Release Date(s)1980 (September 29, 2020)
Studio(s)Brooksfilms/Paramount Pictures (Criterion – Spine #1051)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
When Hollywood adapts a story about actual people and events to the screen, the results can vary widely. Often, dramatic liberties are taken for narrative clarity and only certain aspects are covered. What matters is whether the film is true in spirit to the essence of what really happened.
The Elephant Man is the story of Joseph Merrick (called John in the film), whose severe physical deformities caused him to be exhibited in freak shows in and around London in the late 19th century. Merrick (John Hurt) is the main attraction and primary income source for Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones), who keeps him in squalid conditions and regards him more as an animal than a human being.
Surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) sees Merrick and asks to exhibit him to fellow doctors at the Pathological Society of London for medical research. Seeing unmistakable evidence that Merrick has been badly abused, Treves arranges for Merrick to live at the hospital. This leads to a battle of wills between Treves and Bytes. Treves treats Merrick with patience and kindness, trying to understand the man beneath the physical disfigurement. Bytes sees Merrick as his meal ticket.
Thought to be incapable of speech, Merrick eventually opens up to Treves. He speaks well, shows interest in a world he’s never fully known, and regards Treves as a friend. Treves arranges visits from prominent public figures, such as actress Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) and Alexandra, Princess of Wales (Helen Ryan). Though he becomes a sort of celebrity, he’s still secretly exploited. A hospital guard lines his pockets by charging his friends to gawk at Merrick, who is terrified by these nighttime intrusions.
Director David Lynch (Eraserhead, Twin Peaks) does a superb job recreating bleak nineteenth-century industrial London, with its chugging machinery, steam-driven engines, smoke pollution, and dank streets. The carnival show scenes are reminiscent of Tod Browning’s Freaks, with the “exhibits” forming a bond and looking out for one another. Freddie Francis’ black-and-white cinematography makes for a grim, often documentary style. Color would likely have made everything look too cheery and undermined the mood.
Hurt wears layers of prosthetics to simulate the appearance of the actual Merrick with an enlarged head, distorted face, and tumors on his face and upper torso. Hurt’s performance is a real tour de force. Lynch gradually reveals the make-up, building suspense. When it is fully revealed, one can’t help but marvel at its complexity. But Hurt doesn’t rely only on the make-up for his performance. From a wheezing, grunting, masked entity, Merrick shows himself to be far from a monster. Hurt’s manner of speaking is touching, with its air of wonderment as he looks at Treves’ family photos, chats with Mrs. Kendal, or watches a play in the theater. Hurt portrays this severely disabled individual with honesty and dignity.
Hopkins’ Treves is the epitome of patience and understanding. He speaks softly, never raising his voice, which has a calming effect on Merrick. Much of his performance is in reactions. When he first sees Merrick, for instance, the camera slowly moves into a close-up to show his expression of combined amazement and horror. His dialogue sounds spontaneous as he politely but insistently makes his wishes known to his chief nurse. He keenly observes Merrick where he’s first brought to the London Hospital. Though frustrated by Merrick’s initial lack of response, he gently perseveres. When he addresses the doctors and displays Merrick, he is all business and speaks in technical terms (but ones that the audience will comprehend). Hopkins’ eyes project infinite kindness.
Freddie Jones’ Mr. Bytes represents the dark side of human nature. He exploits Merrick and is completely selfish and arrogant in his confrontation with Treves, pitting self-righteousness against Treves’ humanitarianism. Coarse, blunt, and ruthless, he has no concern for Merrick other than as a means to profit.
The growing friendship between Merrick and Treves is what drives the film. From a terrified, non-verbal creature, Merrick, under Treves’ care, slowly emerges as a thoughtful, trusting soul. Treves even takes Merrick to his home to meet his wife. The relationship between the two men illustrates how damaging impressions can be if based on physical appearance alone. Merrick’s acceptance is hardly universal. The well educated and upper classes understand his affliction and accept him, while the lower classes never look beyond the horror he instills in them.
Featuring 1080p resolution, The Elephant Man is presented by the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 4K master was supervised by David Lynch. The print is pristine, with no scratches, dirt specks, emulsion clouding, or cue marks. Blacks are rich and velvety, and the use of light and shadow sets the mood from the very beginning. Clarity is especially notable in the cobblestone streets, delineated bricks in buildings, and the gaslit streets. A shot of carnival workers escorting Merrick to safety by lantern light along the river bank emits a quiet beauty. Many scenes end with fade-outs, an unusual technique for a film made in 1980. This suggests the passage of time and gives the film an old-fashioned stylistic touch. A recurring surreal montage in which many images overlap represents Merrick’s dream.
The soundtrack is English 1.0 LPCM with optional subtitles in English SDH. The mix is particularly good in the street scenes when assorted machines spew clouds of smoke as they clatter and chug. When Merrick is brought to the hospital, his wheezing is the only sound he makes. Hurt, despite his cumbersome make-up, can be easily understood, though his speech is labored to suggest the effect of Merrick’s facial disfigurement. A boisterous, drunken crowd stand in Merrick’s room at the London Hospital to gawk at him. Boat and train whistles signal Merrick’s journey from the continent back to England. An unsuspecting nurse, on first seeing Merrick, screams and drops a tray whose contents shatter on the floor. John Morris’ score builds to a delirious crescendo as the night porter’s paying customers torment Merrick. From the beginning, the music provides a foreboding feel.
