David Lynch’s ‘The Elephant Man’ at 40

❉ Lynch’s film exposes both the depths of cruelty and the power of kindness.

“Can you imagine the kind of life he must have had?” asks London Hospital’s chairman Richard Carr-Gomm (John Gielgud) of surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), going on to assert “You can’t begin to know. No one can…” This early exchange from David Lynch’s superbly empathetic film specifically urges us to engage with the fate of Joseph (“John”) Merrick, and to consider just what this unfortunate soul had to endure.

We’ve all looked in the mirror and been dismayed by the face staring back at us. We are hypercritical of our appearances, and ongoing concerns about the shape or size of this or that feature can easily be exacerbated by a bad hair day or a treacherous complexion. But our fretting is put into shameful perspective by Merrick’s suffering. Born in Leicester in 1862, and horribly deformed by incurable disease, the so-called Elephant Man’s head and face were barely recognisable as human, his skeleton was warped and contorted, and 90% of his body was covered in tumorous growths. If ever a person deserved pity, this was he.

John Hurt and Hannah Gordon in The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man is one of my favourite films, though that seems an inappropriate way to express my admiration. Perhaps it would be better to say that it’s a work that I find immensely powerful and involving. In any case, I was very happy to accept an invitation (pre-lockdown back in March) to a fortieth anniversary screening of the new 4HD Blu-ray version of the film, even though I knew that tears would be shed and sobs barely suppressed in the merciful darkness of the screening room.

I think a large part of my fascination with this film stems from my feeling that it portrays two extremes of human nature. In the behaviour of those around Merrick we are exposed to both the vilest depths of cruelty and also the transformative power of kindness.

Freddie Jones in The Elephant Man

The nexus of loathsomeness is Bytes (Freddie Jones) the freak show curator who considers himself Merrick’s “owner” and in whose charge Treves finds him at the start of the film. Despite a flimsy veneer of partnership, Bytes’ ruthless exploitation and humiliation of Merrick are violent and ghoulish – he really is using Merrick as a commodity, with absolutely no acknowledgement of his humanity. There’s a tiny glint of poetic justice in the fact that Bytes is an alcoholic mess and failure even as an abuser, but it’s scant comfort as we witness the beatings he visits upon Merrick when through physical frailty he’s incapable of performing the hideous role that Bytes forces on him.

Anthony Hopkins in The Elephant Man.

The hospital Porter (Michael Elphick) is a villain of a different stripe, but his selfish capitalisation upon Merrick’s misfortune is just as revolting. After Treves has rescued Merrick and secured accommodation for him, the Porter abuses the access his position affords him, charging the punters of a local pub for the chance to invade Merrick’s rooms to scream and mock him in what should be his sanctuary. Where Bytes is a dyed-in-the-wool arsehole, the scary thing about Elphick’s Porter is that he genuinely doesn’t seem to realise how appalling his actions are. That a person can be so oblivious to the plight of a fellow human being simply because it supplements his modest income speaks of a casual callousness that chills the blood.

Anthony Hopkins and Michael Elphick in The Elephant Man

But set against these demons of inhumanity, Lynch ranges an opposing army of angels: people who see in Merrick a man in desperate need of compassion, and who instinctively respond to that impulse. Fortunately these are not in short supply, from Queen Victoria herself, who instructs the hospital to accommodate Merrick permanently (against the wishes of the board, who can’t be doing with “incurables”), to matron Mothershead (Wendy Hiller) who gives Treves a right and proper dressing down when he insinuates a lack of care on her part.

In-between the Queen and the Matron there are two other women who embody the spirit of compassion. As Treve’s wife Ann, Hannah Gordon gives a performance of intense emotional honesty. During Merrick’s visit to the family home for a polite and normalising afternoon tea, Ann is overwhelmed by sorrow and sympathy, turning away to hide her feelings. It’s a sublime depiction of how the best people sometimes display their greatest qualities in their most vulnerable moments.

John Gielgud, Anthony Hopkins, and Lesley Dunlop in The Elephant Man

The other woman who looms large in Lynch’s version of Merrick’s life is the actress Margaret Kendall (Anne Bancroft), who reads about him in the newspaper and determines to meet him. When she does, his appearance seems not to faze her at all. She treats him with open-hearted tenderness and respect, seeing straight through his physical ugliness to engage with this gentle soul entirely without prejudice. They read Shakespeare together, and when she declares “Mr Merrick – you’re Romeo” and plants a kiss on his cheek, it’s an uplifting and almost superhuman demonstration of empathy.

