The Elephant Man
Dr. Fox: Have you ever mentioned his mental state?
Dr. Treves: Oh, he’s an imbecile, probably from birth. The man’s a complete idiot. I pray to God he’s an idiot.
The Elephant Man is a story about a severely deformed man who is discovered being paraded in freakshows in Victorian England, and his rescue and care by a doctor practicing in a London hospital. The Elephant Man, John Merrick, is treated brutally by his ‘owner’, and the doctor takes it on himself to remove the man from these circumstances. At first, the doctor is interested in the man’s afflictions but assumes him an imbecile, but comes to discover there is a gentle soul beneath the terrible afflictions and deformities. The brutality this man has suffered, and his own realisation he is more than this grotesque thing to be paraded or abused by others, coupled with the realisation by others of the humanity inside ‘The Elephant Man’ and their reaction to his deformities, and then to his personality and inner essence, form the basis of this extremely powerful and moving film. However, even though he is treated with kindness and respect, there are still people minded to exploit his appearance and treat him like a beast instead of a man…
The film stars John Hurt as John Merrick (you’d never recognise him) in an oscar-nominated performance, Anthony Hopkins is his saviour Dr Treves, and Anne Bancroft is an actress (Mrs Kendall) that pays him a visit and finds herself surprised at his humanity. They are all great here, but Hurt steals it; the gentle politeness of Merrick and Hurt’s projection of the man are powerful and clear, and lend the film a sense of both deep tragedy and a pure sense of uplift simultaneously – no mean feat. This is particularly intense when we get to know the character, and he then becomes subject to unnecessary and unthinking cruelties – which are even more disgusting because they are often deliberately carried out for not better reason than to entertain. In fact, some commentators note the near-cartoonish badness of the bad people here, and note that these are mere caricatures of men, and aren’t realistic. However, physical and mental cruelty for the purposes of entertainment seem to be perfectly acceptable (and indeed a measure of self-worth) for some people, so while it might seem unrealistic, it isn’t THAT far out of the range of human behaviours that people like Merrick might have encountered (unfortunately).
Dr Treves: I know exactly what you’ve done to him and he’s never going back to that.
Night Porter: He’s a freak. That’s how they live. We’re partners, he and I.
Dr Treves: *You’re* the monster! You, you’re the freak!
This movie was directed by David Lynch, more famous for surreal/weird movies such as Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and proved to be an excellent choice in directing this moving and powerful piece. Incidentally, The Elephant Man has clear links with Lynch’s previous film Eraserhead and the film that followed this one, Dune. It definitely invokes memories of Eraserhead with its stark black-and-white images, industrial noises, and short dream-like sequences, and links to Dune by its use of a female face among a starry sky as an end/start device. I guess when Lynch likes an idea, he likes to play it out more than once. His limited use of his usual style to relatively short sections means it has huge impact here, and also shows his film-making abilities aren’t based in being weird alone, and shows his obvious talent in a more traditional film.
Also of note is the fact it was produced by Mel Brooks, who must be applauded for his efforts with this movie. He apparently fought long and hard to first get Lynch accepted as director for it, and then again to allow Lynch to retain his final cut of this movie, in particular the opening and closing sequences, and much kudos to Mr Brooks for being involved in this most serious of films. (In his interviews about this movie, I remember Brooks saying how impressed he was with Lynch’s talent – presumably from watching Eraserhead – and the gentle nature of Lynch himself, who Brooks described as ‘like James Stewart from Mars’).
It is beautifully photographed in a very sharp black and white by Freddie Francis, and brings into vivid ife the ugliness AND beauty of Victorian England. It is a striking piece of cinematography, and seems both strikingly real and otherworldly at the same time.
The score and the use of sounds are also used remarkably well in this movie – noise/music is another of Lynch’s many filmic talents.
Dwarf: Luck, my friend, luck. Who needs it more than we?
It’s hard to find criticism of this movie, but there are criticisms to be made: the bad guys here are almost cartoonishly bad as written; however Freddie Jones as the Elephant Man’s ‘owner’ does bring a little more to it than the script gives, so he at least makes up for this issue. Secondly, there is much criticism that the script is an entire fabrication and is completely untrue, but frankly when did that ever matter for movies? Finally, it is referred to by some as manipulative. It is to some degree, but again, I never found that much of a problem in movies unless overbearing and when it overtakes the thinking part of the movie – this film keeps you intellectually engaged as well as emotionally engaged all the way to the end.
Mrs. Kendal: Why, Mr. Merrick, you’re not an elephant man at all.
John Merrick: Oh no?
Mrs. Kendal: Oh no… no… you’re a Romeo.
This film contains many lessons and messages about appearance, inner beauty, how a kindness given to others can benefit both them and you, and to me, the most important is said by Merrick himself, when he says his life is now full because he knows he is loved. To be loved is his salvation, it seems to me.
Take care with this remarkable, devastating film: It has the power to lift your spirits, but it will break your heart too.
REWATCHABILITY: Once every 2-3 years; it is a little too profound to rewatch too quickly after the last viewing, and will be a pure pleasure every time if you leave a decent break. Whilst I think it’s a PG, this is really only suitable for adults or mature teens.