Bonus materials include the following:
Room to Dream – This 70-minute audio recording features director David Lynch and co-author Kristine McKenna reading from Lynch’s 2018 memoir, Room to Dream.
John Hurt (Interview) – From 2009, Hurt likens Merrick’s spine to a corkscrew, as evidenced by his skeleton on view at the London Hospital. Hurt wanted to hold off showing the full make-up, but director David Lynch wanted to show it earlier. Hurt prevailed. The make-up was still being worked on when early scenes were shot. There was little improvisation. Hurt prefers a well written script, indicating that a writer’s words are superior to on-the-spot dialogue. He had the luxury of rehearsing because filming with full make-up was done every other day.
David Lynch (Interview) – Lynch had written the screenplay for Ronnie Rocket but was having trouble convincing anyone to produce it. His agent brought him four possible directing offers, and he was immediately intrigued by The Elephant Man. After several studios turned down the script, Mel Brooks, who was about to start a company to produce films other than his own, approved with the response “You’re a madman. I love you. You’re in!”
Jonathan Sanger (Interview) – This Q&A session, hosted by Ian Haydn-Smith, was filmed at BFI Southbank in January 2018. Sanger’s then-babysitter told him her boyfriend had co-written a script and asked if he would read it. Sanger agreed. He liked it and decided to option it. Having worked with Mel Brooks, Sanger approached him to see if he would co-produce it. He describes the meeting of himself, Brooks, and Lynch as “serendipitous.” Lynch discussed Sanger’s concept and asked to meet with the writers. After screening Lynch’s first feature film, Eraserhead, Sanger noted, “David Lynch is like Jimmy Stewart if Jimmy Stewart had been born on the planet Venus.”
Frank Connor (Interview) – Stills photographer Connor discusses his career, mentioning Don’t Look Now and A Bridge Too Far. Several of his stills from Don’t Look Now are shown during his reminiscences.
The Terrible Elephant Man Revealed – This 2001 documentary features clips from the film and interviews with producers Mel Brooks and Jonathan Sanger, actor John Hurt, director of photography Freddie Francis, and make-up artist Christopher Tucker.
David Lynch at the AFI – This audio recording from 1981 features David Lynch at the American Film Institute discussing The Elephant Man.
Joseph Merrick: The Real Elephant Man – Confusion about Merrick’s first name dates back to a memoir written by Frederick Treves, in which he refers to Joseph Merrick as John Merrick. London’s east end at the time, rife with poverty and populated by recent immigrants, was the site of the notorious Jack the Ripper murders. The screenplay is referred to as an “interesting interpretation of the story.” The film altered the chronology of events. Merrick attended school and learned to read and write. His family lived fairly prosperously until his mother died when he was 7 years old. His father remarried an unkind woman who forced him to sell trinkets on the street. His disfigurements, however, made that impossible and he voluntarily joined a sideshow to be exhibited. This was the only way he could earn a living. After being examined by Treves, Merrick went on his way and eventually teamed up with an entrepreneur who took him to Brussels and later stole his money and abandoned him. Merrick made his way back to England and was mobbed at the station. The police found Treves’ business card on him and returned Merrick to the London Hospital.
Mike Figgis and David Lynch – English film director Mike Figgis talks with David Lynch, who discusses his early films and innovations.
Clapper Board: John Hurt – This interview with Hurt is conducted by Chris Kelly and aired on Granada Television in the United Kingdom on November 3, 1980.
Skin Tricks: Christopher Tucker and John Hurt – Hurt accepted the role immediately. It was very uncomfortable acting with heavy, restrictive prosthetics. He had to be at the studio at 5 AM to have make-up applied, which took 7 hours. His scenes were filmed from noon to 10:30 PM. The make-up took an hour and a half to remove. Hurt shot his scenes every other day, rehearsing on the days he wasn’t being filmed. Christopher Tucker created the elaborate make-up in 6 weeks, working long days. His make-up recreated Merrick’s physical appearance, caused by a congenital disease called neurofibromatosis, which deforms both bone and tissue. Merrick’s speech pattern was instinctive on Hurt’s part. Hurt comments that whether he is playing a real or fictional character, he must use his imagination to shape the performance.
Trailer and Radio Spots – The film’s theatrical trailer and four radio spots are presented.
Booklet – The enclosed 36-page booklet contains 12 production still photos, 2 on-set photos, a full cast and credits list, interview excerpts from the 2005 edition of writer Chris Rodley’s book Lynch On Lynch, and the 1886 letter written by Carr Gomm to the London Times about Merrick’s troubled history, referring to his case as “exceptional,” with a plea to “charitable people who will come forward and enable me to provide him with… accommodation.” There is also detailed information about the digital restoration of the film.
The Elephant Man has a strong screenplay by Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, and David Lynch that telescopes many events into a manageable running time while capturing the time period and providing thorough characterizations of both Merrick and Treaves. The film boasts excellent direction by Lynch and uniformly first-rate performances by Hopkins, Jones, John Gielgud (as Carr Gomm, head of the London Hospital), Wendy Hiller (as head nurse Mothershead), and Michael Elphick (as the night porter). Criterion has done justice to this film with its beautiful restoration and extensive supplementary material that provides information on the real Joseph Merrick and fully details the making of the film.
– Dennis Seuling