At  the core of the film, of course, is John Hurt’s performance as Merrick. From beneath Christopher Tucker’s alarmingly realistic prosthetic make-up, Hurt projects with his voice and physicality an utterly authentic portrait of Merrick as a man whose abuse almost does rob him of his humanity, but whose character blooms in the presence of decency. Under Byte’s control, and when exploited by the Porter, he is mute and fearful, bereft of speech and agency: a thing to be manipulated and despised with no recourse to protest. The contrast between this degraded state and his eloquent gratitude and delight when he is treated kindly is at the heart of the film’s message – it’s certainly what makes it such an emotional experience for me.

Outrageously, nominated for eight Oscars and a clutch of Golden Globes, The Elephant Man won none. It took the good old Baftas to recognise the film’s brilliance, with awards for best film, actor and art design. It’s perhaps fitting that it took a British institution to celebrate this  quintessentially British film, directed though it was by an American maverick.

Made between Lynch’s feature debut – the extremely weird but wonderful Eraserhead – and his unwieldy big-budget adaptation of sci-fi epic Dune, The Elephant Man is possibly the director’s most stylistically conservative film. The characters naturistically conform to the Victorian idiom, and with the exception of a stylised prelude and coda, the narrative plays out with barely a hint of Lynch’s trademark eccentricity. There’s an occasional emphasis on the noise and physical violence of mechanisation and furnaces, including an early scene set in an operating theatre in which the victim of an industrial accident is the subject of a compellingly primitive procedure. But this is probably Lynch’s “straightest” picture prior to 1999’s The Straight Story (pun unintended).

I don’t usually hanker after the latest high-tech formats in film or music – I’m still watching VHS and listening to decades-old vinyl – but I have to say this 4K and Ultra HD remaster is a bit of a revelation. Although deliberately shot in old-fashioned black and white to accentuate the period setting, the sharpness of this new version is remarkable, making the film seem fresher and cleaner than before. For a film so beautifully shot (by master cinematographer Freddie Francis), such a pristine rendition feels like a genuinely new and rewarding way in which to experience it.

What else is there to say? The script is a collaboration between Lynch, Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren, and I wouldn’t change a word of it. Those who know me will appreciate how rare that compliment is. To me it’s exquisitely structured, and the tone and dialogue serve to deliver a respectful account of Merrick’s life (albeit forged with poetic license) while not shying away from the trauma that he endured.

John Morris’ fairground score is a perfect accompaniment to key moments in the story, and gives way graciously in the final scene to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, as Merrick prepares at last to lay himself down to rest. There can’t be many films to which the climax is the protagonist simply going to bed, but such is the dramatic heft of the narrative, and so skilfully does Lynch assemble its elements, that it proves to be an incredibly powerful conclusion.

Then there’s just time for a trippy coda to remind us of the director’s stylistic DNA, which also provides a convenient window in which to dry your eyes before the house lights come up.

Worth seeing in any format – and if you haven’t yet then you absolutely must – this version of The Elephant Man is a visual treat that brings a whole new shine to a truly wonderful film.

The cinematic release may have been curtailed by COVID-19, but the Blu-ray is available now and includes all sorts of goodies including a 64-page booklet, art cards and three disks of extras such as interviews and documentaries about the real Joseph Merrick.


NEW:  BFI Q&A with Jonathan Sanger
NEW: Interview with stills photographer Frank Connor
Interview with David Lynch
Interview with John Hurt
Mike Figgis interviews David Lynch
The Air Is On Fire: Interview with David Lynch at Cartier Foundation
Joseph Merrick, The Real Elephant Man
The Terrible Elephant Man Revealed
Behind The Scenes Stills Gallery

David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) is out now on Digital, DVD, BD & 4K UHD Collector’s Edition. Starring: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins,  John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, Hannah Gordon, Wendy Hillier and Freddie Jones. Directed by David Lynch. Produced by Mel Brooks. Cert: PG. Total Running Time: 124 mins approx.

❉  A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Nick Myles is a London-based writer and director. His stage plays have been produced at numerous London theatres, and at both the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals. He has also contributed to Big Finish’s range of Dark Shadows audio plays. Twitter: Nick Myles

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