THE STORY starts in a jailhouse. A small, wizened old man, who looks like everybody's idea of a wizened old man, has just been incarcerated, and the other convicts are curious about why he's there. Naturally the biggest, toughest con lumbers over to quiz the old guy. After some inevitable complaints about the justice system, the old guy announces that he stole two elephants and hid them for five years. Not sure if he should believe this, the big, tough con asks "Why would anyone pull a stunt like that?"
At Large provides the answer to that question. It's a marvellous adventure yam, an excursion into the colourful subculture of the circus, exotic animals, and frowzy sideshows. Gary Ross has taken the story of Murray Hill - the wizened old man who stole the elephants - and spun it into a gripping moral tale about love, life, justice, and passion.
Murray Hill had spent years on the road with his animals, doing nightclub and circus routines that charmed kids and adults alike. He'd imported exotic animals from Africa and Asia in the days when animal rights activists had no power and no profile. Murray was always firm but loving with his animals, and the truth was that he loved his two elephants, Tory and Duchess, more than he loved his wife and kids.
In 1980, however, Murray knew it was time to sell the elephants. He was getting old, the road had taken its toll, and every month it seemed that there were new rules, more inspectors, and Nosy Parkers asking dumb questions about the way he treated his "girls." Selling a pair of elephants isn't an everyday task, but it can be done easily and efficiently. The trouble was that Murray wasn't like most people. One person who encountered him on his odyssey described him like this: "Crusty little fellow, no doubt about it, blunt and ornery, with a gift for rubbing people the wrong way."
Still, he sold the girls to Dick Drake and his son Eddie Drake. Then he took them back, and that's when Murray Hill became one of the most notorious fugitives in the USA. All the energy and ingenuity that Murray put into hiding out with the girls was matched by the energy Dick Drake put into finding them; the elephants were, after all, according to a grumpy judge in New Jersey, rightfully his. What makes At Large so enjoyable is Ross's great skill at unobtrusively portraying Murray, the Drakes, and the elephants as compelling characters in an epic struggle. As a hero, Murray lacks a lot of polish, and as villains the Drakes are too endearing. But the way Ross tells it, Murray is a man blessed with holy foolishness, and the Drakes are rough, tough, and fired with a very American determination that is almost luminous. And the girls? Well, you just have to meet them.