This film is doubly odd, and perhaps overlooked as though the two kinds of oddness canceled each other out. On the one hand, for a movie by David Lynch, it’s shockingly conventional. At once a social problem picture and a melodramatic biopic, The Elephant Man is, on paper at least, a perfect example of Oscar bait. Indeed, it received more nominations than the rest of Lynch’s films put together (without winning any). On the other hand, for a respectable middlebrow film, it’s stark, offbeat, and sometimes unpleasant. Circus freaks are seldom the focus of lavish historical productions. In response to this chimera of a movie, the casual filmgoer’s brow may crook, while the enthusiast’s brow may furrow. I might place myself directly between those two, claiming appreciation for The Elephant Man as both a work of art and a tearjerker. But I don’t think I can let myself off the hook that easily. My love for this film began much more simply than that.
Put yourself in the place of the Victorian curiosity known as the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick (called “John” in this film, a widespread error at the time). Your physical deformity is the cause of relentless jeering and physical abuse such that you withdraw altogether. You are so maladjusted socially that you literally never say a word in front of other people — until, that is, you decide at the most dramatic moment to reveal yourself as a sensitive scholar. From then on, you will be given the best care, food, and lodgings. Anne Bancroft will love you. The Queen will vouch for you. Other women will weep in front of you and then apologize. You will be free to do as you like, to cultivate your interests and leave your tormentors in your dust. Isn’t it great being you?
It’s tricky. Empathy for this character is, I have to believe, basically automatic for most people. The film doesn’t offer a complicated portrait. The mistreatment of Merrick is clearly evil, a wanton attack on a pure soul. But my identification with the man can only go so far. At some point I need to recognize that I’m basically normal, that I’m at least as likely to be the mocker or the persecutor in this scenario as I am to be the victim. In any case, it’s myopic and shallow to love a movie only because one character seems to reflect your (self-satisfied) point of view. Another temptation to avoid, one that the movie itself doesn’t necessarily skirt, is the belief that Merrick’s worth is tied to his artistic inclination in some way. His secret talent may instead have lain in doing arithmetic in his head, or folding shirts neatly, or nothing at all. He deserved to live and be treated decently because he was a human being, full stop. That he was able to give something small and perfect back to his benefactors is as gratuitous as the savage beatings inflicted on his already broken body.
The Elephant Man rises above sentimentality and exploitation by looking them squarely in the face. Films that advocate for social justice are rarely this self-critical. Characters openly acknowledge that carnival gawkers have something in common with lords and ladies who visit the rehabilitated Merrick for tea. Since nothing can be done about his tumors, the attentions of Dr. Frederick Treves can be seen as nothing more than an attention-grabbing act of charity. Self-doubt is useful in people who feel themselves enlightened. It’s still true that Merrick is an unvarnished innocent, never challenging the audience’s empathy with vices or even adult passions. Treves observes at a lecture that Merrick’s genitals are perfectly intact. This raises questions that the movie will not answer. But the bold strokes are entirely intentional. This is a script that establishes Merrick’s poetic nature by reciting the Twenty-third Psalm and Romeo and Juliet. Treves explains his interior debate thusly: “Am I a good man, or am I a bad man?” By pitching its ethical concerns at a level that a child could understand, The Elephant Man emerges as an experience of intense emotional purity.
The suffering isn’t what’s moving about this film. Merrick’s early life is unseen, his first appearance cloaked in shadow. We only really get to know him after his life has taken a turn for the better. But the character’s response to the kindness of total strangers is an emotion with which I have an intimate familiarity. It’s a sweet ache, a delicate pinch, a tightening of the throat in response to an overplus of blessing. To be sure, even after Treves discovers him, Merrick still has to endure nightly horrors, exploited by an opportunistic watchman. (Sex does enter the picture at this point, as the film implies that some of Merrick’s unsavory visitors are engaging in a perverted type of foreplay.) But he brushes all of this aside with apparent ease, and the joy he experiences during the day more than makes up for it. These emotions are brilliantly expressed by John Hurt as Merrick. The extraordinary prosthetic makeup designed by Christopher Tucker both assists the characterization and adds some unique acting challenges. Trying to convey an interior life through not only a mask that immobilizes most of one’s face, but often through a burlap sack placed over that mask, is no mean feat. Hurt pulls it off with his body language, his eyes, and, of course, his voice. Hurt’s voice is a marvelous instrument, and even when hampered, it finds just the right pitch for each moment.
The thematic through line of this film is Merrick’s devotion to his lost mother. Mrs. Merrick’s fate is never spelled out, but the film strongly suggests that John can never reunite with her in this life. A nightmarish prologue entertains the fiction that an elephant attack caused John’s deformities, and possibly his mother’s death as well. The sound effects of the marching elephants are reprised in a later dream sequence, revealed to be the sound of a machine in a factory. Here the warm maternal influence is contrasted with the cold industrial world that can’t find a place for someone as inefficient as John Merrick. Mrs. Merrick remains visible through a portrait that John carries with him, glimpsed in a number of loving, enigmatic close-ups. I won’t spoil what happens to this photograph in the closing scene, but it’s a remarkable cinematic gesture, all the more affecting for its unabashed sentimentality. The Elephant Man is a great entry point to the work of David Lynch, offering a chance to dip one’s toe into the water of his style and obsessions while presenting a simple, beautiful story.