If you were a “kid” growing up in the United States or Canada in the nineteen-forties, you probably spent many a Saturday afternoon at your local movie house. For twenty-five cents you got admission to the theater, a box of popcorn with enough left over for carfare home. Once in your seat you were ready to spend the next four hours watching a double feature, usually consisting of a western, a cartoon, a chapter of an ongoing serial, a newsreel and a second feature. And on the occasion that one of those features starred a diminutive Indian actor with a broad smile by the name of Sabu the Elephant Boy, then you knew you were in for a rousing adventure, usually in Technicolor.
Whether he was riding thru the jungle clinging to the back of the man-eating tiger, Shere-Khan, while trying to kill him by stabbing him with his “tooth,” or leading a herd of elephants to the rescue of Jon Hall or Maria Montez, or combating the evil intentions of Conrad Veidt, or flying on the shoulder of a gigantic genie while holding on to his pigtail, or sailing with Sinbad, it was always sure to be great fun and exciting action.
The movie sound stages of London and Hollywood are a long way from Karapur, Mysore City, India where Sabu Dastagir was born on 27 January 1924. Sabu’s father, who was in the service of the Maharajah of Mysore, died when Sabu was a small child. His uncle, Shaik Hussaim, also worked for the Maharajah as the caretaker for his herd of two hundred elephants. He hired young Sabu to help care for the herd, thus making his later screen persona as The Elephant Boy a legitimate reality as opposed to hype invented by the studio publicity department.
In 1936 film maker Robert Flaherty was in Mysore making a documentary for British movie mogul Alexander Korda. One day he noticed young Sabu working with the Maharajah’s large herd of elephants and he was enormously impressed by the extraordinary skill displayed by the boy in his handling of the great beasts. Sabu was also blessed with good looks and an ingratiating personality and Flaherty, thinking the boy deserved better than a lifetime of shoveling elephant dung, arranged for him to go to England and study acting. It took a while to make the jump from the Maharajah’s elephant boy to Alexander Korda’s elephant boy, but in 1937 thirteen year old Sabu starred in a British Films production, in the title role of “Elephant Boy.”
The following year Sabu appeared in “Drums” but the jewel in the crown of his movie career went into production in 1940 with Alexander Korda’s “The Thief of Bagdad.” The production was beset with huge problems from the beginning. Filming started in England but with the onset of World War II and with England fighting for its life, the production company thought it prudent to transfer the production to the safety of the neutral shores of the United States until the outcome of the Battle of Britain was determined. The transfer resulted in the use of at least three directors, three screen writers, cast changes and constant warfare amongst the parties involved over creative differences. In spite of all this turmoil, conflict and confusion, a wonderful Technicolor fantasy emerged, probably the best version of this classic story ever told on the screen, with the possible exception of Douglas Fairbanks’1924 silent production.
In Hollywood, Sabu continued his career playing in exotic adventure films, most notably the 1942 version of “Arabian Nights” with Jon Hall and Maria Montez and as Mowgli in Korda’s version of “Jungle Book” that same year.
Sabu became a U. S. Citizen in 1943 and in September of that year, at the age of nineteen, he enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Force. He went through eleven weeks of basic training and was then assigned to March Field near Riverside California for gunnery training. The B-24 Liberator bomber was the work horse of the Air Corps at that time and it required ball turret gunners in the nose, under the belly and in the rear, in addition to side gunners. The turrets didn’t have a lot of room so the men manning them had to be on the “small” side. Calling Sabu.
So off he went to be trained as a retractable-nose turret gunner on a B-24 and upon completion of his training he shipped off to the Pacific theater for attachment to the 307th Bomb Group, nicknamed the Long Rangers. On some missions they probably felt more like the Lone Rangers in the absence of a fighter escort. Sabu manned an electrically operated retractable turret, housing two .50 caliber machine guns on the underside of the fuselage behind the bomb bay. Sabu was the only movie star assigned to the 307th Bomb Group at the time, but he neither sought nor received any special treatment because of his celebrity status, and by all accounts he was very well liked by his crewmates. The 307th saw action all over the Pacific theater and the Far East. They operated in the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, the Philippines and in the defense of China.
Sabu flew forty two combat missions in the very vulnerable position of ball-turret gunner, and when he was discharged in 1945 he was the proud recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with Four Oak Leaf Clusters, The American Campaign Medal, and the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal. At the time of his separation from the military he had been a resident of the United States for five years and had served two of those years in the armed service.
Today India has a thriving film industry and had Sabu been born fifty years later than he was, he would probably be able to get all the work he could handle in Indian films. But India didn’t have any film industry to speak of in the thirties, forties and fifties and in Hollywood and London; Sabu was considered a “niche” personality. For him to work he had to find parts that fit his “niche” and by the time he returned to Hollywood after the war the niche that Sabu fit into wasn’t nearly as deep as it had been before he went to war.
Film noir became more the flavor of the month than the big Technicolor, exotic fantasies, so picking up his career at the pre-war level wasn’t going to happen. He did appear in one first rate film in 1947, “Black Narcissus.” The film was set in the exotic location of the Himalayas with a stellar cast of international stars and Sabu gave a wonderful performance as the Young General, but it was all downhill after that. He appeared in a succession of low-budget films into the fifties. With his film career on the wane, he started a hardware store with his brother. Tragedy struck when the brother was murdered during a robbery of the store and the business subsequently failed.
He made one last film that was released in 1964 after his death, “A Tiger Walks.” He died in 1963 of a heart attack leaving his wife, Marilyn Cooper and two children, Paul and Jasmine. Sabu, the Elephant Boy and war hero, was dead at the age of thirty-nine.