Monday, January 7, 2013

The Elephant in Les Miserables

I know that if you just came back from the critically acclaimed motion picture musical Les Misérables- you’re probably thinking two things. The first is how great an adaptation the movie is. The second is about that elephant that appears in it. Well, even if you’re not thinking about the elephant, you are now- so I’ll fill you.

So, in the film, in the turbulent scenes in the Place de la Bastille, amongst the crowd- there’s this huge, ruined elephant statue. This Elephant actually existed in the time of the drama; it hasn’t just been made up for the show or the movie. It’s actually known as The Elephant of the Bastille. And to this sculpture, this excellent example of public art and incomplete art, I dedicate my post.

The Elephant was actually immortalized in Victor Hugo’s novel because the street urchin actually lives inside the Elephant. This is not exactly impossible, though it is improbable. I will explain in a second- but first- you need a little history.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Napoleon was in charge of France. This is pretty well known. Napoleon, perhaps realizing that power and glory are fleeting, returned to France from his glorious conquests and decided he would transform Paris and fill it with monuments to himself. Unfortunately, he was impatient, and often, mere molds or plans were left and few were complete. The Elephant is one of these.

Napoleon desired to have a monument that would show his military power and eventually, in 1808, decided upon the Elephant. I’m guessing this is because there was a slight Egypt craze going around Western Europe after Napoleon visited. Remember, this was the time the Rosetta Stone was discovered. I once saw this exquisite set of Egyptian style china that was simply breathtaking. Anyhow, he wanted this giant elephant to fill the Place de la Bastille, which was empty, except for a fountain. If you recall, angry French revolutionaries tore down the old Bastille. So Napoleon envisioned a giant elephant, astride a fountain, at the center of the square. The elephant was supposed to be made of metal made from cannons captured in battle, but, that didn’t exactly work out.

In the initial plan, there was also supposed to be an observation platform at the top, from which visitors could ascend and be greeted by a beautiful view of the city.

So, at this point, a few engineers and architects took over. Jacques Cellerier was put in charge initially and had the water pipes organized for the fountain in 1812. Jean-Antoine Alavoine then took over the project and finished the main pool, the base of the Elephant. He realized that the public needed to see what was going on, so he ordered another man, Bridan, to build a plaster model to stand in the square.

Around this time, Napoleon was tragically defeated at Waterloo, and his ambitious plans were put on hold. Alavoine attempted to gain public support for the completion of the project, but the public and the local government weren’t interested and it was lost in bureaucratic standstill. Actually, it started to rot and rats started living inside it. Not exactly the magnificent monument to glory… Finally, residents’ complaints were heard and it was torn down and replaced by the July Column, which still stands today.

The filmmakers made a model of the Elephant at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, where some scenes were filmed. It is truly impressive and the model is not entirely inaccurate.

It’s an interesting piece of historical art that lends itself to the drama, hence why Hugo put it in. It adds scale and magnitude to the great drama. Failed art, but nevertheless, pretty cool and definitely worth knowing about. In this case, it was Napoleon who dreamed the dream- but once again- his dream went unfulfilled.  


  1. I guess for Hugo, the elephant was the perfect symbol of the decay in France. Monuments to Napoleon had no place in the new republic.

  2. The elephant was supposed to be made from Spanish enemy cannons. Also, it was possible for someone to live in the elephant, in fact, someone did. The French government at the time "paid eight hundred francs to a watchman who took up residence with the rats in one moldering leg of the creature" ("Citizens", Simon Schama).

  3. Thanks! I am finally watching the film and I was indeed wondering about the elephant.

  4. This the perfect symbol for the fast approaching decline of the system of governance in France, since just about 15-16 years after the events of the film, France was finally declared a democracy. It is beautiful how Hugo saw this significance and inserted the elephant into his monumental masterpiece, since the book came out after 1848. Such a brilliant writer he was, and will continue to be in the years to come.

  5. I'm so impressed that they went to so much trouble with the details when making the film - eg recreating the elephant. It's a really impressive structure - I wonder who/how they created it and what happened to it? It would have been nice to have left it in place in Greenwich somewhere as a memento of the filming of this great film. Or perhaps it could have been moved to Paris itself. I'm surprised no one has thought of recreating the original elephant statue in Paris as planned by Napoleon instead of all the kitsch new stuff like the Louvre pyramid and that so called arch at La Defense.


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