The Elephant Man (film)
|The Elephant Man|
US cinema release poster
|Directed by||David Lynch|
|Produced by||Jonathan Sanger
Mel Brooks (uncredited)
|Screenplay by||Christopher De Vore
|Based on||The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Frederick Treves and in part on The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu|
|Music by||John Morris|
|Editing by||Anne V. Coates|
|Distributed by||Columbia-EMI-Warner (UK)
Paramount Pictures (US)
|Running time||124 minutes|
|Box office||$26,010,864 (USA)|
The Elephant Man is a 1980 drama film based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the film), a severely deformed man in 19th century London. The film was directed by David Lynch and stars John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon and Freddie Jones.
The screenplay was adapted by Lynch, Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren from the books The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923) by Frederick Treves and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity (1971) by Ashley Montagu. It was shot in black-and-white.
The Elephant Man was a critical and commercial success. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor. Christopher Tucker made and applied the make-up and prosthetics to Hurt, and outrage was expressed that the Academy would not honour his work, which was found revolutionary. In response to this, the Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling was created the following year. The film also won the BAFTA Awards for Best Film, Best Actor and Best Production Design.
London Hospital surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) finds John Merrick (John Hurt) in a Victorian freak show in London’s East End, where he is managed by the brutish Bytes (Freddie Jones). Merrick is so deformed that he must be hooded in public and Bytes finds him an imbecile. Treves is intrigued by Merrick and pays Bytes to bring him to the hospital so he can study him. He shows Merrick to his colleagues and highlights his most dangerous deformity, his abnormally large skull, which compels him to sleep with his head resting on his knees, for its weight would asphyxiate him if he were to lie down. On Merrick’s return, he is beaten so hard by his manager that an apprentice calls Treves, who brings him back to the hospital. Bytes accuses Treves of likewise exploiting Merrick for his own ends, so he determines to do what he can to help Merrick.
When the staff cringe away from Merrick, Treves makes him stay in a quarantine room under the watchful care of Mrs. Mothershead (Wendy Hiller), the formidable matron. Mr. Carr-Gomm (John Gielgud), the hospital’s Governor, is reluctant to house Merrick, who has thus far remained mute, as the hospital is no residence for “incurables”. To persuade Carr-Gomm that Merrick has potential, Treves teaches him a few phrases. Carr-Gomm sees through the ruse, but as he walks away, both men are astonished to hear Merrick recite the 23rd Psalm, which Treves had not taught. Shocked by this show of literacy, Carr-Gomm allows Merrick to stay.
Merrick shapes up as articulate. Carr-Gomm arranges some rooms for him, and Merrick spends his time reading, drawing and making a model of a church he sees through his window. One day, Treves brings him to take afternoon tea at home with his wife, Ann (Hannah Gordon). Merrick, overwhelmed by the familial love he sees, shows them his most treasured possession, a picture of his mother, and voices his wish she would love him if she could see what “lovely friends” he has. Later he starts to receive society guests in his rooms, including the famed actress Madge Kendal, and becomes an object of curiosity and charity to high society. Mrs. Mothershead tells Treves he is still treated as a freak show attraction, though in a more upper-class style. This observation and his role in this situation deeply trouble the surgeon, and he starts to question if he has done the right thing. And while Merrick is treated well by day, the Night Porter makes money by bringing clients from nearby pubs to gawk at Merrick.
The hospital’s royal patron, Alexandra, Princess of Wales (Helen Ryan), brings a message from Queen Victoria, stating that Merrick will have permanent care at the hospital and all funds have been arranged. But Merrick is returned to his former life when Bytes reaches him thanks to the Night Porter’s “viewings”. He takes Merrick to continental Europe where he is once again put on show and brutalized. Consumed with guilt over Merrick’s plight, Treves takes action against the Night Porter with the help of Mrs. Mothershead.
His fellow freak show attractions help Merrick flee and reach London. Though at Liverpool Street station, he is taunted by a group of boys and accidentally knocks down a girl. He is chased, unmasked, and cornered by an angry mob, at which point he cries out, “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I ... am ... a ... man!” before collapsing. When the police return him to the hospital, he is reinstated to his rooms. He recovers a little, but is dying from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. As a treat, Mrs. Kendal has him visit the musical theater along with Treves, Mrs. Mothershead and his nurse, Nora (Lesley Dunlop). He is entranced by the show and the experience of sharing his merriment with his companions. Resplendent in white tie, he rises in the royal box to an ovation, having had the performance dedicated to him from Mrs Kendal. Back at the hospital, Merrick thanks Treves for all he has done and completes his model of the nearby cathedral. Imitating a sketch on the wall – a sleeping child – he removes the pillows he needs to sleep upright, lies down and dies, consoled by a vision of his mother (Phoebe Nicholls) who quotes Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Nothing Will Die.”
