"I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!"
-John Hurt as John Merrick
David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) was only his second feature film after his experimental feature debut Eraserhead. Mel Brooks, the famous satirical director, fell in love with Eraserhead and helped to finance The Elephant Man. This film was Lynch's first studio picture.
The Elephant Man seeks to explore deformity and social exclusion and its effects on society and its "freaks". This film is based on the life of Joseph Merrick who died at the age fo 27 at the Royal London Hospital. This film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, of which it won none. This film inspired the Academy to create a category for Best Film Makeup after Christopher Tucker, the chief makeup artist, did not receive commendation for the creation of the elephant man. To create the impecable realness of the deformities, John Hurt's makeup was crafted from casts of Merrick's actual body. The casts had been housed at the Royal London Hospital. This makeup took up to 8 hours a day to apply and created a realness that only makeup effects can duplicate.
Lynch insisted that this film be shot in black and white and, thanks to Brooks, was granted the artistic license to do so. The black and white photography, shot by director of photography, Freddie Francis, is so integral to the overall story and mood of Lynch's characters. The muted tones and dark shadows serve to define the overall themes of the film. Lynch seeks to explore deep longing, disguises and betrayals, both physical and emotional. John Merrick (played perfectly with passion and angst by John Hurt) comes to life with the shadows that Lynch painstakingly creates. There is a gorgeous sequence when Dr. Frederick Treves (in the best performance of his career by Anthony Hopkins) is introducing Merrick, stripped down to his deformities, to his medical colleagues. Instead of showing us the man as monster, Lynch illuminates a curtain from the front and John's twisted body shines through in shadow. We can hear Treves describing Merrick's various deformities but we are not a witness to his humiliation.
Lynch begins this film with an experimental montage. He superimposes images of a woman, screaming in pain, and the images of large elephant heads. A haunting musical score plays in the background as the woman's face and the elephant's face become one. This opening montage serves to disorient the audience. We are never sure what we are looking at. We enter this film under the guise of disorientation and like Treves slowly seek answers to the truth about the woman and her place within this dream world. We first meet Treves as he snakes his way through a carnival. He seems to be following someone, deeper and deeper into a maze of freaks and horror seekers. He enters the freak show through a back alley tent and we soon find he is searching for a scientific study patient. He slowly maneuvers his way to The Elephant Man tent and finagles a deal with the master of ceremonies, Bytes (played by Freddie Jones). Bytes reveals The Elephant Man to Treves and a slow push in reveals a single tear fall gracefully down his cheek. Treves is forever altered in this moment and at once sees a medical mirage and an abused man living like an animal. He insists that Bytes trade him, Bytes will get paid and Treves will have a medical marval to showcase in front of his colleagues. But the relationship begins to change when Treves learns that there is a man under the cloak of deformities. A man lives and breathes under the bulbous head, the crooked spine and the useless hand.
In a beautiful moment where Treves tries desperately to get John to talk to him, to show him he is a man, not some deformed animal. John speaks to Treves, telling him his name, forming words and sentences of great poise and grace. John is a man, a well spoken, gentle man, who until this moment has been treated no better than a mangy dog. Treves and Merrick become fast and fervent friends and Treves slowly tries to assimilate Merrick into civilized society, but then struggles with the moral implications of trading one freak show for another. Lynch spends the majority of this film weighing the cost of humanity. Merrick seems to be the only truly selfless human being and the rest of us are turned into monsters. Merrick makes a very poignant statement to a friend when he says people fear the things they do not understand, absolving the people surrounding him of their cruelties. It's the ultimate sign of forgiveness and humanity.
Dreams and fantasies play a large role in all of Lynch's distopias. Merrick, due to his deformities, is unable to sleep laying down. He has to sit upright or his body would be able to sustain life. There is a painting in his room at the hospital of a boy tucked into his oversize bed, fast asleep, safe and protected. John yearns for this sense of stillness and warmth. He spends every night watching this sleeping boy and wishing that he could lay his head down and dream with the same childhood innocence. John seeks nothing more than this small kindness. In the end, that kindness is granted.
I had the rare honor of seeing this film projected at the New Beverly's David Lynch retrospective a few weeks ago. This film was one of the most beautiful cinematic experiences of my life. If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor, watch it now.
John laying down to sleep
Dr. Treves watching through the Freak Show
John single greatest moment of divine pleasure
John being beaten by "his master"
John meets Dr. Treves for the second time
The study of a man
John as Romeo
John trying to get back home
John mesmerized by his new gifts
The Elephant Man Trailer