Wednesday, February 1, 2012

100 Movies - No. 33: The Elephant Man

33. The Elephant Man (1980)
Drama, Biography, 124 minutes
Directed by David Lynch
Starring Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt and John Gielgud

Here's a film that I was completely wrong about when I first saw it. I was about 20 at the time and was probably watching it to see how grotesque the main character appeared. Now, some 30 years later, David Lynch has become one of my favorite directors and I am able to appreciate movies on a different level.

The Elephant Man is not a typical David Lynch film. You can clearly see his style all over it (such as his fascination with machinery), but the story is not as complex and difficult as later efforts; this is grounded in reality. John Merrick (Hurt) existed in Victorian England, although he was really called Joseph Merrick. A cast of his head exists and is on display in a museum with his curved spine. It took up to six hours in makeup to transform Hurt into Merrick, but the result was as authentic as possible.

Shot in black and white on a low budget in around 14 weeks, the film was made thanks to the backing of Mel Brooks. He hadn't heard of David Lynch, but backed him after seeing a screening of Eraserhead.

The most surprising thing about The Elephant Man is how human the character is. Although his outward appearance frightened many people, he is portrayed as a gentle and eloquent man. Imagine being displayed in carnivals as a freak for the first 20 years of your life. He is punished if he doesn't "perform" and is treated like an annoying animal. Would you be afraid to speak or show your intelligence in such a situation? I know I would.

Merrick is discovered by Frederick Treves (Hopkins), who is a surgeon in a London hospital. His initial motivation is to display Merrick to his fellow colleagues to further his career, but he soon realizes that Merrick is a human being. One of the most interesting things about the film is how society reacts to Merrick once he has the backing of a few well-known people. Unfortunately, there are still those who wish to profit from his appearance.

The Elephant Man is one of the most emotional stories I have ever seen. I'm so glad that my tastes evolved to the point where I could see it the way it was intended. It's heartbreaking in places and you could make the argument that it's Lynch's best film (although I wouldn't agree). The cast delivers perfect performances across the board. You'll see performances from John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones, Michael Elphick and Hannah Gordon.

Lynch was relatively unknown in 1980, but he produced a film that was widely admired. Although it was poorly marketed, it received eight Oscar nominations. If you enjoy emotional stories about the human condition, you won't be disappointed. The DVD is out of print, but Studio Canal's Region AB Blu-ray is a great way to see the movie for those in Europe, Australia and North America.

If you like The Elephant Man:

David Lynch has been written off by many people as too weird. I can understand that argument, but The Elephant Man doesn't fall into that category. Another accessible Lynch film with a lot of heart and a straightforward narrative is The Straight Story (no pun intended). It was Richard Farnsworth's last role and is a deeply moving human interest story based on the true tale of a man who rode a tractor across the Midwest to see his dying brother. His encounters along the way are memorable. He impacts everyone he meets and it's great to see that total strangers are still capable of acts of random kindness. Farnsworth was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal. The story might sound boring, but I assure you it isn't. If you like The Elephant Man, you'll almost certainly appreciate Lynch's work in The Straight Story.

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  1. Nice write-up, Steve. I'm not familiar with Lynch's work but this movie is definitely something to remember. Had me fooled at first, since it felt like a scary movie. But when I knew that it was based on a true story, it wowed me more and more.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it. A very touching film.