David Lynch’s second feature film, The Elephant Man (1980), is one of his finest works. In many ways, The Elephant Man is Lynch’s most conventional “Hollywood” film. (Dune too is a “Hollywood” film, but a failed one.) The cast of The Elephant Man is quite distinguished, including John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Gielgud, Dame Wendy Hiller, and Anne Bancroft. The film was produced by Mel Brooks, who left his name off so that people would not expect a comedy.
The Elephant Man was a commercial success and a critical hit. It received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. It also prompted the Academy to create a new award for makeup the next year. The Elephant Man won the British Academy Film Awards for Best Film, Best Actor (Hurt), and Production Design, as well as the French César Award for Best Foreign Film. It is routinely included in critics’ “best” lists.
Although The Elephant Man is about a hideously deformed sideshow freak, Lynch’s treatment is sentimental and compassionate, not lurid and exploitative. Indeed, The Elephant Man is wholesome, heartwarming, and quite explicitly Christian, which is surprising given that Lynch, being a longtime devotee of Transcendental Meditation, is more Hindu than Christian.
Yet The Elephant Man is unmistakably the work of the director of Eraserhead. It is exquisitely shot in black and white by cinematographer Freddie Francis, who later worked on The Straight Story. The Elephant Man also features Lynch’s trademark surreal montages, low-tech special effects, and meticulous sound design, created with his longtime collaborator Alan Splet. Like Eraserhead, The Elephant Man treats technology as an almost demonic force and depicts urban life as hellish and alienating. Finally, the grotesque subject matter and sentimental manner of treating it are also quite Lynchian.
The story of The Elephant Man can be summarized quite briefly. Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the film) was born in England in 1862. By the age of five, he began developing abnormally and became shockingly deformed, probably due to Proteus Syndrome. Merrick’s skull became massively enlarged and distorted. His right arm became enlarged and useless, but his other arm was normal. His spine was alarmingly twisted, affecting his gait. His body was covered with wart-like growths. He also had difficulty breathing. His head was so massive that he had to sleep sitting up. If he slept normally, he would have been asphyxiated.
Unable to work, Merrick began to exhibit himself as a sideshow freak, which provided a precarious living due to police bans and dishonest carnies. In 1883, a surgeon named Frederick Treves discovered Merrick and exhibited him at a meeting of the Pathological Society of London. Merrick and Treves developed a friendship. Merrick’s plight became a cause célèbre of British high society. Championed by Queen Victoria herself, Merrick was given a permanent home at London Hospital, where he died at the age of twenty-seven. Lynch’s film takes some liberties with the story but conveys the essence.
The opening montage of The Elephant Man is pure Eraserhead. Like the opening of Eraserhead, it is an allegory of a monstrous birth. We begin with the eyes of a woman in a Victorian photograph. Later we learn this is John Merrick’s mother. We hear an ominous mechanical humming. Then we see elephants, the mother’s face overlaid. The elephants freeze then approach. We hear their lowing and trumpeting. We see a woman thrown to the ground and writhing in slow motion terror, to increasingly distorted sounds. (In Lost Highway, Lynch films the transformation of Fred Madison into Pete Dayton in a similar way.) Then we see white smoke rising against a dark backdrop. A baby cries. The sequence is based on the side-show origin myth of the Elephant Man, premised on the idea that a child’s development can be shaped by maternal experiences.
Next we see a Victorian circus. The camera focuses on a well-dressed gentleman in a top hat. This is Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Frederick Treves. Although Treves looks like the embodiment of Victorian propriety, he enters the sideshow through an exit door marked No Admittance. This transgressive gesture is repeated a few seconds later. We catch glimpses of standard freaks, such as a bearded lady. Then we meet a horrified woman being comforted by a gentleman. Treves plunges into the darkness from which they emerged.
Treves’ destination is the Elephant Man exhibit. When arrives, however, the curtain is closed. The police are shutting the exhibit down for being degrading and “monstrous.” The “proprietor,” Mr. Bytes, is a fictional composite of the carneys with whom the real Merrick worked. Brilliantly played by Freddie Jones—who was Thufir Hawat in Dune and had a cameo in Wild at Heart—Bytes is a seedy drunkard and sadist.
