The first time I saw David Lynch's The Elephant Man, I wasn't quite as moved as everyone around me. I appreciated the movie, but the people in my row were going absolutely berserk. The man next to me was snuffling and nearly choking; at times it seemed the entire audience was involved in a symphony of nose-blowing. I can still hear them today. A man behind me cried nonstop, from the opening credits to the final fade. I couldn't believe a human could contain so much fluid in his head. All around me I heard sobs and wails of grief, like the overdone crying you might hear in a beginner's acting class, or at the very least, the funeral of a loved one. Occasionally I looked around to see what these people looked like; many of them were scrunched down in their seats, as if the sadness from the screen was bearing down on them. The only respite came early in the film, when some teenage girls seated a few rows down screamed for someone to remove the Elephant Man's mask. These girls were the types who would've cornered the Elephant Man in an alley and gang-stomped him. For a brief moment, the little New England cinema I was in wasn't far removed from 1880s Victorian England. The rowdy girls eventually piped down, though, and the weepers owned the night.
I'd read a story about the real John Merrick (or "Joseph," as we've learned in recent years was his real name) in a paperback book I owned called Very Special People. I remember that reading it was an emotional experience, and recently those feelings came back to me when I saw a picture of the Pope embracing a man who seemed covered in barnacles. Of course, the film has some scenes guaranteed to bring out the tissues, particularly when Merrick talks about his mother, and how she had "the face of an angel." But the film is more than just a tearjerker about an unfortunate young man. It's about the strangeness, and randomness of the world. In many ways, although you might not think so at first, it's a typical David Lynch movie.
First, the machines. Lynch has always been interested in machinery, both visually and metaphorically. He's especially fond of loud, clanging ones, and in the 1880s, when The Elephant Man is set, London was a nightmare of factory smoke and noise. As Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) operates on a patient, he laments the harm done by these new-fangled monstrosities that can take a man's finger or leg without remorse. Does Treves (or Lynch) think the industrial age was somehow the cause of Merrick's condition? As we become more like machines ourselves, automatons at the assembly line, will some part of the human soul become like the misshapen features of Merrick?
We first see Merrick the Elephant Man (John Hurt) in a small, dark display, seemingly held captive by a Dickensian villain who occasionally gets his points across with a whip. Treves attends a showing, grows fascinated, and arranges to "buy" him. Merrick is soon living comfortably at the hospital where Treves works. There's some controversy, as the hospital isn't equipped to house the "incurable," but Treves' mission wins out. Merrick learns to speak, and is soon reciting Bible verses and poetry. He becomes a local celebrity of sorts, as Treves arranges for several local dignitaries to visit him. Treves eventually confronts his own part in Merrick's life, wondering if he's merely putting him on display again, for a different set of gawkers. "Am I a good man, or a bad man," Treves wonders aloud. Lynch himself may have wondered the same thing, for at times it seems he's made a two hour movie about a crippled man being beaten by strangers. And by keeping Merrick in shadows or silhouette for much of the film's first act, Lynch is also guilty of stringing viewers along as if we've paid to see a horror film, not a drama about the human condition. The strategy works, though, because by the time we see Merrick we've already grown sympathetic.
The film gets loopy at times - a porter at the hospital abuses Merrick, and makes money by charging local drunks for a chance to come see him. They barge into Merrick's comfy room, pour alcohol down his throat, and throw him around like a sack of leaves. How this could go on at a London hospital seems unlikely, and many criticized Lynch for playing with the facts to add melodrama to an already dramatic story. Merrick is even kidnapped and taken back to the carnival life, made to sit in a cage of howling monkeys. The gross melodrama ends when a friendly group of other "freaks" break him out of his cell and help him return home. It's when he wanders through a foreign port, somewhat disoriented, that we hear the famous line from the film. "I am not an animal! I am a man!" By now he's trapped, surrounded by people mocking him, including a brat with a peashooter. (They were distant relatives, perhaps, of some naughty girls who would be sitting in a Brockton cinema with me 100 years later.)
Merrick is eventually reunited with Treves, who greets him with a hug, the only open display of warmth in the entire movie. After attending a play, Merrick comes back to his room where he has finished a scale model of the cathedral across the way. Then, wanting to sleep like other people, he lies back in bed and dies, the weight of his own head causing his neck to snap. Merrick could only sleep sitting up with his enormous head balanced on his knees. To lay back was to invite death. I imagine, after so many years of virtually sleepless nights, death was welcome.
There are some scenes I love: when Merrick shyly asks Treves if there is a cure for his condition, and Treves politely says no; when Treves brings Merrick to his home, where Treves' wife does her best not to be shocked by Merrick's appearance, and Merrick can only admire the lovely portraits of Treves' children; Merrick in his room, fawning over the gifts that people have left for him, including a fancy grooming kit that he handles like delicate pieces of art; and finally, when Treves invites a famous local actress played by Anne Bancroft to spend some time with Merrick. Their scene together, where they read from Shakespeare, is hokey, but Bancroft's smile alone looks as if it could not only power the dark London streets, but add a few years to Merrick's life. For years after seeing this scene, I was convinced Anne Bancroft was the most beautiful woman in the world.
