A Trip Back To: The Elephant Man (1980)


By Christian DiMartino

The main goal of the “A Trip Back To” segment is to prove myself wrong. Sometimes, when watching a movie, my feelings turn out drastically different than others- in some cases I am more in favor, in others, I am not in enough favor. Take my first subject, Full Metal Jacket. Many believe the film to be an all time great; I believed half of it to be an all time great, with the rest being pretty good. After a revisit, my opinion remains the same. Take my most recent, Children of Men. Many hail it as a masterpiece, I believed it to be really good. After a revisit, I join the choir. It’s not that there isn’t enough confidence in my opinion, but rather, I want to level with everyone and hope that, upon a return, the hype can be bought.

David Lynch’s The Elephant Man is a curious case. Yours truly is a through and through David Lynch believer (unlike, say, Roger Ebert), and The Elephant Man is perhaps Lynch’s most accessible film. For whatever reason though (and there were reasons), the first viewing of The Elephant Man, some 5 years ago, left me somewhat indifferent. It wasn’t a bad movie by any means, but there was a detail about it that stood in the way for me.

Upon watching it, I had done research on the real Elephant Man, John Merrick. Doing that, and reading trivia on the film, I came to discover that much of the film was fabricated. So watching The Elephant Man, something irked me about the way in which Lynch was exploiting this man, even after all these years. There comes a rather disturbing scene in which a group of townsfolk visit him in his hospital room, and poke and make fun and laugh at him. Such an event never occurred, so I read, so 18 year old me was a little caught off-guard.

Here’s the thing though: I wasn’t there, and never would’ve been there. Not to mention, historical inaccuracy has never really bothered me before. Typically I just judge the film on its own, in terms of storytelling and entertainment value. For example, I kind of hate Bohemian Rhapsody, and not even because it’s horribly historically inaccurate (which it more than likely is) but because it was a film that reeked of lazy- lazy writing, acting, editing- and their only goal was to make money and cash in on people’s affection for Queen (which it did, but it didn’t sell me). So revisiting The Elephant Man some five years later, my initial reservations were pushed aside, and I decided to judge the movie as usual.

As you can tell, I was proven wrong.

The Elephant Man, as it stands, is a really good movie. In some ways, it can be manipulative and what not, but this time it didn’t bother me so much because it is, in fact, a movie. A movie about a real event, and a real figure, but look at it this way: in many cases, if movies went off of historical accuracy, the viewers would be bored out of their skulls. The Elephant Man works because the story is such an engaging one. Although Merrick may not say much, anyone with blood in their veins will be able to find sympathy and level with him because he is, at the end of the day, human.

Set in the Victorian era, the film finds a surgeon named Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) strolling down the streets of England one night whenever he stumbles upon a quote-on-quote “freak show.” One such exhibit, nicknamed “The Elephant Man,” has not been seen by many, but is rumored to be rather hideous. Treves gets a good look at him, and while he is shocked, he has enough compassion to realize that the man deserves better. The man, Merrick (John Hurt), is horribly disfigured and suffers from a deformity that wasn’t properly diagnosed at the time.

Treves fights for Merrick in an attempt to get him released from his circus sideshow, and mostly succeeds. He is soon taken under the care of Treves’ hospital. Fellow doctors (one of which is played by john Gielgud) are freaked out by him and/or don’t know if this is the place for him. Treves has faith in him though, and soon attempts to teach him to speak, while also giving him chances to truly see the world as normal humans do.

The Elephant Man moved me much more upon a second viewing. Take a scene in which Merrick meets Treves’ wife- this is the first time that a woman has shown him any form of kindness, and he is sure to show it. It’s a sweet moment that reminds us that faith in humanity isn’t lost yet. The Elephant Man is an emotional roller coaster, in the way that it lifts the spirits and breaks your heart, and sometimes at once.

Hopkins gives an underrated performance here as the first person to see Merrick for what he truly is, as opposed to a meal ticket. Hurt, however, is sensational. What a shame that Hurt had to compete for an Oscar against Robert De Niro for Raging Bull. There isn’t a flaw in this performance. He gets the mannerisms and the movements just right, not to mention just the way that he is able to speak, and has to tap into what it’s like to learn how to speak for the first time. It’s truly remarkable, especially when you realize that Hurt not only had to pull all of these things off, while also acting his heart out, in perhaps the most impressive make-up you’ll ever see.

Which leads me to the film’s final triumph: its production values. People claim that black and white movies are boring. Um no. While this film wasn’t made in, say, the 40’s and the 50’s, Freddie Francis’ cinematography manages to find some sort of strange beauty in the black and white. Not to mention, the production and costume design is flawless, and the score fits this film like a glove.

The Elephant Man is one of those cases in which I was dead wrong. It is not quite a masterpiece, in my eyes at least, but it happens to be very close to one. This was Lynch’s second film, following the fascinatingly bizarre and disturbing Eraserhead. This is easily his most accessible film, but it also feels Lynchian, particularly in its opening and closing sequences- both of which, oddly, suit the film. The opening sequence sets out to frighten us, in some way, while  the closing sequences, while also bizarre, provide closure and peace. Both of which describe the reaction that Merrick elicited from people, and what Merrick sought after all along.

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