- John Hurt as John Merrick
- Anthony Hopkins as Frederick Treves
- Anne Bancroft as Madge Kendal
- John Gielgud as Francis Carr-Gomm
- Wendy Hiller as Mrs. Mothershead
- Freddie Jones as Bytes
- Dexter Fletcher as Bytes’ boy
- Michael Elphick as the Night Porter
- Hannah Gordon as Ann Treves
- Helen Ryan as Alexandra, Princess of Wales
- John Standing as Fox
- Lesley Dunlop as Nora
- Phoebe Nicholls as Mary Jane Merrick
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (October 2010)|
The film was executive produced by Mel Brooks, who had been impressed by Lynch’s earlier film Eraserhead at a private screening. Brooks made sure his name was not used in the marketing and promotion of the film lest the public expect a comedy. It was Lynch’s second feature and first studio film.
Hurt’s makeup was made from casts of Merrick’s body, which had been preserved in the private museum of the Royal London Hospital. Lynch originally tried to do the make-up himself, but the results were not filmable. The final make-up was devised by Christopher Tucker. It prompted the Academy – which had refused to give a special award to Tucker’s work on The Elephant Man and received many complaints – to create a new category for Best Make-up.
Vincent Canby wrote: “Mr. Hurt is truly remarkable. It can’t be easy to act under such a heavy mask... the physical production is beautiful, especially Freddie Francis’s black-and-white photography.” Roger Ebert gave 2/4 stars, writing: “I kept asking myself what the film was really trying to say about the human condition as reflected by John Merrick, and I kept drawing blanks.”
In her book The Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture, Nadja Durbach said the film was “much more mawkish and moralising than one would expect from the leading postmodern surrealist filmmaker” and “unashamedly sentimental”. She blamed this sentimentality on Lynch’s reliance on Treves’ memoirs as source material.
Awards and media listings
The Elephant Man was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role (John Hurt), Art Direction-Set Decoration (Stuart Craig, Robert Cartwright, Hugh Scaife), Costume Design, Director, Film Editing, Music: Original Score, and Writing: Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. However, the film did not win any.
It did win the BAFTA Award for Best Film, as well as other BAFTA Awards for Best Actor (John Hurt) and Best Production Design, and was nominated for four others: Direction, Screenplay, Cinematography and Editing.
There have been many releases of the film on both VHS and DVD. The version released as part of the David Lynch Lime Green Box includes several interviews with John Hurt and David Lynch as well as an extensive documentary on the life of Joseph Merrick entitled The Real Elephant Man. This material is also available on the exclusive treatment on the European market as part of Optimum Releasing’s StudioCanal Collection. Thus far, the film has only been released on Blu-ray Disc in the UK, however this disc will play in both Region A and B players.
- The Elephant Man (play)
- The Times, 8 October 1980, in large article on page 9 by John Higgins: "The Elephant Man, which opens tomorrow at the ABC, Shaftesbury Avenue, is also likely to establish the reputation of its director, David Lynch." Read in The Times Digital Archive on 2013-10-28
- "The Elephant Man (1980)", Box Office Mojo (IMDb.com, Inc), retrieved 4 July 2010
- Huddleston, Tom (2010), "David Lynch: interview", Time Out (Time Out Group Limited), archived from the original on 16 June 2010, retrieved 16 June 2010
- Roger Clarke (2007-03-02), "The Elephant Man", The Independent
- "Rotten Tomatoes: The Elephant Man". Uk.rottentomatoes.com. Retrieved 2012-09-12.
- Vincent Canby: The Elephant Man review
- "Roger Ebert: The Elephant Man review". Rogerebert.suntimes.com. Retrieved 2012-09-12.
- Durbach (2009), p. 35
- "NY Times: The Elephant Man". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-31.
- "The Elephant Man on StudioCanal Collection". Retrieved 2010-08-01.
- "StudioCanal Collection". Retrieved 2010-08-01.
- Durbach, Nadja (2009), "Monstrosity, Masculinity, and Medicine: Reexamining ‘the Elephant Man’", The Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-25768-5, OCLC 314839375
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