Tuesday, October 28, 2014

664. The Elephant Man (1980)

Running Time: 123 minutes
Directed By: David Lynch
Written By: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch, from books, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Sir Frederick Treves and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu
Main Cast: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Freddie Jones
Click here to view the trailer


I needed a short break from the "world of Apu" and so, my wife joined me as I turned to Netflix to stream David Lynch's second feature, The Elephant Man - based on the life of John Merrick, a severely deformed HUMAN BEING who was branded with the cruel nickname of the film's title.

We first meet Frederick Treves (Hopkins), a renowned London surgeon and anatomy professor, as he walks down back alleys and side streets, looking for a freak show act that he's heard about through the grapevine. He eventually finds a Mr. Bytes (Jones), the handler of The Elephant Man and offers him a handsome payday if he'll offer him a private showing. Bytes, fueled by greed, agrees and Treves lays eyes on Merrick (Hurt), a severely deformed man with tumors covering 90% of his body and skull deformities the likes of which he'd never seen. He hatches a deal with Bytes to bring Merrick into his university to be studied. Upon returning from his day out with Treves, Merrick is severely beaten by Bytes, being questioned about where he's been so late. Bytes actually beats him so badly that he is forced to call upon Treves once more, to treat his elephant man. Treves arrives and informs Bytes that Merrick must be admitted into the hospital, no question. Treves takes Merrick back to The London Hospital, where he himself practices and gives him a room in the isolation wing. Becoming more and more fascinated with Merrick by the day, Treves decides not to return him to Bytes, even after Bytes pays a visit wanting back his "property". Instead, Bytes is threatened with legal action by hospital administrator Mr. Carr-Gomm (Gielgud). After a while, Treves realizes that Merrick is actually not the imbecile that he originally though and finds out that Merrick can actually read, write and articulate intelligent thoughts, reciting the 23rd Psalm from memory and citing that he used to read the Bible regularly. After a longer while, Treves begins to think that he is perhaps no better than Bytes, while not beating him, he is perhaps exploiting him.


John Merrick: There's something I've been meaning to ask you for some time now

Frederick Treves: What's that?

John Merrick: Can you cure me?

Frederick Treves: No. We can care for you, but we can't cure you.

John Merrick: No. I thought not.

That particular exchange is a rough one to hear. Man, it really transcends actors, costumes, makeup, scores and all the like that is a movie. It gets very real for a moment and not just there, but in several other spots during the incredibly emotional film. I really needed this one. I had seen The Elephant Man before, probably not long after I saw Mulholland Drive for the first time and was on a mission to see anything and everything directed by David Lynch. As I grew up, I realized David Lynch wasn't the be all, end all of directors and began to realize that a lot of his films weren't what they were cracked up to be or what I'd originally thought of them. In fact, the last time I watched The Elephant Man, I SOMEHOW gave it a '5/10' on IMDB. I must've been in a sour mood or something, because a '5' doesn't begin to do this movie justice.

I could go on and on about John Hurt and how he played Merrick to a tee, how he not only pounded on the makeup, walked with a gimp and talked through drooling speech, but also was able to bring human qualities to a very human man. I could even go on about Hopkins and how he was able to bring the goods right alongside Hurt, even though he had to know the majority of audiences and critics were going to go more gaga for Hurt, no matter how good he was. I could go on about the great scenes, the one I mentioned above or the hideous scene where Sonny Jim - the night porter - breaks into Merrick's room, alongside a bunch of his drunken cohorts and Mr. Bytes, and proceeds to torture Merrick. Or what about that ending? Man, one that had tears welling up in my eyes, as you watch the Merrick character take the pillows from his bed and glance up at a picture of a sleeping child. You already know what he's going to do before he does it. Moments prior he had gushed about his theater experience with his friend Frederick Treves and Treves promised to take him back again - perhaps meaning it, perhaps not. Andre Previn's Adagio for Strings plays on and Merrick lies down, wanting nothing more than to be like other people.

It's fascinating, if you look up the real story of John Merrick, they actually got a lot of it right on. The sack that he wore over his head, coupled with a black cap, the replica of the cathedral that he built while confined to his room and particularly interesting to me, his emotional outburst when being confronted by women. There is one particular story that I find very sad, that tells of Merrick meeting a woman who was arranged by Treves and the meeting being very short, as Merrick was overcome with emotion. Imagine being segregated from women to the point that if one smiles at you, you just start to cry. In fact, the only thing I couldn't find real proof of was a night porter sneaking into his room after hours to show him off to his friends, so perhaps that tidbit was added for dramatic effect, but hey, that's okay. They pretty much nailed everything else right on the head, so making up a few pieces is forgivable.

I can't really think of anything else to say, so I guess I'll wrap it up. The Elephant Man is currently streaming on Netflix and I 100% agree that it is a must see. Not only is it sure to give you a new appreciation for black & white cinema (the cinematography is spot on!), but also an appreciation for life, for kindness and for your fellow man. And if it gets to that ending and tears aren't at least making their presence in your eyes, then perhaps you are made of stone....

RATING: 8.5/10  If I had to nitpick, there is a portion about 30 - 40 minutes from the ending where the film does drag for a bit, which can account for this movie not being a full blown '10'. Still....this is as good as it's been for a while.


October 28, 2014  11:56am


  1. It perhaps says a lot about 'Apu' that this (generally) rather bleak film stands as a 'relief'
    Delighted you have at last found something you found rewarding. I'm perhaps more pleased that, in the end, you found it positive and uplifting. I guess it is .. but there is a lot of grim stuff to get through first.
    This sounds a bit like I'm trying to do it down .. Certainly not..Within a point (or less), I'd agree with your assessment and it's place in the book .. but its not one I'm in any rush to see again .. and it's many, many years since I have...

    1. Definitely bleak, I agree...but not to the point where it put me off or anything. Glad we can continue to agree....always nice.


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