The Elephant Man (1980)

The Elephant Man – 1980

Director – David Lynch

Starring – John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft

Slow, cruel, and beautifully filmed.  These are the main adjectives I would use to describe David Lynch’s, The Elephant Man.  Set during the Victorian era in London, The Elephant Man tells the real life story of John Merrick, a seriously deformed man led from one freak show to another.  Anthony Hopkins stars as Frederick Treves, a doctor who takes it upon himself to rescue Mr. Merrick from the actual freakshow that he is performing in, puts him up in his hospital, and attempts to teach him civilized behavior.  Treves parades Merrick around, using his notoriety to advance his own reputation, all the while claiming to help him.

When word gets around that the “Elephant Man” (called this partially due to his appearance, and partially because his mother was mauled to death by an elephant) has gained a certain popularity with the upper crust, the owner of the freakshow (Bytes) comes back to collect his “treasure”.  Treves and Bytes play a game of tug-of-war with Merrick, neither considering him or his feelings in the least.  In terms of characters, Merrick himself played with a certain amount of humanity and grace by John Hurt, is the only character who really has any redeeming characteristics.  Despite his huge prosthetic make-up appliances, Hurt manages to imbue Merrick with a certain subtlety.

On the brightside, the film looked beautiful.  Shot in silky black and white, each characters shadowy nature plays itself out visually on the backdrop of dreary, foggy London.  Each of the set pieces is crawls with life, some of it unsettling and horrible, and some of it approaching dignity.  As the movie goes on, the mood, as well as the visual tone of the film grows subtly and slowly brighter.

Of the Lynch films that I’ve seen so far, I would have to say that this is smack in the middle.  It doesn’t reach the fantastic weird heights of films like Mulholland Drive, or Blue Velvet, but it doesn’t quite fall to the un-intelligable depths of Lost Highway, or Inland Empire.  If you’ve seen any of David Lynch’s other films, you will see some similarities but he clearly grew and matured since finishing this film.  Despite, or perhaps because of this, The Elephant Man was one of his more critically successful films and has since allowed him to go on and become a unique independant voice, if only for that reason, this film deserves it’s place on the list of 1001 Movies You Should See Before You Die.

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7 thoughts on “The Elephant Man (1980)

  1. Your critique here made me realize for the first time the similarities between “The Elephant Man” and “Pygmalion” So I guess one could say that David Lynch has given us “My Fair Lady” with a twist.

    • There is a certain amount of similarity between Pygmalion and The Elephant Man, although with just enough bitter to balance out the sweet. I think the fact that the main character is a severely deformed man with depression issues really makes this a David Lynch film.

  2. David Lynch is one of those directors I have tried and tried and tried to like, but I just can’t. I respect his creativity and his innovative genius, but stuff like “Lost Highway” makes my head spin. Still can’t talk about “Wild at Heart.” Just thinking of the opening scene makes me queasy.

    “Elephant Man,” however, is the one Lynch film I really enjoyed, and I’m sure William Hurt had something to do with that. Entire classes in film school should be devoted to how he uses his eyes to convey emotion.

    • David Lynch has his moments of genius, but those are evenly mixed with moments of awfulness.

      As I understand it, he is an artist, and as a result he can get so enveloped in the form, that he forgets the substance. For example, Lost Highway, and Inland Empire are so fixated on this need for moody sureality that the story suffers and becomes unwatchable.

      On the other hand, when he deals in general themes (such as identity, lurking danger, or anger, and when he takes the time to develop characters that deal with these things naturally, they work out beautifully (read: Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and the tv series of Twin Peaks).

      I have yet to see Wild at Heart, but will eventually do it for this blog, and I’ve heard some very mixed reviews on it. I’m curious to see what side I’ll come down on.

      Hurt really is the best part of this film though.

  3. Pingback: 1001 Movies – The Complete List « 1001 Movies I Must Comment On Before I Die!

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