Dir.: David Lynch; Cast: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones; USA 1980, 124 min.
David Lynch based his feature about Joseph “John” Merrick (1862-1890) on case studies by Dr. Frederick Trevers and Ashley Montague. Merrick was grossly deformed but highly intelligent. Much credit must go to Make-Up artist Christopher Tucker, who inspired the Academy of Motion Pictures to create an Oscar for Best make-up artist, after Elephant Man was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (John Hurt), but did not win anything.
Surgeon Frederick Trevers (Hopkins) finds John Merrick at a Victorian Freak-Show in London’s East End where he is exploited by the alcoholic and sadistic Mr. Bytes (Jones). In order to gain access to this sadly deformed human being Trevers pays Bates and examines Merrick at his London Hospital. Mr. Carr-Gumm (Gielgud), the hospital’s Governor, cannot see any possible benefit in taking on such a difficult case, not least because of the aftercare involved – most of the nurses are appalled by his condition. But Mrs. Mothershead (Hiller) agrees to look after him and Merrick soon strikes up a genial relationship with Trevers and his wife, and is introduced to the actress Madge Kendal (Bancroft). Unfortunately Merrick’s condition still leaves him open to ridicule. Jim, a night porter, sells tickets to the locals, so they can gawk. Then Merrick is kidnapped by Bytes and taking to Belgium, where is he suffers the same indignity, and almost dies. Lynch comes up with a happy ending, which is deeply moving due to John Hurt’s’ extraordinary talents as one of our most complex screen actors who brings out the humanity of this pitiful yet deeply intelligent man.
Lynch positions Merrick between Yobs and Nobs: he is tormented in different ways by both classes. Trevers slowly realises that Merrick is defined by his deformity, no-one can see beyond this to his abilities as a creative talent. His most famous line “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being. I..am…a..man!” is a sorrowful critical de cœur. Lynch reflects on the isolation and loneliness of the artist, showing Merrick as a transcendent personality. DoP Freddie Francis, best known for his Hammer Horror features, shows the Victorian era in all its morose and cruel sordidness. It was a time when death and suffering loomed large. Haunting and passionate, The Elephant Man might still be Lynch’s most impressive feature. His later work would the artistic ambition and inventiveness but this has the heart and soul. AS