- Movie Rating -

The Elephant Man (1980)

| October 10, 1980

I first heard about Joseph “John” Merrick in grade school in a section of a weekly reader magazine for kids, the same reader that also informed me about the sinking of the Titanic, the legend of Bigfoot, The prophecies of Nostradamus, The Kennedy Assassination, the disappearances of Jimmy Hoffa and Amelia Earhart and the pursuit of D.B. Cooper.  It was a different time.

The articles were written in small bursts, very basic bites of information spelled out in a few paragraphs and for the case of The Elephant Man I learned just enough to stir my curiosity.  Merrick was hideously deformed by a disfiguring disorder known as Proteus Syndrome.  He was shunned by his family and joined a sideshow where he was exploited and abused until a curious doctor Fredrick Treves took him to the London Hospital, examined his condition, became his friend and made him feel like a human being for the first time.  Treves taught him to speak and tried to introduce him into English society by introducing him to important people.  Sadly, Merrick died in his sleep at the age of 27 by lying in a sleeping position that dislocated his neck.

I was fascinated by this as a child, but I was alarmed to find that David Lynch’s film is pitched pretty much at the same level.  This is not an in-depth study of Merrick or Treves or Proteus Syndrome or even the medical community aesthetics of the late 19th century.  It is more or less a very basic retelling of the common facts.  What you might read in any textbook (or kid’s weekly reader) is what retold here.  I don’t mean that as a criticism.  John Merrick’s life is fascinating at the surface level because it is nearly impossible not to be moved by his story.  You could get the story from the page, but what you would miss is the emotional levels that this film is able to reach.

Anthony Hopkins plays Treves, a kindly physician who comes upon this extraordinary man in a sideshow attraction where his condition gives him the nickname “The Elephant Man.”  Moved to tears by his very appearance (literally) Treves never-the-less moves him to the London Hospital where his curiosity is, at first, merely professional.  What is this man’s affliction?  How did he get it?  How long has he had it?  What is the progression of this disorder?

Yet, something underneath all of those hideous abnormalities brings Treves to go beyond merely the professional.  He goes beyond merely studying his condition and tries to bring out Merrick’s humanity, which isn’t easy.  He teaches Merrick to speak clearly (or clearly enough) and introduces him to people despite criticism that his interest in his patient may be just another form of exploitation, no different from the shifty sideshow barker who had profited from his misery. 

It is impossible not to be moved by this story.  Merrick, played in a beautiful performance by John Hurt, is seen as a man who is encouraged to come out from behind the bag that dons his misshapen head and actually meet people and talk to them.  Treves brings out his ability to be social, to give him more of a humanity than he has ever experienced.

And yet, there are some things in the film that I’m not sure about.  The film gives us enough of Merrick to fuel our curiosity beyond his deformed face – his ability to read, his ability to socialize.  But I found the former more interesting than the latter.  Treves’ attempts to introduce him to important people aren’t quite as interesting because it tends to make the same point over and over.

I was also a bit confused about the film’s frequent attempts to get inside John Merrick’s head.  The movie opens and closes with two scenes that I can’t say that I quite understand.  It opens with scenes of elephants . . . I think trampling his mother, which never happened.  And it closes with scenes of John’s death in which, I think, he travels the cosmos.  These scenes are somewhat baffling.  I think the reality of John’s situation is really enough that we don’t need these confusing bookends.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1980) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized