Classic Cinema: The Elephant Man (1980) - Reviewed

It’s strange to think that I was introduced to the dark and surreal cinematic underworld of David Lynch only at the age of ten, yet with the master auteur’s first foray into the Hollywood mainstream, that’s precisely what happened.  I remember first hearing about Joseph Merrick (renamed John Merrick for the film), aka The Elephant Man through siblings and his legendarily extreme physical deformities. 

Finally the film appeared on television one night and even only as a pre-teenager, Lynch’s flickering abstract black-and-white images of elephants interspersed with fog emerging from a baby’s cry instantly seared themselves into my psyche for all time.  Though years would pass before finally discovering arguably America’s greatest film director since Stanley Kubrick (who himself was an early champion of Lynch’s Eraserhead), up to this point The Elephant Man was the closest a film had come to representing a real nightmare onscreen for me.

Loosely based on doctor Frederick Treves’ (Anthony Hopkins) memoirs The Elephant Man and Other Reminisces as well as Ashley Montagu’s The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, Lynch’s first studio production is known in the industry as the first Brooksfilms release, a production company created by comedian Mel Brooks with the intention of producing serious minded pictures. 
The American director’s first and only Victorian period drama with an entirely British cast despite being an American production, The Elephant Man while taking a fair amount of artistic liberties with the material including changing the name to John Merrick (John Hurt) as well as the nature of Merrick’s exhibition as a circus freak is among the director’s most straightforward and oddly compassionate pictures to date. 

Rivaling the sympathetic human warmth of his 1999 Disney film The Straight Story, The Elephant Man begins as a surreal body horror movie/historical biopic of sorts before gradually transforming into a heartfelt and sincere testament to human dignity and the beauty of a gentle soul trapped in a broken body.  One of the wonders of the picture is how the black-and-white photography utilizes deep shadows to hide John Merrick from view so when we finally first see him out in the open we’re as shocked as the nurses in the London hospital.  

Over time as we come to know Merrick as a human being with a gentle soul, the film achieves the remarkable feat of pitting the kind and friendly man against cruel spectators with ordinary physique whose spiritual ugliness registers loud and clear to the viewer.  Not many films save for that other Brooksfilms production The Fly have the ability to elicit empathy for the “monster” while contrasting the poor man’s physical grotesquerie with the appallingly debasing actions of Merrick’s fellow ordinary men. 

For Lynch’s first Hollywood production, the director elicits the extraordinary talents of Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft and John Hurt and comes away with splendid performances across the board.  Most striking of all is Hurt as the deformed Merrick who underwent eight hours of makeup application daily before another two following the removal, made from a body cast of the real Joseph Merrick. 

What stands out is Hurt’s ability to channel a wide variety of emotions despite a near disability to speak or move his mouth and lips, bringing viewers remarkably close to how the real man would have looked and sounded.  This was made well before Best Makeup was a category in the Academy Awards, prompting the inclusion after wide protests within the industry before An American Werewolf in London became the first recipient. 

The film would go on to garner a total of eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director David Lynch, making the underground director of Eraserhead an instant sensation, drawing offers to direct Return of the Jedi and Dune in addition to helping to establish the director as one of the most skillful in terms of creating a dense audiovisual atmosphere onscreen. 

For some viewers, The Elephant Man seen against what would later become his signature surrealist narrative style in Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Mulholland Drive is often regarded as starter pack David Lynch.  The images are of course breathtaking and some motifs would indeed find their way into his later works, including a notable silhouette of Merrick’s deformed figure influencing a still haunting introductory shot of Grace Zabriskie’s ritualistic killer in Wild at Heart

And yet the narrative is straightforward and decidedly humorless, a tragically absent characteristic that would help balance Lynch’s offbeat mixture of sardonic absurdity and unblinking horrors.  Part of the power of Lynch’s subsequent works is the unmeasurable skill of playing for laughs and screams from one scene to the next or simultaneously, leaving viewers uncertain precisely how to process the events unfolding.  With The Elephant Man beyond the dream sequences and origins of Merrick himself, there’s little mystery in a film by the director who built his filmmaking career around mystery. 

Still, while some have written The Elephant Man off as an opulent director-for-hire effort while others still prefer the film’s straightforward unpretentious attitude over his more abstract incongruence found in his later works, the film still stands as an indelible stepping stone for a soon-to-be towering master of cinema.  If nothing else, The Elephant Man functions as the more user-friendly kid cousin to Eraserhead with emphasis on a deformed innocent child born into a world that all but instantly rejects it. 

The Elephant Man shows Lynch playing ball in the big leagues still figuring out his niche before striking his first home run with Blue Velvet and as such it remains an impeccably crafted and timeless tale of love and kindness shining through physical aberration.  As a David Lynch film, when compared to films like Mulholland Drive or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, The Elephant Man falls short.  As an introduction to who would soon become one of the greatest film directors of all time, The Elephant Man is as good a place to start as any!

- Andrew Kotwicki