In his birth, John Merrick contracted a rare disease that permanently and horribly deformed him. Called “the Elephant Man” because of his distorted appearance, Merrick lived in a freak show, taunted by pedestrians and rejected by society, who view him as repulsive and ugly. But Merrick managed to survive the horrors he faced and endured his pain and self-agony, eventually overcoming his fears. The Elephant Man is based upon Merrick’s life and reveals the sorrow and personal triumph of the man.
Directed by David Lynch just right out of his shoes from Eraserhead, The Elephant Man is a straight-up biopic of Merrick’s upbringing. Merrick (John Hurt) suffers day by day in Victorian London under the cruel and greedy sideshow head Bytes (Freddie Jones), who regularly beats and heckles him before showing him off to a crowd. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a wealthy young surgeon, is shocked by Merrick’s condition and takes him away to the London Hospital to care for him. The hospital’s staff first looks upon Merrick with disgust and contempt and considers him mute and deaf until Treves discovers that Merrick is quite intelligent. He can read, speak, and communicate with others and quickly adjusts to a high-class society of London. Merrick drinks tea with Treves and his wife, narrates straight out of the Bible and Romeo and Juliet, and learns about English theater and dance.
While more linear and conventional than the filmmaker’s other pictures, The Elephant Man certainly bears the mark of David Lynch. The Elephant Man shares the most in common with Eraserhead. Both features have shadowy and bleak black and white cinematography, a disillusioned protagonist shunned by the world around him, and similar expressions of architecture, as if Lynch were saying that the smoky streets of Victorian London are not too different from the nameless industrial city in Eraserhead, not to mention Merrick’s various nightmares easily match up with the surreal dreams of Henry Spencer. The major difference between the two is that The Elephant Man is rooted in hope while Eraserhead is about death. Lynch is a director adept at examining abuse and negligence but rarely touches upon sentiment and uplifting moments (The Straight Story excluded). While the story of The Elephant Man could be made into a breezy piece of sensational cinema by another filmmaker, Lynch keeps the screenplay to structured reality and plays the emotion of the imagery. The face of Merrick, with make-up used by real-life casts of Merrick, is hideously deformed, but the way that Hurt looks into the camera with a despondent gaze is enough to make you cry.
There are flaws in The Elephant Man, such as how Merrick learns to speak so rapidly; however, they do not detract from the picture as a whole. The Elephant Man is the most touching picture in Lynch’s filmography and is masterful in its ode of John Merrick’s life, celebrating the courage and bravery of a man who conquered his inner demons.
Coming Soon: A Retrospective of David Lynch’s career