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The Elephant Man


By Tom BakerPublished 3 months ago Updated 3 months ago 8 min read

It proved completely unnecessary for me to rewatch David Lynch's 1980 film The Elephant Man for the sake of this review, as I have seen it more times in my life than was advisable perhaps--life is short, relatively speaking, and spending your time rewatching the same film, rereading the same book, and always listening to the same songs, seems a waste. It is a film I am so intimately familiar with I can easily visualize every nuance of every scene. It is ingrained in my subconscious permanently, and the stark, often deeply horrific black-and-white images play across my closed eyelids intermittently. That world of London in the late 1880s, with its grit, dirt, soot, fog, massive poverty, dripping alleys, and sense of utter industrialized decay, echoes some aspect of my soul that knows that environment--I could elaborate upon that, but, for the sake of this review, had better refrain.

Joseph Merrick (in the film and stage play, referred to erroneously as "John Merrick," an inaccuracy started ironically by Dr. Treves, who curiously changed Merrick's given name in the famous essay) was born in Leicester, England about 1862 or 1863, and first started exhibiting the grotesque physical deformities and abnormalities that would give him a strange place in history at the age of two. Turned out by his father and stepmother after the death of his much-beloved natural mother, Merrick was an apprentice cigar-maker until his hand grew too deformed for the work. Afterward, it was to the filth and squalor of the Leicester workhouse, where he could well have died had it not been for finally hitting upon the only viable option for someone in his unique position to earn any kind of a living (in an age before disability and social welfare): Joseph decided he would exhibit himself in the popular "freak circuses" and dime museums of the time, a form of entertainment pioneered by none other than American impresario P.T. Barnum.

Freak shows were a popular, cheap diversion for the teeming masses of London poor--for a single penny perhaps you could get a look at someone worse off than yourself--someone whom God had really let have it. (The Victorian attitude was that if you were so afflicted as Merrick, you must, in some way, have done something to deserve your sorry fate. Even if you were born that way. This is odd considering that virtually none of them could be surmised to have believed in reincarnation--bringing to mind Christ's question in the Gospels, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?")

The film begins, as did Lynch's previous film Eraserhead (1974), in darkness, in an Infinite cosmos of black, wherein the free-flowing images that will gather, like smoke, and then coalesce, will form the nucleus of a life--a world. Here, they form the nucleus of the legend of Merrick's mother, who was said by his freak show "barker" to have been "struck down by an elephant, a wild elephant!" Hence the name, and the condition.

From the outflowing of smoke (the symbolic "soul") and the weeping of a newborn infant, we come to Treves (Sir Anthony Hopkins), turning, facing the audience, having been considering the sparks from a pinwheel. Like Henry in Eraserhead, he is "born" suddenly, from the Dream into what, during the duration of the film, he will consider the waking world. He proceeds to investigate the freak shops of an indoor pavilion or fair of some kind, coming upon "Mr. Bytes" (Freddie Jones), and a policeman, who is shutting down Bytes' exhibit of Merrick (played with perfection under layers of grotesque makeup by the late, masterful John Hurt), calling it "monstrous," "indecent," and "should not be allowed."

Bytes fancies Merrick, "his man" (as in "ownership"), and fancies he has, "the greatest freak in the world." (If not the greatest perhaps, the most long-suffering.) Treves pays for a private viewing in a dingy shop (this actually happened), and is awash in pity and outrage at the condition of Merrick, as well as the brutality and disregard the drunken, abusive Bytes has for him.

THE ELEPHANT MAN | Official Trailer | MUBI

Quickly arranging a lecture featuring Merrick in front of the Pathological Society, the actual reality of Merrick's story is here inevitably altered. Merrick is savagely and senselessly beaten by Bytes, who then summons "that doctor chap" Treves to come to his assistance. Treves takes Merrick to the nearby London Hospital. The rest, as they say, is history.

At The London

Merrick is installed at The London, and given a set of rooms at Bedstead Square (true). It is here that, after discovering his new charge is in fact not the mentally impaired "imbecile" Treves had first surmised, Treves begins to feel the awkwardness of his position. The central moral conundrum for Treves is that, with his popularity as a "celebrity surgeon" soaring, chiefly due to his association with the now-famous Merrick, has he not he begins to think, in some way, taken the place of the cruel, repellent Bytes? Has he not simply made Merrick a "thing to be stared at," all over again? He privately wrestles with the guilt of this.

