Featuring an absolutely heartbreaking performance by John Hurt, THE ELEPHANT MAN is a solid effort about a misunderstood man who still finds the good in humanity, even though he has been mistreated his entire life.
19th Century doctor of anatomy, Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) discovers John Merrick (John Hurt) at a London Freak show. Billed as “The Elephant Man,” Merrick actually suffers from a rare disease that caused massive protrusions and fibrous growths on most of his body and face. The nickname was earned due to his skin’s rough hide as well as a story that his mother was trampled by an elephant during her pregnancy.
Treves saves Merrick from the clutches of the Freak Show’s owner, Bytes (Freddie Jones) and gives him a safe haven at the London Hospital. It is here that Treves discovers that Merrick is a sensitive soul and not the monster he appears to be on the outside. When polite London society hears of Merrick’s tragic story, they turn up in droves to offer him support, but Treves soon starts to feel like he’s just as guilty as Bytes having created a more posh version of the side show at the hospital.
At the film’s core is the relationship between Treves and Merrick. Hopkins and Hurt bring humanity to these very different men that is palpable and affecting. All Hurt’s Merrick wants is to be treated with basic decency and in one memorable moment, when he is stalked by a mob of gawkers screams out “I am not an animal. I am a human being!” Hopkins’ Treves is a decent man, but he too, like Bytes is blinded by what “The Elephant Man” could mean to his career. Even though he means well and acts out of kindness, Treves ultimately fails Merrick, but his friend is able to see past his foibles and forgive him.
The second feature directed by David Lynch, it is by far one of his more accessible ventures, though it still retains the trademarks of what makes him an uncharacteristic and unique visionary. Shot in glorious black and white, the film harkens back to a previous era in the way it’s photographed and edited. But it still retains a contemporary flavor making it feel like a film lost in time.
Kudos also go to Christopher Tucker and his absolutely stunning make-up work to bring Merrick to life. Even though THE ELEPHANT MAN was nominated for 8 Oscars, Tucker was not honored for his substantial achievement in the field of Make-up FX. After an outcry from the Academy, they created the award for “Best Make-Up and Hairstyling” the following year.
For those enthralled with the current season of FX’s AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAKSHOW, I can’t recommend THE ELEPHAN T MAN enough. You will see similar themes played out, but in a far more sensitive way, of course.