The Elephant Man (1980)
The Elephant Man tells the story of John Merrick, a severely deformed man who lived around the turn of the century, and was the subject of ridicule and general horror for those who only saw him as a circus freak. However, for those who took the time to get to know him, and saw past his physical oddities, he was a man of gentle compassion, and was as capable of fitting in with society as any other human, but only if society would give him a chance.
As the film begins, John Merrick (John Hurt) is an attraction in a freak show, being labeled as The Terrible Elephant Man. He is treated as an animal by the proprieter of the show, Bytes (Freddie Jones), beaten relentlessly in order to perform for the gawkers who come to see his misfortune. The elephant man draws the interest of Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), who rescues him from the freak show with the intent of studying his condition in a hospital. Treves is surprised to discover that Merrick is actually quite intelligent and is able to read, write, and talk, though he has been so mistreated that he often has difficulty speaking to strangers.
Soon, there are articles in the newspaper describing the elephant man and his condition, and the people who read these articles either respond with compassion or exploitation. Compassion is shown by the stage actress Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft), who is absolutely delighted to find out that Merrick has a love for theater, though he has never attended a live show, due to his condition. A night porter does the exploiting, bringing curious people--usually drunk--to see the elephant man and recoil in terror at his appearance. Meanwhile, while all this attention is being paid to Merrick, Treves wonders whether he has helped the situation any--people are still just as interested in seeing this deformed man, it's just in a less hostile environment--or whether Merrick's situation can be helped at all.
The Elephant Man is based on a true story, and surely the story has been embellished with dramatic elements, but regardless, once the film finds its footing, it has some compelling spots. John Hurt does a masterful job in creating a sympathetic character out of a man who is at first glance a monster. Buried beneath a veritable mountain of make-up and masks, Hurt is able to use the restrictions to his advantage, allowing us to see both the physical deformities of this man as well as his struggle to be accepted by society.
Director David Lynch filmed The Elephant Man in beautiful stark black and white--partially because of the make-up, partially because of the period in which the story takes place, and, I think, partially because of the mystery and shadows that black and white allows that cannot be rivaled by color. The message of the story is pretty clear: don't judge a person based on their looks. This is obviously a good message to preach, but I'm not sure if The Elephant Man did all that it could have to convey it.
March 17, 2005