RETROSPECTIVE: Nightmares & empathy in The Elephant Man

RETROSPECTIVE: Nightmares & empathy in The Elephant Man

When you think of David Lynch, you think America, or at least a surreal vision of it: a severed ear in a vacant lot, a suited man with a shock of hair, an old man riding his tractor along a lonely highway; cherry pie and damn fine coffee.

In contrast to this, Victorian London, with its brick, and smoke, and soot, seem as alien as Arakkis.

With The Elephant Man, his second film, Lynch turns his facility for dreamlike symbolism to “a study in human dignity”; that of John Merrick; known to history for both his deformity and his humanity.

The spiral of pinwheel fireworks, specimen jars, a Skeleton Man and a Fat Lady, the maze of a circus tent: this is the natural setting of sideshow keeper Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones). Shabby and unshaven, imperious and stentorian, and desperate, he’s a stark contrast to the refined Doctor Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), with his immaculate beard and crisp black suit. Treves has come to him looking for the Elephant Man.

The film opens with a framed photo, a pale, dark-eyed female face; dissolving into images of elephants, grey-pitted and dignified. In slow motion, the woman is thrown through the air. She writhes, perhaps in childbirth. Bytes claims that Merrick’s mother was struck down by an elephant while pregnant, so it follows, in the logic of a dream, that her child should take that form.

We don’t see the mysterious Elephant Man (John Hurt), not yet; just hear the wheezy breath, his bulbous head in silhouette. We see, instead, Hopkins’ tears fall in amazement upon witnessing him; hear the rise of strings, majestic, empathetic.

When Merrick arrives at London Hospital, he enters leaning heavily on a cane, his face hidden by a sack; frightful and degraded. “Cor, what a stink”, remarks a child.

Treves cares for his new subject/patient, that’s clear, but his plan to present Merrick to his colleagues places him closer to the abusive Bytes than he would like. Literally so, when, at their parting, Bytes draws him in, companionably intimidating: “We have a deal, an understanding, we understand each other completely; more than money has changed hands.”

Even when treating Merrick with kindness and respect, there’s a transactional feel to their relationship: “I think I’ll examine you now.” The scene fades out as Treves goes to remove the bag. We next see Merrick in silhouette through a screen, concealed from us but exposed naked before a lecture hall as a “perverted or degraded condition of human being.”

After another beating at the hands of the monstrous Bytes, Merrick returns to the hospital and becomes, it seems, the sole occupant on the isolation ward. Nearby is Saint Philip’s Church, which Merrick creates as a paper model, and whose bell-tower with its creaking gears and clanging clock is held in abstract relation to him; lying awake in his bed, as if held in place by the monstrous machinery.

We’ve seen Bytes beat his ward with a stick in a shadowy alcove, catch a glimpse of pale face. Treves points at Merrick with his own stick, ordering assistants to help Merrick turn, pointing out his “intact and unaffected” genitals.

Lynch relies on the power of our imagination: we have not yet met the Elephant Man, though nor for that matter has Treves; uncommunicative as his patient/subject has proven. As he says to Carr-Gomm (John Gielgud), watching the departing figure of Merrick from an upstairs window, “I pray to God he’s an idiot.”

After another beating at the hands of the monstrous Bytes, Merrick returns to the hospital and becomes, it seems, the sole occupant on the isolation ward. Nearby is Saint Philip’s Church, which Merrick creates as a paper model, and whose bell-tower with its creaking gears and clanging clock is held in abstract relation to him; lying awake in his bed, as if held in place by the monstrous machinery.

In Lynch’s London, men are slaves to machinery: like the scrawny, shirtless men clanking back and forth on a mechanised loom. We follow hissing steam pipes through the darkness. Smoke stacks pour out black smoke, coal is piled in mountain, and infernal boilers smoulder.

This is not a world of kindness. Bloody-faced women tear at each other’s faces, leaving bloody gouges. Even a nurse (Lesley Dunlop) erupts in hysterics at the first sight of Merrick.

We see him then, too. Any physical description is unnecessary. What matters is the hurt we see in that one barely visible eye, pinched in his face.

