“I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I…am…a man!” exclaims John Merrick.
I’ve never been much of a fan of the circus. I just couldn’t get into it. As I got older, I started to dislike it even more when I found out about the poor treatment of the animals. I’m also not a fan of carnivals as they existed through the end of the 19th century. It’s horrifying that deformed human beings were put on display as freaks; it’s a shame this was considered their only means of making a living. There is one particular case that’s always been fascinating to me, and that’s the story of Joseph Merrick of England, otherwise known as the Elephant Man. Merrick would be the subject of David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man (Merrick’s first name was changed to John for the film).
Lynch’s film is based on The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Dr. Frederick Treves and The Elephant Man: A Study In Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu, although the film is not entirely factual due to certain facts in the two books being incorrect (later research in the 1980s would unearth more factual material about Joseph Merrick). One event that occurs in the second half of the film actually occurred much earlier in real life: Merrick being surrounded by an angry mob at Liverpool Street station and being taken to the Royal London Hospital by a policeman. Most of the events in the film did happen, but with some minor changes (partially for adapting the story to film as well as not having all the facts about Merrick’s life). Also, the amount of time between the first time that Merrick was examined by Dr. Treves and when Merrick was brought to the hospital by a policeman was much greater (condensed for adaptation purposes, I would guess).
Lynch brings a good amount of his surrealist approach to this film, and even if you didn’t know this was a David Lynch movie, the film’s sound design would be a major clue (especially if you’ve seen his previous film, 1977’s Eraserhead, his first film). Until seeing this movie recently at the IFC Center, I had seen maybe one or two clips, and I was familiar with the film’s most famous quote (which is located at the beginning of this review). The sentimentality of Treves’ book was reproduced in the screenplay (written by Lynch, Christopher DeVore, and Eric Bergen), and I must admit that this is one of the most moving films I have ever seen in my life. John Hurt’s performance as Merrick is astonishing. He never makes Merrick feel like a caricature; instead he brings humanity to a man who wanted to be recognized and accepted as a human being.
The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards. Hurt received a richly deserved Best Actor nod (it’s a shame he had to compete with Robert DeNiro, who gave a stellar performance in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull), Freddie Francis a Best Cinematography nod for his beautiful black-and-white cinematography, John Morris a Best Original Score nod, Lynch a Best Director nod, and the film also received nods for Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. Christopher Tucker did the makeup design for the film, creating John Hurt’s prosthetic makeup using casts of the real Merrick’s body as a reference (the casts had been preserved in the private museum of the Royal London Hospital). The Academy refused to give an Honorary Oscar to Tucker for his extraordinary makeup work on this film, and after receiving numerous complaints, the Academy decided to create a Best Makeup category starting the following year (the first recipient being Rick Baker for 1981’s An American Werewolf In London).
It’s a shame that both this film and Raging Bull lost Best Picture to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (not that Redford’s film is a bad one; it’s quite good actually, but… come on…). The Elephant Man is an extraordinary work, and we have three men to thank for that. First, there’s John Hurt (for bringing Merrick to life), then David Lynch (for crafting this masterwork), and finally Mel Brooks. Yes, Mel Brooks’ company Brooksfilms produced the film, and Brooks himself was the film’s executive producer (he kept his name off the film so that no one would think it was a comedy, and he was also the one who recruited David Lynch to make the film). Thank you, gentlemen, for giving the world this beautiful gem of a film.