Producer Mel Brooks fought for years to bring the true story of John Merrick – cruelly nicknamed the ‘Elephant Man’ due to his large tumours – to the big screen. He fought equally hard to bring connoisseur of the grotesque David Lynch on board to direct this touching story of a hideously deformed man in Victorian London.
This was the time of Sweeney Todd and Jack the Ripper, and the flavour, fever, and ferment of those times are beautifully reflected in the sombre black-and-white cinematography, filmed on London’s cobbled back streets with a backdrop of industrial sounds (clocks, machinery, gas). The film actually feels as if it were made a century ago.
John Merrick – played by John Hurt in a stunning performance full of sensitivity and dignity that radiates from beneath the tons of makeup that make him unrecognisable – suffers from an unknown disorder, believed to be elephantiasis.
A victim of ignorance, he is an object of ridicule and brutality as a carnival freak where he suffers at the hands of his ‘owner’, Bytes (Freddie Jones) until well-meaning surgeon Sir Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) rescues him and takes him to London Hospital, where he is treated with compassion.
Michael Elphick puts in a disturbing performance as a hospital porter on the take at Merrick’s expense, shoving Victorian London’s hoi polloi in his face in the dead of night for a few shillings.
It is supremely cathartic when Dr Treves ditches his quiet restraint and throws the porter around the room, unleashing the fury Lynch has made us all feel.
Merrick tries fitting into a world whose first reaction to his deformed visage is shock and revulsion.
Trained in the etiquette and formalities of the times, the gentle Merrick cannot overcome the prejudice and distaste of many of those around him.
He is snatched away from the safety of the hospital by his old owner, Bytes and whisked to the continent, where he is flogged, kept in a cage with hyenas and put back on public display before escaping back to London and being reunited with the good doctor.
Sadly, his disease turns out to be incurable, and after discovering he is dying, Merrick chooses to commit suicide and falls asleep, soothed by dreams of his beloved mother.
The film (and the play) raised the moral question of whether Merrick was really helped by this humanising process or indeed was exploited on yet another higher level as a medical oddity and a martyr of society.
In real life, Joseph (not John) Merrick chose to exhibit himself, was treated well at the sideshow and established an equal financial partnership with showman Tom Norman (on whom Bytes is based), who was apparently a decent man. During 22 months of work, Merrick managed to save £50 from his earnings – around a year’s income for a working-class family at the time.
Dr Frederick Treves