We don’t see the titular “Elephant Man” until around the 13 minute mark, and it is a further 30 minutes before we hear him talk. What we do see, however, are the reactions of others. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) meets John Merrick as we do; we hear the myth of his creation, wherein his mother was “struck down in the fourth month of her maternal condition by an elephant.” We are told that this man is a monster, and enter the carnival amidst the curious crowd. It is impossible not to pity anything that lives in such a state of discomfort, but the shocking discovery is that this is an educated and benevolent man. As Treves remarks before he knows of this, “He’s an imbecile, probably from birth, man’s a complete idiot. Pray to God he’s an idiot”. The Elephant Man indulges our voyeurism, then punishes it; leads us from pity to empathy.
Surprisingly, the man we have to thank for The Elephant Man is Mel Brooks. The comedy-director decided to finance the film, and insisted on hiring David Lynch as the director after seeing a midnight screening of Eraserhead. By his own request, Brooks was left uncredited, so that audiences would not associate the movie with his usual comedy fare. When Brooks and fellow producer Stuart Cornfeld screened to Paramount executives, they requested that the more surreal sequences be completely removed, to which Brooks responded:
“We are involved in a business venture. We screened the film for you to bring you up to date as to the status of that venture. Do not misconstrue this as our soliciting the input of raging primitives.”
He did the same thing six years later, when he made sure that The Fly was helmed by David Cronenberg. Both are examples of interventions that boosted arthouse directors into the mainstream, ensuring their acceptance into the canon of filmmakers. The surreal sequences in question were the few scenes that are recognisable as part of Lynch’s filmography, as this is one of the most conventional films he has made. These abstract sections are not bookended as dreams, but serve as an insight into the tortured psyche of the otherwise amiable John Merrick. The slow-motion images of the elephant stampede, the sounds of their trumpeting stretched out into nightmarish howls, is much more in line with the surrealism of Eraserhead, and likely why Brooks hired him. The eccentricity of Lynch’s style is restrained, but still finds its way to the surface. While John Morris’ tragic score is worth mentioning, the director was involved in the musical direction and sound design. The odd, throbbing soundscapes in between the emotionally-driven scenes harkens back to his first film.
It almost goes without saying that John Hurt’s performance is outstanding. His physical appearance, speech, and mannerisms are so convincing that it’s impossible to recognise the man underneath it all – even when it’s one of the best British actors of all time. The full costume took 7 to 8 hours to apply each day, and 2 hours to remove – meaning Hurt would arrive on set at 5 AM and not finish shooting until 10 PM. It is incredible that he manages to express the unbridled joy and deep sadness of the character under those conditions, and through so many layers of make-up. The effects department did a spectacular job on Merrick’s appearance, to the point that the Academy received widespread criticism for failing to honour their achievements. The following year, they created the Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
The London of The Elephant Man is not a hospitable one. Establishing shots are of smoke and mechanical processes; the industrial age in full motion. All the scenes that aren’t in isolated rooms and alleys are busy streets, teeming with the noise of machinery. We are introduced to the workings of the Royal London Hospital with Treves operating on a victim of a ‘machine accident’, and the waiting room is full of illness and clamour. This is a world of suffering, and one that is contrasted with John Merrick himself. The fact that he is not only intelligent, but a good-natured person is a miracle considering the traumatic life he has lead. He is dehumanised, not just with the obvious cruelty of violence and ridicule, but with condescension and animosity. The few that really reach out, not out of sympathy for an “inhuman creature”, but genuine empathy, are the glimmers of warmth in a cold universe.
We always see the reactions to Merrick before are shown the man himself. In the Medical Conference, we only see his silhouette as he is presented as an object to the audience – an academic one, but still a variation of the freak show. At a pivotal moment, Treves ponders whether he is just engaging in the voyeuristic trade that Merrick was forced into before:
“I’m beginning to believe that Mr. Bytes and I are very much alike. It seems that I have made Mr. Merrick into a curiosity all over again, doesn’t it? This time in a hospital rather than a carnival. My name is constantly in the papers, I’m always being praised to the skies. Patients are now expressly asking for my services […] What was it all for? Why did I do it? Am I a good man, or am I a bad man?“
The John Merrick presented in The Elephant Man is a saint, a mirror to which each character, and the audience, holds themselves up to. His very presence brings out the worst and best qualities in those who he meets – by encountering something perceived as “monstrous”, they show who they really are. We see the worst in humanity (Mr. Bytes, the abusive night porter) and its value (Merrick himself). His love for people and unbounded kindness, despite being given every reason not to, is as inspirational as it is tragic. The overwhelming emotion he experiences when he is treated well is part of the sentimental tone of the film, but it walks the line of melodrama carefully enough to work. He wonders whether “If I could find her [his mother], so she could see me with such lovely friends here now; perhaps she could love me as I am. I’ve tried so hard to be good”. Mrs. Treves bursts into tears at this comment, and so do I. Although he is beaten and mocked, he still adores Romeo & Juliet. The Elephant Man is about finding beauty in a harsh world, and there may be no film that better sums up the triumphs and failures of mankind.