Treves is determined to see the Elephant Man and eventually tracks Bytes down for a private showing. In Blue Velvet, Sandy is not sure if Jeffrey is a detective or a pervert. Likewise, in The Elephant Man, we are led to wonder if Treves is a doctor or a pervert. Bytes has Treves pegged as a pervert—a fellow pervert—and leeringly intimates that they share a common secret. Later Bytes speaks to Treves practically like a pimp: “I move in the proper circles, for this type of thing . . . In fact, anything at all, if you take my meaning.”
But when Treves finally sees the Elephant Man, he does not view him with a doctor’s objective curiosity, or a pervert’s salacious leer. His face registers utter shock. Then a solitary tear appears in his eye.
Treves is still, however, a man of science—and a man of some ambition. Thus he arranges to exhibit Merrick to the Pathological Society of London.
Later, after Merrick has been severely beaten by Bytes, Treves admits him to the London Hospital. Initially, he is placed in an isolation ward near the clock tower, Lynch’s gentle homage to The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
At this point, we are thirty minutes into the film and still have not yet seen Merrick’s face. Lynch handles this slow reveal masterfully, and once we see Merrick, it takes a while before we see him up close. By taking his time, not only does Lynch build suspense, but he also fully humanizes the character before revealing the full horror of his appearance. Also, it should be noted that Hurt’s Elephant Man costume and makeup are not as grotesque as the real Joseph Merrick.
Up to this point, Merrick has said nothing either. Treves has assumed he is an imbecile. But this is not true. Eventually, he gets Merrick to speak.
Merrick’s presence is opposed by Francis Carr Gomm—the Governor of the hospital warmly portrayed by Sir John Gielgud—on the grounds that the hospital does not admit incurables. Nevertheless, Carr Gomm wishes to meet Merrick, and Treves believes that if the interview goes well, Merrick might be allowed to stay. But the conversation is quite awkward, and when Merrick repeats the same phrases in contexts where they make no sense, Carr Gomm thinks he is an imbecile who has been coached.
But when Merrick recites the 23rd Psalm, and then begins to open up, both Treves and Carr Gomm are thunderstruck. They both had hoped Merrick was an imbecile, because intelligence could only magnify his suffering. But Merrick has not just suffered greatly, he has retained his humanity. He has managed to remain a sensitive and decent human being, a beautiful soul in a hideous material prison, a theme that also harmonizes with the essentially Gnostic outlook of Eraserhead. Carr Gomm is overcome with compassion. He vows to find some way to give Merrick a safe haven. The whole sequence is immensely moving.
Carr Gomm writes a letter to the Times publicizing Merrick’s plight and asking for support, which brings Merrick to the attention of high society and low.
Queen Victoria dispatches her daughter-in-law, Alexandra, Princess of Wales to read her letter to the board of the London Hospital in support of giving Merrick permanent residency. Upon completing the letter, Alexandra looks directly at the board members and says, “I am sure you gentlemen may be counted on to do the Christian thing.” Which they do. When Carr Gomm, Treves, and the stern hospital matron Mrs. Mothershead bring Merrick the good news, he is overcome with emotion, as is any viewer who doesn’t have a severely deformed heart.
A prominent actress, Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft) wishes to meet Merrick. So do the drunkards and floozies who associate with London Hospital’s seedy night porter, Sonny Jim (a name reused by Lynch for Dougie’s little boy in Twin Peaks: The Return).
By day, Merrick receives actresses and society matrons bearing lavish gifts. These are sentimental well-meaning souls who want to marvel at a triumph of the human spirit. By night, he is assailed by raucous drunkards who pay Sonny Jim a few coins to laugh at the Elephant Man.
Mrs. Mothershead, played beautifully by Wendy Hiller, disapproves of both sets of visitors. She sacks Sonny Jim when she finds out about his shows. She also reproaches Treves for allowing the more genteel gawkers, saying that Merrick is once again a sideshow curiosity.
This prompts one of the most touching scenes in the movie. Treves has a sleepless night over the question, “Am I a good man, or am I a bad man?” Treves is a good man, and part of what makes him good is his willingness to entertain such questions. Nobody can watch The Elephant Man without admiring the Victorian middle and upper classes: their exquisite manners, their moral earnestness, and their desire to edify and beautify a nation wrecked by Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.”
