By John H. Foote
(****) On Criterion Blu Ray
Can one imagine what it must have been to exist as poor John Merrick, that misshapen, horrifically deformed human being known as the Elephant Man? I doubt it. There is a scene near the beginning of David Lynch’s film biography The Elephant Man, where Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) sees Merrick for the first time. As the poor soul is barked at by the carnival folk who “own” him, he stands and turns towards Treves, though we do not yet see Merrick. Treves gasps ever so slightly, and a tear rolls down his cheek at this dreadful example of inhumanity before him.
It is a splendid piece of direction from Lynch, who I believe was the perfect director to make this film.
To be clear, the film The Elephant Man was not based on the award winning stage play of the same name, but rather on the writings in diaries and journals kept by Dr. Treves in the years he befriended and studied Merrick. Mel Brooks, of all people, bought the rights for his production company and turned the project over to Lynch after seeing Eraserhead (1977). Among the perfect decisions Lynch made was to shoot the film in black and white, to capture the coming of the Industrial Age in England, and to use make up to authenticate the look of Merrick which was not done on stage. The actors portraying Merrick on Broadway – Phillip Anglican, later David Bowie and Mark Hamill – would stand in front of an aged black and white photograph of Merrick’s hideous deformed body and contort their own to approximate Merrick, without any make up. On stage, with that ever-present photograph, it worked, and quite well, but Lynch knew film audiences would want to see a Merrick. Using surrealism, expressionism, and paying homage to Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932) and those old Universal horror films, Lynch created his film, the difference this time was that the hideous creature was no monster, mankind was the true monster.
John Hurt had made a name for himself on television’s I, Claudius (1977) as Caligula before being cast as drug addled Max in Midnight Express (1978), giving a performance that was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. This brought him to the attention of Michael Cimino who cast him as Billy in Heaven’s Gate (1980), a production that drove Hurt mad with the delays and overages. He actually left the production for months to go to be Merrick in The Elephant Man, returned to Heaven’s Gate to find them no further ahead. For me his performance in Cimino’s western consists of him shouting “James” for most of the film. What he did in The Elephant Man, though not perfect, was very fine earning Hurt an Oscar nomination as Best Actor.
The film follows Merrick’s life from the moment he is found by Treves who pays the horrible freak show owner to study Merrick, thinking him to be an imbecile. When he discovers he is not, Treves, a fine, decent man, is ashamed of himself and fights for Merrick to be named a permanent ward of the hospital. Winning that right, what Treves does not know is that one of the night guards is holding his own freak show at night, bringing in interested parties to gaze upon Merrick, further humiliating the poor man. Merrick is eventually kidnapped by the man who owned him and put back into a life of servitude, until the fellow freaks help him escape, recalling a startling sequence from Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932).
Taunted on the streets of London, finally cornered, his hood pulled off, Merrick roars to the gathering crowd, “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a man! I am a human being!” When alerted Merrick has been found Treves goes to him and runs to embrace his friend, their friendship forever solidified.
There are many heartbreaking scenes in which Merrick is introduced to members of the public, but none so fine as his meeting Treves’ wife during a visit to his friend’s home. Though horrified by his appearance she feels great empathy for him, not being able to fully comprehend the life he had led before meeting her husband. The second such scene comes when Merrick is treated to a performance of a pantomime in which the colours, costumes, magic and movement delight him. His new friend, famous actress Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft), dedicates the performance to him, bringing the audience to their feet in suppose of Merrick.
As he did in life, he died trying to sleep lying down, the weight of his enormous head suffocating him.
John Hurt is excellent as John Merrick, finding the perfect note to portray this gentle man pulled from hell and squalor. If I had any quibble with the film it would be that perhaps Merrick is too saintly, too good, that Lynch is saying despite the horrors of his appearance on the outside, while inside he is a decent, fine man, the human being we should all be. But that is a minor quibble. Hurt was rightfully nominated for the Academy Award as Best Actor, ultimately losing the Oscar to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980).
Anthony Hopkins was gentle and kind as Dr. Treves, a doctor who seems to find his own deeper humanity through his work with Merrick. Still more than a decade away from the super stardom that came with The Silence of the Lambs (1991), there was no doubt Hopkins was a gifted actor and his work as Treves, soft, ever watching, remains sublime.
John Gielgud is properly British, the head of the hospital who cannot quite believe what he is seeing, but when he realizes and accepts Merrick as a human being, he gives the poor soul his dignity.
The Elephant Man was nominated for eight Academy Awards, but to the eternal shame of the Academy, there was not an award for Best Make Up. Hurt sat eight hours a day in the make up chair, working every other day, mastering the demanding physical torture of walking, of moving, of speaking to create a man of great inner dignity. Though the film won no Oscars, but it was well reviewed and a strong box office hit.
Lynch superbly brought to life Victorian England during the rising Industrial revolution, with its smoke, vicious new injuries caused by machines, grime, it was a difficult time, but a time of change. The surrealistic sequences are quite breathtaking, but then so is the entire picture.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.