The Elephant Man (1980) – Retro Showcase

We come to The Elephant Man. A movie that has not aged since it’s initial 1980 release; 31 years later and it’s legacy still lives on. David Lynch’s epic follow up to Eraserhead (1977) is a hypnotic, dark masterpiece that will live on as long as there are movies.

Lynch tells the story of John Merrick (John Hurt), the elephant man. Who lives under the fearful hand of his keeper; in a circus where he performs as a sideshow freak. Scaring children and adults with his hideous and grotesque mutation. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) finds and takes in Merrick in order to give him a proper home; also to study his condition.

Along the way, Treves gains John’s trust and we find that he is no freak — but a man. A gentle and well spoken man who lives misunderstood behind his disfigurement. Treves realizes that taking him out of the circus where he is on display and putting him in a different enviorment — he is still on display. This tortures Treves.

I won’t continue in order for those who have not seen it to experience the rest for themselves. All I can tell you is that this is one emotional movie, one that will have you thinking well after the credits.

This is due mainly to the stunning performances of everyone involved. John Hurt plays Merrick, who achieves a level of shame and emotion that is shocking. Even underneath the layers of prostetic make-up. His portrayal is sad and tugs at your emotions, you sincerely feel for this man. One thing I was amazed at was that I could not recognize Hurt at all, which is the highest compliment I can pay him. He is completely convincing.

Hopkins as Treves is fascinating, he obviously tries to be understanding and calm; but at times loses his composure due to the stress of trying to reach out to Merrick. He developes a deep understanding of him and becomes his friend, he tries to imagine the life he leads in order to help him. When Merrick goes missing, he questions the man responsible. This is my favorite scene because you truly feel for his loss.

David Lynch is best known for his obscure and symbolic films (Muholland Drive, Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, Dune), The Elephant Man is by far his most approachable for anyone not familiar with his work. He shot this film in black and white for two reasons. One, the gothic look of England in the 1890’s looks amazing. It is dark and scary, which is the world Merrick lives in. Two, the make-up of Merrick.

In color, the effects would be considered gross or graphic. In black and white, it appears a part of him. Sympathetic and mysterious. Lynch does a great job at capturing this time period and the misunderstanding of such a man, fear and the struggle to grasp is amplified.

Some would argue that it is overly sympathetic, I would disagree. I felt it fit perfectly, which only makes the ending of the film that much more impactful. Leaving you upset but happy at the same time, knowing that for once in Merrick’s life — he is happy. Which makes the audience connect. No other film has done that for me — created such a deep level of understanding for one character without overkilling it.

The Elephant Man was nominated for 8 Oscars upon release, rightfully so. Lynch and co. have created an American masterpiece which will echo through time, I absolutely fell in love with this film. I only wish that I could have been around to see the reaction of an audience when it was first released.