Treves’ moral crisis is paired with a Lynchian montage of Merrick’s night terrors. As with the severed ear in Blue Velvet, Lynch’s camera approaches then dives into a hole, this time the eyehole in Merrick’s hood. We follow pipes to the sound of mechanical chuffing like Merrick’s labored breathing. We see men laboring in factories with machines, bringing to mind Eraserhead’s Man in the Planet, who is a Gnostic symbol of the spirit’s bondage to matter. A leering crowd emerges from the darkness, holding a mirror to Merrick’s terrified face, which is intercut with elephant parts. Then he flashes back to the beatings he has received from Bytes. Lynch is a master of putting dreams on film: prophetic dreams, wish-fulfillment dreams, and nightmares.
The contrast between good and bad men is underscored one night when Bytes slips in among the last batch of Sonny Jim’s revelers and kidnaps Merrick, taking him to a circus on the Continent. Merrick’s health is declining, however, and he cannot perform. A drunken Bytes beats him then locks him in a cage next to some angry, threatening baboons.
It is a terrifying sequence, using an odd technique that crops up in The Straight Story and Twin Peaks: The Return, in which Lynch places the camera and microphone far from the action, framing it in a vast space and forcing the viewer to strain to see and hear what is happening. It is a return to the static cameras of the early talkies, which often seem like filmed stage plays.
This circus sequence specifically brings to mind Todd Browning’s classic Freaks, where sideshow freaks band together to avenge one of their own. In The Elephant Man, however, they simply liberate Merrick from his cage and put him on a boat at Ostend to carry him back to London.
When Merrick arrives at Liverpool Station, he is harassed by urchins who want to know why his head is so big. Fleeing, he accidentally knocks over a little girl. Her mother shrieks an alarm. A large crowd pursues him. The monster is unmasked then cornered in a toilet, where he proclaims the famous lines “I am not an animal. I am a human being! I am a man! I am a man!” Then the police arrive and return Merrick to his home at London Hospital.
Merrick’s life is nearing its end. Mrs. Kendal and Princess Alexandra take him to the theatre, where he is enchanted by what appears to be a children’s fairytale pantomime. The play montage is pure Lynch, but at his most naïve and winsome, using special effects from the silent era less to depict the story than Merrick’s childlike rapture.
When Merrick returns to his room, he completes work on his model of Saint Phillip’s Cathedral, then signs it “John Merrick.” To Samuel Barber’s hauntingly melancholy Adagio for Strings, Merrick says “It is finished,” bringing to mind the words of Christ on the cross. Then Merrick looks at a picture of a sleeping child and decides to lie down to sleep like a normal person, which he knows will kill him. As he breathes his last, the camera takes our eyes to the picture of Mrs. Kendal, then the picture of his mother, then the model of the cathedral, rising with the music to focus on the cross on the highest spire. Then we see the stars, and begin to move quickly among them, shades of Dune.
Merrick’s mother begins reciting lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Nothing Will Die”:
Never, oh! never, nothing will die.
The stream flows,
The wind blows,
The cloud fleets,
The heart beats,
Nothing will die.
In the original the first line is a question, but in the movie it is a declarative statement. The poem continues “Nothing will die; All things will change.” This flatly contradicts the Christian idea of the immortality of the human soul, affirming instead the essentially pagan and naturalistic idea that all things merely change, one into another, which is also consistent with Hindu and Buddhist ideas that reincarnation is not the transmigration of consciousness from one body to another, but more akin to one flame lighting another before going out.
As she recites, the mother’s face appears beyond the stars in a halo of light, which sucks in the white smoke associated at the beginning with Merrick’s birth, then finally fills the screen. The End.
Lynch is masterful in his treatment of the grotesque, which is akin to the sublime because it both attracts and repels us. When we satisfy our curiosity, the result is horror, which is a simple biological reaction to anything unwholesome. At this point, however, there are two basic reactions to horror: mockery and compassion. As Anthony M. Ludovici argued, laughter is glorying in one’s superior fitness. Forced or nervous laughter, however, is an attempt to reassure oneself that one really is more fit. But the horror we feel is ultimately based on the recognition that misfortune can befall us all. Compassion is the recognition of this fact. Mockery is a lie and evasion, compassion an admission of the truth.
As Lynch’s career unfolded, he would take us to darker and darker places, but he always sided with the better angels of our nature.