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Bucket List Movie #468: The Elephant Man (1980)

Updated on November 3, 2014
David Lynch.
David Lynch. | Source

Now that I've completed my salute to Tod Browning, I can return to the present and stop using the word "freak" lightly, especially in regards to today's BLM, 1980s The Elephant Man.

Another black and white film by David Lynch, The Elephant Man is bookended by surreal montages as if to remind you who directed the darn thing, but in between is a lovingly shot, lyrically told fable of the real-life "Elephant Man", John Merrick.

A few disclaimers before we proceed: while it is based on factual events, The Elephant Man (and, indeed, quite a few adaptations, including Bernard Pomerance's award-winning play) takes a few liberties with Merrick's life. While he was indeed part of a circus sideshow, he wasn't abused as shown in the film. It's highly unlikely he actually met stage actress Madge Kendall. In fact, Merrick's first name wasn't John, but Joseph. Dr. Frederick Treves, the man who helped Merrick, inexplicably changed Merrick's name to "John" in his memoirs.

Now with those pesky details out of the way, this diminishes my opinion of The Elephant Man not a whit. Unlike Good Morning, Vietnam, the liberties taken with Merrick's are nowhere near as egregious as the ones taken with Adrian Cronauer. Merrick's life and legend have reached near mythical proportions, so it's only natural that any adaptation of his life would do the same. It may not be right, but Merrick has become a symbol of perseverance, and The Elephant Man serves as a not-so-gentle reminder to treat our fellow man with dignity and respect, no matter what we think of them or what they look like.

John Merrick's iconic hood.
John Merrick's iconic hood. | Source

Victorian London: dapper, compassionate surgeon Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) is drawn to the case of sideshow freak John Merrick (John Hurt), also known as the "Elephant Man", because of his abnormally large head and scaly skin tumors. Merrick walks around with a burlap sack mask with a single eye hole, has an exceptionally large right hand that is a sadly useless anchor on his body, he can barely speak due to his facial deformity (in real life he required an operation, and even then few could understand him), and he isn't even supposed to lie down to sleep, or he'll never wake up. Wanting to examine Merrick (and eager to get him away from his abusive master and squalid life), Treves takes Merrick to his hospital for study and any possible treatment. Unfortunately, Merrick's condition is so severe and mysterious, Treves is forced to admit he can't cure him, but he encourages to Merrick to socialize more by bringing around visitors. Merrick, it turns out, is well-read and eloquent in spite of his speech impediment, and he gradually wins people over and begins to overcome his shyness. Famed actress Madge Kendall (Anne Bancroft) is touched by Merrick's story and personally befriends him, bringing him books and an autographed photo he cherishes.

But Merrick receives cruel reminders of how awful people can be, especially to those who are different. Even worse is the knowledge Treves holds that his young friend doesn't have very long to enjoy his new, happy life...

The real John Merrick.
The real John Merrick. | Source

Even if it does alter a few facts, The Elephant Man is nonetheless a stirring fable that shows the best and worst of humanity. It is also influential, because this is the film that inspired the Academy to finally introduce the Best Make-Up category after a slew of angry letters that The Elephant Man wasn't honored.

The make-up job is nothing short of extraordinary. John Hurt looks exactly like the real John Merrick, and it was an unenviable task for him to look that way. It apparently took seven to eight hours to apply the make-up and prosthetics, and two hours to take it off. Hurt, ever the pro, would nonetheless later say,

It took 12 hours to apply the original makeup. I thought to myself, "They have actually found a way of making me not enjoy a film."

Any strain on his part doesn't show in The Elephant Man, for Hurt fully embodies Merrick, body and soul, playing him at first as as childlike and almost bestial, then as charmingly awkward, to a cultured man determined to take his place in the world. It's a performance worthy of Lon Chaney.

Jonathan Demme cast Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs after seeing him in The Elephant Man. It's always a nice change to see Hopkins in a role completely unlike Lecter. Though he complained that he found Treves a boring character to play, I find that Hopkins brings a rounded intelligence and complexity to a potentially colorless character. Treves is kind and helpful, but more than one person calls him out on putting Merrick on medical display and inviting people from high society to see him. A shaken Treves at one point wonders if he's just as exploitative as Merrick's old circus master, and inviting a slightly nicer crowd of people to gawk at him. It's something I wondered from beginning to end, and Hopkins pulls off this mult-layered character perfectly.

John Hurt as John Merrick.
John Hurt as John Merrick. | Source
Treves and Merrick.
Treves and Merrick. | Source

Shot in satiny black and white, The Elephant Man has a timeless feel to it, as do many of Lynch's projects. Roger Ebert actually panned the film, criticizing its "sentimentalism". Fair enough, but I don't think Lynch frames it as a proper biopic, which is more than I can say for most directors (don't make me rant about Good Morning, Vietnam again). Rather, it's an important parable about what it means to be a human being. Yes, the famous line "I am not an animal! I am a human being!" has become the stuff of parody, which I think is a shame. Considering the deplorable way social media is abused and the rash of suicides committed by bullied teens, maybe we should ease up on the irony and take Merrick's words to heart. The Elephant Man is a call for us to stop acting like animals, and start acting like human beings.


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