The Elephant Man
UK (1980) Dir. David Lynch
In this current climate of people desiring fame and attention for the vainest and shallow of reasons, we must not overlook those who achieve it through their misfortune as exploited by others. That this is more infamy than fame, there are few more notable the tragic case of Joseph Merrick aka The Elephant Man.
Victorian London and noted surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) hears of the exhibit of a travelling freak show recently arrived in the East End, the Elephant Man, a grotesquely deformed John Merrick (John Hurt). Treves arranges with Merrick’s owner, the bullying drunkard Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones) to have Merrick taken to the Royal London Hospital for examination.
Bytes however fears his meal ticket is being taken away from him and punishes Merrick for it, beating him so badly he needs to be admitted to hospital for care. Treves takes it upon himself to look after Merrick, but word soon spreads about the Elephant Man, turning him into a celebrity. As Merrick reveals himself to be a gentle and thoughtful man, he also resigns himself to the fact he will never be cured.
Merrick’s story is indeed tragic in every way yet not quite the horror story as presented in this powerful essaying from celebrated surrealist David Lynch in his most restrained yet still characteristic work. The Elephant Man is based on the memoires of the real Treves and a 1971 book by Ashley Montagu, both of which are adhered to despite the odd lapse in veracity of the facts.
First, Merrick’s first name is changed from Joseph to John, which is attributed to how Treves named him in his text that Montagu also perpetuated. Another falsehood is that Merrick suffered under the man who inspired the Bytes character, Tom Norman, a charge he refuted – not only was he not a dangerous alcoholic, but Merrick was paid well and treated as such, with their partnership being Merrick’s idea in lieu of not being able to find real work.
As the saying goes “never let the facts get in the way of a good story” but these are in fact minor changes to what is otherwise a faithful account of Merrick’s life. The film does open with another misleading “fact” however, that Merrick’s mother was trampled by an elephant during her fourth month of pregnancy, in a poetic attempt for the pachyderm association of his later sobriquet appear more predestined.
Shot in stunning black and white to avoid seeming like your average sensationalised biopic drama, there is a gothic feel to the mise-en-scene that gives Victorian London an air of danger within this period setting that was considered daring in 1980. Though not strictly a horror film, the monochrome images are stark and foreboding enough as the camera passes through London’s foggy East End and in the Frankenstein like reveal of Merrick in his stage surroundings.
We don’t actually see Merrick in full until much later when Treves gets to examine him; Lynch wisely affords us only glimpses of his lopsided, bulbous lump covered frame, often via shadows, whilst to avoid the stares and shock of the public, Merrick travels under a huge black cloak and white mask. Unable to walk properly with a swollen right foot and an oversized head, even in disguise Merrick is a curious and eerie sight.
Typically, Merrick’s appearance shocks and appals all that see him, upsetting the young nurses at the hospital which incurs disdain from frosty matron Mrs. Mothershead (Wendy Hiller), feeling Merrick isn’t a worthy patient if he can’t be cured. Over time however, when Merrick proves he can speak, engage with people, and is really a gentle humane soul, Mothershead becomes one of his greatest allies, as many do, including famous stage actress Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft) and even Queen Victoria!
Understanding there is a human beneath the unsightly protrusions, ravaged skin, and large misshapen skull is the task Treves sets himself, finding much opposition within the hospital for keeping Merrick there for treatment and observation. From hospital director Mr. Carr-Gomm (John Gielgud) to his fellow men of science, and the gentry serving as patrons of the hospital, each one is a hurdle Treves must overcome and succeeds, but it comes at the cost of his own sense of morality.
Mr. Byte exacerbates this by pointing out he and Treves are the same, both exploiting Merrick for personal gain’ even if Treves could argue the circumstances are different, the principle is indeed the same. Throughout the various scenarios designed to make Merrick sympathetic, this would be the most trenchant in highlight an inescapable fact – people who are different will be stared at regardless of where they go or how they are inside.
Even though this isn’t a horror film, Lynch does employ a few tactics from the genre to ensure the moments Merrick is in peril or being abused are uncomfortable to watch. When a shady night porter (Michael Elphick) brings a paying rabble to visit Merrick at the hospital, their baying, unruly treatment of the frightened man is deeply upsetting, not just through their behaviour but the constant movement of the intimate camerawork that takes us into the heart of this nightmare scene.
Boasting a cast of major British acting talent, the film deservedly belongs to John Hurt, bringing so much humanity to Merrick behind the layers of unwieldy prosthetics and make-up, which forced the creation of Best Make-Up Oscar when Christopher Tucker’s faithful replication of Merrick’s appearance went unrecognised. Hurt is unrecognisable visually but his commitment to and immersion of the role is unmistakable, from the physical discomfort to the evocation through his tiny eyes.
The Elephant Man is bleak and a little over dramatised, but is rich in heart, boldness, and sensitivity towards its subject. Ahead of its time in how biopics are made, it should be recognised as a landmark piece of cinema, serving as both a technical achievement and sublime, moving, and rewarding entertainment.