Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) a surgeon at the London Hospital discovers John Merrick (John Hurt) as a freak show attraction due to his deformities. In public he is forced to walk the streets with a burlap bag over his head. Treves pays to have Merrick brought to the Hospital for examination and possible care. He soon discovers that against his presumptions Merrick is not intellectually impaired and he works to permanently house Merrick at the hospital as well as generate more public sympathy for his condition.
The film is shot in black and white which really accentuates it’s Gothic horror undertones. Clearly Lynch was influenced by classic monster movies but in particular James Whale’s Frankenstein as both Boris Karloff’s monster of that film and Merrick in this generate immense audience sympathy. You do really feel sorry for Merrick and what the film puts him through assures you’re not going to forget his journey. Which I like that it isn’t a quest for equality or even acceptance, as much as just a need not to be feared. It’s not even prejudice, most people are just afraid by how he looks and you can sadly understand it as his abnormalities are extreme enough that even today people would be frightened. You feel bad when you consider how you would react. I do think it might have been a bit much for the film to take some liberties with the history for to the purpose of adding depressing scenes. Particularly the sequence where Merrick is recaptured and taken on tour in France, where he’s compared to howling monkeys. But the bookends of that journey are really good. The home invasion and utter humiliation of Merrick provides the film with a context for his misery and it’s very tough to watch. And once he returns to England bag over head (throughout the film the bag is a good symbol of his alienation) and is confronted by a mob, it’s incredibly powerful, his famous proclamation that he is a human being really resonates and is delivered terrifically.
On that subject, The Elephant Man owes a lot of its effectiveness to John Hurt’s astounding performance. Hurt is one of the most under-appreciated actors out there and proves why here. He both has to convey the innate sadness of Merrick while also working in heavy and no doubt uncomfortable prosthetics. And he pulls it off remarkably, in everything from his intonations to his body language. Hurt thoroughly becomes Merrick and he completely deserved his Academy Award nomination (arguably more than winner for Raging Bull Robert De Niro). Anthony Hopkins is also quite good as Treves being both relatably empathetic, and of his time in the way he treats Merrick. The hospital governor Francis Carr-Gomm is played by the great Sir John Gielgud who is of course fantastic. And even Anne Bancroft is great in her cameo as Madge Kendal. Dame Wendy Hiller and Freddie Jones also appear, Jones being particularly deplorable as the ringmaster Bytes (his young assistant is Dexter Fletcher). And Kenny Baker (R2-D2) comes to Merrick’s rescue at one point.
One of the film’s most impressive accomplishments is the make-up on Merrick. The casts of Merrick’s actual body were used as a basis and the make-up artists constructed this really effective and accurate prosthetic. The details are superb: the odd little patches of hair, the size and shape of his facial lumps, the girth of his arm and legs, not to mention the limping Hurt was forced to do. It’s one of the great make-up effects of cinema, in how unbelievably real it is. It’s legitimately frightening at times and once you realize this, it again makes you feel pity for the poor man who bore it as part of his existence. The ending does depict Merrick’s young death and is terribly depressing. It’s hard to believe it’s true to history given how poetic it is in it’s solemn sadness.
The Elephant Man is less a film about one person as it is about society. Merrick is never accepted in his lifetime and instead has to settle for smaller victories. Having friends for instance. One of the film’s most powerful scenes is when he breaks down weeping after a woman, Treves’ wife, smiles at him and shakes his hand without revulsion. It’s a terrible thought that basic kindness is so rare to him that it provokes this reaction and in that respect is just as effective as the scene where the drunkards invade his room. It showcases an extremely pessimistic side of human nature, and again makes the comparisons to Gothic-Romantic stories like Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame so apparent.
All of this in a film that was produced by Mel Brooks. Yeah, Mel Brooks was a producer but took his name off the credit out of the legitimate fear the film would be perceived as a comedy. But that just goes to show how seriously the people behind The Elephant Man took its’ story. They wanted to tell this human tragedy in the best way possible and for the most part did. Sure certain choices like the opening and closing service David Lynch’s style more than the story itself and some of the torments inflicted on Merrick particularly in the last quarter, are a little excessive. But it’s still a moving and fascinating story characterized by an amazing lead performance and remarkable visuals. It’s not a film to watch for entertainment value or a good time, but as an exploration of one man’s unimaginable struggle and a reminder of our responsibility of compassion to such outsiders, it’s surely one of the best!