By John H. Foote
27. THE ELEPHANT MAN
Based more from the real life of John Merrick (1862-1890) than the award winning and lucrative Broadway hit by Bernard Pomerance, this film was produced by the American company owned by Mel Brooks, Brooksfilms. The comic asked that his name be off or barely seen on posters and in TV ads, lest audiences think the film was in some way comic. Directed by David Lynch after Brooks saw his cult film Eraserhead (1977), the director moved far away from the stage play, and everything he did worked magic on the viewer.
To the credit of Mel Brooks, himself a talented director, he gave David Lynch free rein to make the film in the manner the director thought, which included casting. Though he had been Oscar nominated for his supporting role in Midnight Express (1978), John Hurt was still relatively unknown despite a stunning performance as Caligula in I, Claudius (1977) and a minor and dreadful performance in Heaven’s Gate (1980). Cast as the lead in this film, he would undergo a massive makeup job each day before even arriving at the set. Cast as Dr. Treves was the accomplished Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins who had recently made a huge impression in Magic (1978) and would soon be known for his performance as Hitler in The Bunker (1982). In the nineties his performance in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) would win an Oscar and make him one of the finest actors in the business.
Walking into the theatre and as the play begins audiences see a massive photograph of the real Merrick and his horrific deformities that tortured this intelligent man’s life. A gasp is usually sweeping through the audience as they stare at the photograph when an actor walks onstage in only a robe. He casts the clothing aside and is naked or covered slightly with a cloth piece of underwear, depending on the actor or director. Very confidently he begins to twist his body into the shape of Merrick, matching the hands, the legs, the head twisting just right, and then boldly holds the pose. A voice begins to describe Merrick’s affliction as the actor is led offstage, dressed and readied for his scene. Through the years Philip Anglim, David Bowie, Mark Hamill and Bradley Cooper have portrayed the role on Broadway, each earning excellent reviews, and Anglim a Tony for his performance.
For the film Lynch wanted the makeup and a profound sense of realism. The director wanted to capture the essence of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, the time Merrick became famous, and as a doctor Treves would see all sorts of terrible mechanical injuries in the operating room. The director wanted to give the sense of plunging backwards in time to capture the inhumanities of the time and inhumane treatment of the less fortunate. In addition, to give the film a surrealistic feel, he presented dream sequences in which Merrick’s mother, as Merrick explains, is knocked down by an elephant in her latter months of pregnancy, the reason he was born deformed. There seemed to be steam and smoke billowing everywhere, dark smoke erupting from the towers that dotted the skyscape of London, and a constant noise from the new, pounding machines. London had becomes much less Dickens than the storybook tales he wrote.
Treves is at a carnival when one of the exhibits, the freak exhibit, is shut down when a woman faints. The police come and are horrified by what they find, and Treves is interested. He arranges for a private showing and it takes his breath away. The curtain is pulled back and the shape behind the curtain turns to him, displaying his deformities fully. A single tear runs down the face of the doctor who has never witnessed such a monstrous misshapen figure or a deformed man such as this. He arranges for him to be brought to the hospital where he studies him and displays him to the other physicians, not unlike the carnival where he found him.
Initially he would tell another doctor, “the man is an imbecile … I pray he is an imbecile” but very quickly he learns Merrick was nothing of the kind. Underneath the monstrous head and body beat a romantic heart, and a decent, honest, intelligent man. He could read, and speak, and understood every word said to him, and was in fact a rather artistic man. Upon discovering that Merrick has intelligence, Treves arranges for him to stay in the hospital, enraging his keeper, though there is nothing he can do about it except make attempts to get him back.
In the hospital Merrick becomes a subject of curiosity to the upper class in London, eventually having a visitor in the person of Mrs. Kendall (Anne Bancroft), a famous actress of the time, who arranges for Merrick to see a stage production full of magic and delights. He is enthralled, both by her and the play. Taken to the home of Treves he meets his wife, and they connect on a deep level, and the more people he meets the more recognize the beautiful soul lurking underneath the ugliness of his appearance.