Even the hospital’s governor, Carr-Gomm (John Gielgud), serene and self-possessed, does not accept his being there. Merrick is, after all, incurable, and the hospital does not accept incurables. Merrick simply does not fit in to those quiet, lonely open wards full of unassuming patients tucked into identical white sheets.

Harder still, Merrick has not yet said a word. It’s this that endears him so horribly to Jim (Michael Elphick), the grinning bully boy of a night porter, who charges the local drunks to gawp at Merrick.

That London Hospital is so unsecured, so open to trespass and misdeeds, seems itself in-keeping with the logic of a dream.

It’s appropriate therefore that Merrick’s first spontaneous words, his first expression of his intelligence and articulateness, take the form of the 23rd Psalm; a ward against evil, but also a prayer for understanding. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…”

As Merrick’s personality is revealed, that of a gentle man with fierce intellect, Treves’ patronage and pity becomes true empathy; the abject terror of society becomes polite hypocrisy. Upon first entering Merrick’s room, Carr-Gomm turns away momentarily at the sight of it before turning once more to face him, face fixed in a creased, complacent smile.

He, Merrick, weeps when Treves’ wife, Ann (Hannah Gordon), treats him truly like a human being. Gifts, too – a cane, a dressing case — reduce him to further tears.

Actress Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft) sees straight through Merrick’s exterior to his poetic soul: “Oh, Mr. Merrick, you’re not an elephant man at all. You’re Romeo.” Others, like the middle-aged couple who visit for tea and can barely stop their hands from shaking, can’t quite manage the feat.

Merrick seems to arouse both the best and worst of mankind; like the pervy old man leering at him through the hospital window, a squirming prostitute on each arm. That same nighttime visitation sees Merrick passed from one of Jim’s whooping punters to another, spun as if in an obscene waltz, booze poured down his face; to the tune of a calliope.

Forcibly subjected to his own face in a mirror, what can Merrick himself do but scream?

Returning from London after a kidnapping, Merrick is tormented by children and pursued by a mob till, cornered in a train station toilet, he howls his defiance, his despair and humanity.

If Merrick’s tragedy lies in his goodness and simplicity, Treves is more complicated; grappling with the understanding that his kindness to the Elephant Man is compromised. In saving Merrick, he has promoted himself: “He’s only being stared at again.”

Only at the theatre, a world of perfect dreams — which Lynch presents as a kaleidoscopic vision out of Méliès — is Merrick truly at home; truly welcomed, truly recognised.

As a film, The Elephant Man is much like Merrick’s model of the cathedral: partly based on what he can see from his window; partly drawn from his imagination; all majesty.

Forced by medical necessity to sleep sitting up, returned from the theatre, safe at last from his travails, Merrick lies down to die. In his final moments, he experiences a vision of his mother (Lydia Lisle in footage), that mysterious, elephant-afflicted woman, reciting the words of Tennyson. “Nothing will die; All things will change.”

Orson Welles once described a film as “a ribbon of dreams” and with this we have follow it to its end. 

To mark the 40th anniversary of its original theatrical release, STUDIOCANAL is proud to announce the release of the first ever 4K and Ultra HD version of THE ELEPHANT MAN in UK cinemas this Spring. 

Beautifully shot in black and white by the incomparable Freddie Francis (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Cape Fear) and with BAFTA-winning production design by Stuart Craig (The English Patient, The Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), THE ELEPHANT MAN is an unforgettable story of human dignity and courage in the face of unimaginable adversity, that proved to be David Lynch’s first commercial and critical success.

Home Entertainment Extras:

  • NEW – BFI Q&A with Jonathan Sanger
  • NEW – Interview with stills photographer Frank Connor
  • Interview with David Lynch
  • Interview with John Hurt
  • Mike Figgis interviews David Lynch
  • The Air Is On Fire: Interview with David Lynch at Cartier Foundation
  • Joseph Merrick, The Real Elephant Man
  • The Terrible Elephant Man Revealed
  • Behind The Scenes Stills Gallery

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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