The film itself is beauteous. I have often thought The Elephant Man was a sort of younger, prettier sibling of Eraserhead, Lynch's first film. It has many of the same visual motifs, including a reliance on dreams and hallucinations, short blackout scenes, an uncomfortable drone of sound in the background, and at times, Merrick's misshapen head seems like something that might have been in the earlier film. Lynch had a thing for clouds back then, and Merrick's head at times looks like a giant cloud formation. Clouds and smoke are predominant images in these early films of Lynch's. The black and white Panavision cinematography of Freddie Francis, who had done his share of horror films as a director for Hammer 20 years earlier, gave The Elephant Man its inky atmosphere. The lighting for the industrial scenes, and the dreamy white smoke that roils out of the factories, create a kind of cushion for the harsh story. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker described the smoke as being "like J.M.W. Turner's clouds, but carrying poison." Again, are the factories creating monsters?
The fear/repulsion of birth that was a theme of Eraserhead is carried out again in The Elephant Man, as Merrick (or someone) has a dream where his mother is run over by elephants, which he may feel has caused his condition. One of the first times we see Merrick clearly, he is positioned so he actually resembles a baby, or an infant, looking out from his swollen skull with tired, innocent eyes. Lynch takes this subject of horror and somehow makes him cute for us, which he also did with the monstrous fetus in Eraserhead. Whatever motivated Lynch's first film was still on his mind as he made The Elephant Man. That is what makes The Elephant Man the work of an artist. Even though it's a historical period film, Lynch fuels it with his own quirks and neurosis.
Still, I often wonder what the film might have been like had Lynch not forced the "action" scenes on it. The kidnapping of Merrick is bad enough, but there's also a scene where Treves gets tough with the orderly who has helped arrange Merrick's disappearance. Treves suddenly turns into an angry avenger, grabbing the man by the neck and threatening to hit him. It's not that Hopkins isn't believable, it's that the whole scene feels forced into the film to give it a "plot." Wouldn't we have felt moved by the simple story as it actually happened? In reality, Merrick's early life was actually worse than is portrayed in the film, while his life at London Hospital was actually quite comfortable, including a few daytrips to the country where he collected wild flowers for his room. He became a popular local figure for a time, grew increasingly unhealthy, and then died in his sleep. Would that not be enough to get us wheezing and weeping? Would The Miracle Worker have been better if Helen Keller had been kidnapped and made to sleep in a cage with monkeys?
There was a resistance on the part of some critics to embrace Lynch's vision when the film was initially released in Oct. 1980. Some felt he laid the pathos on too thickly. Roger Ebert called much of it "pure sentimentalism" and scolded Lynch for "an inexcusable opening scene in which Merrick's mother is trampled or scared by elephants or raped - who knows? - and an equally idiotic closing scene in which Merrick becomes the Star Child from 2001, or something." Writing for the Saturday Review, Judith Crist took Lynch to task for playing with the facts, and for leaving viewers with "only a voyeur's guilt, pious sentiment, and a pretentious fadeout to take with us." For the most part, though, most echoed The New York Times' opinion that Lynch had made "a handsome, eerie, disturbing movie," and that John Hurt's turn as the shambling Merrick was "truly remarkable."
Merrick suffered from many physical deformities, including a head that measured 36 inches in circumference, and a badly twisted spine, which Hurt commendably approximates, particularly with his walk. He seems to have one good leg that drags the rest of his body behind, as if hauling a great burden. The prosthetic makeup by Christopher Tucker makes him seem like a sculpture gone awry, or, Kael again: "a work of art...one of Picasso's bulging distortions." What Hurt does from within the makeup is astonishing, making Merrick a surprisingly gentle, childlike, figure. Physically, he makes Merrick seem like a giant rag doll, something we want to put on a shelf for safekeeping.
Hopkins' work is underappreciated in this film. The real Treves, from what I have read, also cared for Merrick but never stopped looking at him as a specimen; he performed the autopsy on Merrick's body, dissected it, and took plaster casts of his head and limbs. We can't imagine Hopkins' version of Treves being so coldly scientific. Hopkins' patience in dealing with Merrick is touching. We believe Merrick would come to trust him. It's one of Hopkins' great roles.
Despite the reservations of some critics, The Elephant Man was a successful movie in its day. Along with several Oscar nominations, it made a very respectable 26-million at the box office, which would translate into five times that now. It also received a Best Film award from The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), where Hurt was also recognized as Best Actor. The character of John Merrick became a kind of touchstone for people needing shorthand to describe outcast figures, and made the news again when Michael Jackson attempted to buy Merrick's bones. (The bones, if you're wondering, are hidden away at the Royal London Hospital, and have never been on display.)
It would be many years later that the film's executive producer was identified as Mel Brooks, who didn't allow himself to be part of the film's marketing. He was right to do so, for at the time he was one of the kings of comedy. That he was willing to stand aside and let the film speak for itself is admirable. But why was Brooks so enamored of the story to begin with? In a recent interview, he referred to Merrick as "the poor guy," and said only that he thought the story should be filmed. When one considers that Anne Bancroft was Brooks' wife, and that she has a scene where she befriends Merrick and calls him "Romeo," it's tempting to read into Brooks relationship with the subject matter. At the very least, Brooks knew there is a bit of Merrick in many of us.