But in the dark of the night one of the orderlies is making a tidy profit bringing paying customers into the hospital to Merrick’s room to see the freak. Women scream and faint, but worse, his former owner arrives and eventually makes off with Merrick, taking him on the road again. After being treated like a human being, Merrick is in a cage again, sleeping on straw, in essential squalor. However, when the other “freaks” see him suffering and hearing his labored breathing getting much worse, they break him out.
This sequence pays homage to the banned 1932 film from Todd Browning, Freaks, and is rather breathtaking despite the subject matter.
Returning to London, he is accosted at the train station by some young boys and flees knocking over a small child. Trapped, his mask taken off he screams to the crowd, “I AM NOT AN ANIMAL! I AM NOT AN ELEPHANT! I AM A MAN! I AM A HUMAN BEING!” Treves is sent for and arrives to find his friend, who falls into Treves waiting arms, unashamed to embrace the man he calls his friend.
Back in his room at the hospital, Merrick is again content and happy, building a wood model of the cathedral he can see from his window. Becoming fascinated with a picture of a child sleeping, he decides he wants to try and lie down to sleep, knowing it is dangerous to him. He does, and dies that night, his mother seeming to call him from the other side.
Opening to stellar reviews, The Elephant Man was a hit, and something of a surprise at the box office, doing very well. Indeed, Lynch had created a film that was both frightening, yet deeply moving, and audiences responded, as did critics. The performances of John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins were lauded by film across from around the globe, as was Lynch’s direction and the beautiful black and white cinematography in the film from Freddie Francis was often spoken of in glowing terms, adding so much to the film’s atmosphere.
Incredibly when the film was nominated eight Academy Awards, Francis superb work was not among the nominees for Best Cinematography.
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (John Hurt), Best Screenplay Adaptation, Best Score, Best Costumes, Best Production Design, and Best Film Editing, but howls of protest greeted the snub of Francis for the film’s superb cinematography. In the Best Cinematography category were Raging Bull (no argument there), The Blue Lagoon (nope), The Formula (nope again), Coal Miner’s Daughter (excellent), and the eventual winner, Tess. Now to begin Raging Bull deserved to win, no question, but the fact The Elephant Man was denied even a nomination was downright criminal I think. In the end the film won nothing, not even makeup which did not have a category yet but certainly did the following year.
Lynch has often said the experience of making the film stands among the most enjoyable of his career and he thanks Mel Brooks for having the confidence to leave him alone during the making. After his terrible experience making Dune (1984), he stayed away from the studios, choosing to make small, independent films, not having the stomach for studio work.
John Hurt’s superb performance as Merrick is a highlight of the film, managing to create a sympathetic character under loads of latex. Most of it is done with his voice, haunting and broken, but he also conveys with his eyes and misshapen body. Though he would never again attain the heights he did with this film, he worked consistently until his death a few years ago.
Hopkins as Treves was a quiet revelation and I have often felt that his performance is largely forgotten because of Hurt. It is nothing Hurt did, simply the way the film is perceived. As Treves, Hopkins oozes intelligence and decency, and gradually reveals a humanity he has not likely let anyone really see. When Merrick runs to him, terrified, seeking his help, dressed again in filthy rags and smelling as he once did of a cage, Treves readily embraces his friend and holds him, unashamed, fearless. He no longer sees the deformities as what define John Merrick, he feels the goodness of the should beneath the body.
Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Kendall breezes into the film and out, a lovely cameo, and Freddie Jones is all greed and hate as Bytes, the one time keeper of the poor Merrick character. Both are excellent in the small scenes they have. John Gielgud is all British stiff upper lip as Carr Gomm, the chief of staff of the hospital, and Wendy Hiller is excellent as the nurse who cares for and protects both Merrick and Treves.
I am sure I will be taken to task for having the film so far down the list, but the fact is, there were better films, and every film on this list is great. Never forget it is my opinion, and though it is an educated opinion, still just an opinion.
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.