Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Unit 1: Anatomy - Review - David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980)

Figure 1. The Elephant Man Poster Art

A film based on the consequence of physiognomy, the interpretation of judging a book by its cover, its pages warped and distorted by natural tragedy. The 1980 film “The Elephant Man” by David Lynch tells the story of “friendly-freak” John Merrick, a man who is revered as a walking circus act only to be poked and prodded by the putrid gluttony of everyday man.

•Directed by: David Lynch
•Written by: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren & David Lynch
•Cast: Anthony Hopkins as Frederick Treves, John Hurt as John Merrick, Anne Bancroft as Mrs Kendal, John Gielgud as Carr Gomm, Wendy Hiller as Mothershead & Freddie Jones as Bytes.
•Genre: Drama
•Duration: 124 Minutes (aprox)

The Elephant Man beckons a question without any answer or solution, a depiction made by society - who is or is not a monster. The underline significance is what falls to us as individuals, as human beings to look past that fear into the very moral fibre of a person. The consequences are what boil down to our conscience to allow us to look at ourselves in the mirror without the disgust of figuring out that we are the epitome of the term “monster”.

One can attribute the correlation of anomalies to our personal perception of the human figure, face, eyes and ears, the prerequisite for order & perfection. Before you know it you are smack bang in the middle of something you never expected such is the offering of Winston Churchill.

"The human story does not always unfold like a mathematical calculation on the principle that two and two make four. Sometimes in life they make five or minus three; and sometimes the blackboard topples down in the middle of the sum and leaves the class in disorder and the pedagogue with a black eye." (Churchill, 1874-1965)

Figure 2. “Life is full of Surprises”

As man descends past the unnerving signs “Freaks”, “No Entry”, “Isolation Ward” one could not help but notice how important it was to keep these “Freaks” from the normality of “the flock”. It is the mere curiosity of Anthony Hopkins-Frederick Treves that caused his interjection, albeit (initially) as a mere case study without much consideration of this “supposed” freaks humanity. It takes time but Treves realises John Hurts-John Merrick is a good man despite his deformity and acts as a father or sorts protecting him from the scorn of normal folk and his hateful step-father “Bytes”.

The disgust of this poor “Elephant Man” leaves one despising the selfish majority boiling the conclusion down to a mere footnote, a flurry of questions without a single gratifying answer.

“What is the measure of man? Is it the hands and feet? The eyes and ears? Or is it the Holy Spirit that animates him? If the body is lost, but the soul is saved, is that anything less than victory?” (Levine, 2007:09)

Figure 3. “You’re not an elephant man at all, Your Romeo”

Anne Bancroft’s Mr’s Kendal is the only person to look past Merrick’s deformities from the get go, into the man he is and the man he is trying to be. The discrimination of John Merrick is no better than modern racism; in which rich folk visit him just because it was the popular thing to do, recreating the environment of the freak show all over again. One could not help but notice the disgust and fear as he catered to his upper class visitors, not one of them lending an empathetic ear or a single glance of understanding.

Figure 4. “You’re the monster, you’re the freak”

Treves guilt only increases when Merrick is kidnapped from the safety of his bedsit, causing Treves to embrace his father-like persona and parade into an outburst of fury. One could not help but think at this point Treves knew that he thought of Merrick as a monster just like everyone else and he hated himself for thinking that way. The only thing Treves had power over at this point was the honour of his dear friend John Merrick.

Figure 5. “Don’t worry about me, my friend”

It is noticed that confidence has been restored to the disheartened Merrick when attending the musical theatre. People stand to finally applaud him, despite all of his difficulty it was his ability to persevere despite how he looked. One could argue that at this point Merrick had nothing left to give to this audience or any other. Merrick wanted peace, Merrick wanted to die chasing the dream he had always wanted... to be normal, to not be a freak, to lay down like everyone else, to join the angel-like face of his mother in the world above.

One could argue that Merrick’s triumph was an oversight due to the events running up to and in the conclusion to his story.
“Perhaps I’m being a trifle heartless here, but when reviewers of the film claim that Merrick triumphed in the face of adversity I have to ask what exactly it is that he accomplished? Throughout the course of the film he built a cathedral out of cardboard, had crumpets with uppity Brits, and went to the theatre once. And it’s also implied that he committed suicide in the final scene. For a man of his intelligence and good nature, THIS is what we’re considering a great triumph? Such a blanketed truism of nobility seems to be a stretch, even for die-hard Lynch fans.” (Pulley, 2005)
To Summarize

Humanity is defined in many ways, we are not deemed human because we all look the same, none of us are perfect. People die chasing the dream of perfection and in some cases those people attain excellence, but perfection itself is unobtainable. The only true place we can hope to be similar to others is where it counts, in our hearts & in our minds. We can aspire to do our best, to be all we can be and play the hand that is dealt to us, even in spite of our own handicaps.

The Elephant man is a heartbreaking case of life in the face of adversity, no matter how shunned poor John Merrick was he buried that which was most human of him so no one could take it. Merrick had his reservations about revealing his humanity to Treves for fear that Treves would slap it down like everyone else had in his entire life. One could believe that most of us hide parts of ourselves which are the most delicate, for fear of mockery & betrayal, as is the case of John Merrick.

“The film is composed of many powerful scenes, some of great tenderness, others of unspeakable cruelty. Perhaps the most harrowing of these are the scenes involving a night porter at the hospital, who discovers he can profit by charging the local drunken riff raff to “view” the infamous Elephant Man. These regular sessions of abuse and mockery typically include forcing Merrick to consume alcohol and encouraging the local whores to kiss his grotesquely twisted mouth and to provocatively lay down with him, impervious to the fact it is causing him to asphyxiate.” (Griffin, 2011)

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. The Elephant Man Poster Art. (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on: 05/10/11)

Figure 2. Life is full of Surprises. (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on: 05/10/11)

Figure 3. You’re not an elephant man at all, Your Romeo. (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on: 05/10/11)

Figure 4. You’re the monster, you’re the freak. (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on: 05/10/11)

Figure 5. Don’t worry about me, my friend. (com) [Online image]. At: (Accessed on: 05/10/11)



Churchill, Winston. (1874-1965) Famous Quotes Regarding Perfection At: (Accessed on: 05/10/11)

Levine, Ken. (2007) Bioshock – Early Pitch Document. Conceptualised in the

Pulley, Anna. (2005) The Elephant Man Review At: (Accessed on: 05/10/11)

Griffin, Tom. (2009) Reel Psychology the Elephant Man At:
(Accessed on: 05/10/11)

1 comment:

  1. You're really getting damn good at these reviews now by capturing the underlying theme of the film and forming the review around it, "The Elephant Man beckons a question without any answer or solution, a depiction made by society - who is or is not a monster." Smartly structured and the quotes are well chosen.