Here’s one of my favorite bits of movie trivia—Mel Brooks is responsible for unleashing David Lynch on the world. Sort of. After expanding an American Film Institute student project into the bizarre feature Eraserhead (1977), Lynch caught the attention of a producer at Brooks’ short-lived production company, Brooksfilms. This led to Lynch getting hired as the director for The Elephant Man, which Lynch did not originate but which completely suits the filmmaker’s dark style. Thus, a connection was permanently formed between the funnyman who filled the Wild West with flatulence in Blazing Saddles (1974) and the experimentalist who combined huffing and rape in Blue Velvet (1986).
Anyway, The Elephant Man is in some ways Lynch’s most accessible movie, even though it’s black-and-white, set during the Victorian era, and profoundly sad. Notwithstanding some flourishes during dream sequences, The Elephant Man is entirely reality-based, so Lynch doesn’t rely on any of his usual surrealist tricks. Instead, he demonstrates an extraordinary gift for stylized storytelling, because Lynch swaths this poignant narrative with a perfect aesthetic of murky shadows, silky rhythms, and undulating textures. (Lynch and his collaborators create such magical effects with editing, music, production design, and sound effects that the film seems to have a tangible pulse.) The director also guides his cast through masterful performances.
Based on the real-life exploits of Joseph Merrick, an Englishman afflicted with neurofibromatosis, the movie tracks Merrick from the indignity of life as a circus attraction to the period during which he was accepted by polite society thanks to the patronage of a sympathetic doctor. Renamed John Merrick in the script, the character is a paragon of dignity, suffering the exploitation of cretins and the revulsion of gawkers without manifesting the rage to which he was surely entitled. The saintly portrayal tips the narrative scales, to be sure, but this approach suits the film’s overall themes: More than anything, The Elephant Man is about society’s inability to embrace unique people.
When the story begins, Merrick (John Hurt) is kept as a virtual slave by a beastly carnival barker named Bytes (Freddie Jones). One evening, aristocratic Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) sees Merrick on display and marvels at Merrick’s deformities, which include an oversized head, a misshapen spine, and various large tumors. Treves buys Merrick’s freedom and contrives to find Merrick a permanent home inside a London hospital. Later, Merrick is presented to society and shown a mixture of pity and respect that he perceives as love. Crystallizing Merrick’s acceptance is his friendship with a famous stage actress (Anne Bancroft), who visits Merrick regularly without ever evincing disgust at his appearance. The demons of Meerick’s old life aren’t so easily kept at bay, however, because Bytes and other tormenters forever threaten to ruin Merrick’s salvation.
Despite being made with consummate craftsmanship on every level (the movie received 10 Oscar nominations), The Elephant Man is painful to watch, simply because of the amount of suffering that Merrick experiences in every scene. Yet there’s great beauty to the film, as well, particularly during the heartbreaking final sequence, which is set to Samuel Barber’s exquisite “Adagio for Strings.” Part character study, part medical mystery, and part morality tale, The Elephant Man is a singular film of tremendous power.
The Elephant Man: RIGHT ON