Hurt, as Merrick, is eager and child-like, a quick study in the ways of others, and pathetic, too; he likes to play a game of "let's pretend" with a gentleman's grooming kit and a cane. "Lord of the Manor," so to speak; but this fantasy, for the sake of the film, is cruelly ripped away.

At night, Merrick (who really was forced to sleep sitting up) is tormented by nightmares, dreams of the mastodon thump of machinery, the iron-geared slavery of the factory floor, where men are unmade in the grind of an industrialized nightmare. It is the common people of the slums--the foul, reeking pit of vice and murder that is Whitechapel, where Jack the Ripper used to operate--that torment his being. (The late film critic Roger Ebert criticized the apparent "classism" of the film, noting that all of Merrick's tormentors in the film are from the poverty class, while the "good people" are all genteel bourgeois. Which, strictly speaking, is not true, if one considers the nurses played by Dame Wendy Hiller and Lesley Dunlop--both of whom grow to love Merrick, and neither of whom can be surmised to be from privileged backgrounds.)

Alas, Merrick is kidnapped and taken to Belgium by Bytes, after a group of dregs led by the sinister, drunken "Night Porter" (Michael Elphick, playing a man whose name is only once given as "Ronnie Jim") accost him at his Bedstead Square apartments. None of this actually occurred, although Merrick was robbed by an unscrupulous freakshow presenter named "Ferrari" while in Belgium. He somehow, miraculously, was able to make it back to England, and was then accosted by a mob at Liverpool Street Station. (In real life, Treves literally DID swoop to the rescue there.)

Nothing Shall Die

Merrick is brought back to his home at London Hospital, but it is apparent he is going to die. Both Treves and the nurses know it. He is taken to a presentation of a Christmas pantomime of Puss N' Boots (this actually occurred), arranged for him by his friend, actress Madge Kendall (played here with excellence and aplomb by Anne Bancroft, the wife of producer Mel Brooks, who elected to keep his name off of the credits so as not to confuse audiences that this was a parody). In reality, there is no evidence to suggest that Kendall actually ever met Merrick in person, although she is used as a fictional device in both this film and Bernard Pomerance's stage play (wherein the role of Merrick was filled most famously by singer David Bowie).

The film is bookended by Lynch's cinematic mysticism; the "smoke of the soul" is gathered in, and Merrick's mother (previously only shown in haunting photographs) appears, alive. In between, we have a historical drama with odd touches of dark humor, wonder, fantasy, and horror. (Particularly notable is the scene where two Victorian women in a hospital waiting room attempt to claw each other's eyes out--one of them has a curious, passing resemblance to Mary Poppins, at least in dress. This is based partly on another Treves essay in his book The Elephant Man, "The Old Receiving Room." Likewise, we have the nightmare of industry and machinery--what is this alluding to? That God, perhaps, is an unstoppable force that flesh must yield to, even if God, as exemplified by errant Nature, creates that flesh to be as hideous, as shocking, as the flesh of John Merrick? What Lynch is saying here is ambiguous, and inscrutable. But the imagery is stark and wonderful and truly avant-garde.)

I saw the film as a child. Earlier, I had seen the film of the stage play on television, with Philip Anglim as Merrick. (The film features a notice at the beginning that it is in NO WAY based on the popular stage play, but is in fact based on Treves' essay as well as the book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, by Ashley Montagu.)

The play haunted me as a child, the scenes on the darkened stage seeming to have welled up from the pool of some universal brain, some black dream. The weird piping voice of Anglim frightened the child in me, who heard it as a voice from a ghost, a voice from beyond. Both films asked the same question: Human? What does it mean to be human?

In an age when men are mocked by their machines, I'd say that question is ever more pressing still.

And no, "Nothing will die..."


About the Creator

Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis, Indiana Ghost Folklore, Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales, and Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest.:

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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Comments (4)

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  • Tom Baker (Author)3 months ago

    It seems I incorrectly gave the name of actress Lesley Dunlop as 'Nora Jones." I was confusing her with her character. Corrected.

  • A powerful movie/story, fine review & no, I don't believe you've wasted your time viewing it as many times as you have.

  • I saw the Elephant Man in 1980. David Lynch is a brilliant Director. The movie made an impression on a lot of people. The film took one back into that time period . Good review.

  • Kendall Defoe 3 months ago

    I saw the film as a child of the early 80s, and it has haunted me ever since. Thank you for this review. I may have to watch it again... ;)

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