Ranking: #46/111

Director: David Lynch (USA)

Genre: Biographical Social Drama

Quite simply, this is one of the most extraordinary films ever made. It’s also one of the deepest movies. For example, after watching The Elephant Man, it’s unlikely one would look upon those who are less fortunate with the same eyes again. And that’s what great film art can do: change our perceptions, heighten our awareness, deepen our humanity. True works of art offer some illumination for the soul.

This unusual film by David Lynch is a fictionalised account of what is probably one of the most extreme cases of a person physiologically deformed by disease in modern history. The exact cause of Joseph Merrick ‘s grotesque bodily growths is unknown, but the most common theories advanced are that his physical deformities were due to Proteus syndrome, or neurofibromatosis, or even a few different pathologies at once. It is not necessary to know the exact nature of Merrick ‘s medical condition in order to fully appreciate this film.

Lynch based the screenplay on two sources, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, a book published in 1923 by Dr Frederick Treves, the surgeon who took the most interest in, and care of, Merrick, during his lifetime, and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu, published in 1971.  

Joseph (called John in the film) lost his mother when he was still a young child and his life became very tough after this terrible loss. He later told Treves, after the two men had become friends, that he believed his condition was due to his mother having had a traumatic encounter with an escaped elephant which had frightened her while she was pregnant with him.

After struggling to find work, following his mother’s death, and working the “freak show” circuit, Merrick met Treves in 1884, where he was examined and shown to the Pathological Society of London (a subtle variation of the “freak show”?). Eventually he became a resident in London Hospital, where a fund was set up to cover the costs of taking care of him.

The portrait of Treves, immaculately acted by Anthony Hopkins, is nuanced in The Elephant Man, showing his essential goodness mixed in with some selfish ambitions for his own career.

The film creates a sharp dichotomy in the responses of people to Merrick when they meet, or see, him. There are those who enjoy being horrified by him, as in the “freak show” syndrome we see at various stages in the plot, or who mock, verbally abuse or manhandle him. Then, by contrast, there are those who respond to his plight with the utmost kindness. This duality that runs through the movie reflects the theme of good and evil.

Another theme, which to me is genuinely heroic, is that Merrick manages to maintain his dignity despite his extremely deprived condition. This is a film about the possibility of redemption in the most extreme of situations. There are religious overtones to this which show the Christian influences from Merrick’s childhood, and which hint at his faith.

The legendary cinematographer, Freddie Francis, used black-and-white photography to great effect, reflecting the look and feel of the Victorian era in London. Lynch had loved Francis’s cinematography in the 1960 black-and-white film Sons and Lovers and so he was an obvious choice for filming The Elephant Man. The hospital scenes in The Elephant Man are considered by experts to be very authentic to the time, as are the street scenes. All in all, it’s a very realistically made film.

With his uncompromising brand of realism, Lynch succeeds in recreating the Victorian period in the 1880s, while forcing the viewer to confront the painful truth of Merrick’s real condition, as a prelude to an acceptance of his essential humanity.  Treves himself moves from being a clinician trying to help Merrick from a medical perspective to a human being fully involved in the life of the man’s soul, as it were. After all, here was a man who touched the hearts of many important people in the upper echelons of Victorian London. In an interview many years after the film was released, Lynch said he tried to capture the “fantastic soul” of Merrick. The film is about his dignity and his spirituality hidden under a hideous physical deformity. We see this over and over, for example, when he’s hounded by a mob into a public urinal, and cries out from the heart that he is not an animal but is human. This comes across, too, when Treves overhears him reciting Psalm 23.

The make-up artist, Chris Tucker, created a work of art in the transformation of John Hurt into the Elephant Man. It took about twelve hours each day to complete the main character’s make up. I wonder if there have been many harder parts to play in cinematic history than this one? It’s just phenomenal make-up and acting. Tucker was given permission to base his make-up model on Merrick’s real skeleton, which was kept in a museum at London Hospital, as well as a plaster cast of his body, made after his death, in addition to photographs. The disguise used in the early part of the film, too, was based on what Merrick really used when he went outside into public view.

Lynch has elicited brilliant performances from all the actors and actresses. While it is a stellar cast, including John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, John Hurt and Sir Anthony Hopkins, there is no one who puts a foot wrong, always striking just the right tone.

The artistry in film art always lies in expressing an inner life through a strongly textured exterior world, which, in turn, is made alive through acting.

David Lynch was an abstract, symbolic painter before he was a filmmaker. Mel Brooks, who was a producer of The Elephant Man, said he chose Lynch because he saw that he was a true artist.  This intuition proved accurate. Lynch’s artistry and imagination are on display throughout the film, from the authentic mise-en-scène for recreating the Victorian period and, in particular, the London Hospital, to the use of sound and imagery to convey the disturbing reality of Merrick’s condition, such as the graphic sequence of Merrick’s mother being terrified of an escaped elephant while she was pregnant with him.

The scene of Merrick’s death is deeply moving. Given how heavy the man’s head had become as a result of all the growths and protrusions, he had to sleep with his head on his knee. Otherwise, he would have broken his neck or asphyxiated. The scene is faithfully based on Treves’s account in The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences. The afflicted man had often told Treves that he wished he’d could lie down to sleep like other people: “…he must, with some determination, have made the experiment … Thus it came about that his death was due to the desire that had dominated his life—the pathetic but hopeless desire to be ‘like other people’.” It has been said by some commentators that Merrick decided to try sleeping like everyone else because he’d been so humanised by the kindness of those who’d cared for him in the hospital or had visited him, that he’d even begun to feel “normal”.

For Lynch, when the whole work of art “feels correct”, then it’s complete. The Elephant Man is a complete work. There is nothing one could add. There is nothing one could take away. Everything is in place: the imagery, the make-up, the settings, the acting, the dialogue, the symbols, the atmospheric use of sound, and, above all, the themes and ideas behind the movie. Carefully, delicately, the film takes us on a painful and, ultimately, liberating, journey, forcing us to reach the place where human kindness can prevail against the baser instincts towards mockery, cruelty and abuse.