unusual to inflict such cruelty on animals for spectacle (diving horses and pig chutes).
I first heard of this film short in a horror movie textbook--and it was
quite an appropriate place for it. This film is not likely to be exhibited
to tourists at the Edison museum anytime soon. It
documents a side of Edison that suggests that even the greatest of
can have sociopathic
personality traits on par with a vivisector or serial killer.
Another user seemed to be attempting to put the atrocity in context--but if
the information was correct, that the elephant was abused by trainers-it
only serves to compound the injustice here.
This ranks with "Night and Fog" and the Ian Holm narrated "Animals at War"
as one of the most shameful documents of human depravity recorded on
Dont feel bad if you cant find it at Blockbuster's.
Now here is a fascinating little film from the archives of Thomas A.
Edison. 'Electrocuting an Elephant' is sure to arouse highly
conflicting feelings among different audiences. Some people see it as
absolutely despicable, the equivalent of an "animal snuff film" and an
indicator of how loathsome the human race actually is. Others may see
it as a glorious demonstration of the power of Alternating Current
electricity, an invention that has since revolutionised life as we know
it (though this definitely wasn't what Edison had intended). The
film-goers among us may view 'Electrocuting an Elephant' as a
fascinating cinematic curiosity from the early twentieth century, and a
testament to film's ability to incite powerful emotions. I, myself, am
unsure how exactly to approach this film in any case, no verdict may
be reached until we know all the facts.
Topsy the elephant was born around 1875. She was a domestic animal with the Forepaugh Circus at Coney Island's Luna Park, measuring ten feet in height and 19 feet 11 inches in length. Over a three year period, Topsy killed three men two of her keepers in Texas, and a third abusive trainer who tried to feed her a lit cigarette. She was then deemed an unacceptable threat to humans and sentenced to be put down, or "executed," if you were so inclined. Thomas Edison, who had been looking for a means to discredit AC electricity which had been stealing the market for his DC electricity suggested that Topsy be electrocuted, and he was able to convince the ASPCA that it would be a humane death.
On January 4 1903, after being fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide, Topsy was led to her execution. A hawser (a heavy rope) was place around her neck, one end attached to a "donkey engine" and the other to a post. Wooden sandals lined with copper were attached to her feet, and these were connected by a copper wire to the Edison electric light plant. It took 6600 volts of electricity less than one minute to kill her, and 'Electrocuting an Elephant' captures every uncomfortable moment of it. Is this an entertaining film? Most certainly not. But, at the same time, isn't it all just incredibly interesting?
In response to the only comment I saw listed, I would just like to say that the death of poor little Topsy the Elephant was not merely for the sake of movie footage. As it turns out, Topsy was a three-time man killer (the last victim had fed her a lit cigarette). Topsy was once an attraction/helper at the old Luna Park at Coney Island. Her trainer, one "Whitey" Alt taught her to "sic" the Italian workers, and this is what forced the owners of Coney Island to do away with this 6 ton paciderm. At least Topsy was electrocuted, she was supposed to be hanged. A scaffold had been prepared for such an occasion, but the animal rights activists would not stand for that. Edison had been frying animals (cats, dogs, cows, gorrillas, etc) for years in a battle between his DC and Westinghouse's AC forms of current. So Edison jumped at the opportunity to fry Topsy. He sent his boys to hook up their electrodes, and sent his film crew to tape the occasion. I also saw a show on Alice Guy which had a copy of the short film with it accredited to her direction. Where did you guys see this film in the first place? If anyone knows where I might purchase this movie short, please let me know.
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