THE ELEPHANT MAN
The Elephant Man, directed by David Lynch, tells the sad, true story of Joseph Merrick (not John, as referred to in the film), a man born with a rare disfiguring disease (still undiagnosed), who is exhibited at a Victorian fairground freak show (from whence Merrick acquired his title), though, apparently, in reality it was Merrick who contacted the showman, Sam Torr, and, then, in a penny gaff, in Whitechapel (not shown in the film), where he met physician Dr. Frederick Treves, who later took him under his protection. Merrick confronts the prejudices of Victorian society and became ‘fashionable’, even meeting royalty. John Hurt is superb as Merrick, as is Anthony Hopkins as Treves. The supporting cast, including Sir John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, Hannah Gordon, Freddie Jones and Dame Wendy Hiller, are excellent, and Freddie Francis’s black and white cinematography is outstanding. The screenplay was based on the books, The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, by Ashley Montagu, and, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, by Sir Frederick Treves. As Powell (2004: 269) wrote: ‘this is a film which takes the material of horror and translates it into loving kindness’. This BAFTA award winning film (including Best Film and Best Actor) was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and seemed to have much to recommend it from the perspective of informing my practice, for it concerns itself not only about living on the fringes of society as a consequence of physical deformity, but what it is to be human.
The real Joseph Merrick
To my mind, the film is weakest in the opening scenes, but the strongest images remain in the memory, especially those of Merrick wearing his hood with only one eye slit. I particularly liked the montage of chimneys gushing out thick, black acrid smoke, which I thought was a wonderful evocation of the industrial period in which the film is set.
For a précis of the film’s plot I direct the reader to The Elephant Man (Film) on Wikipedia. Having not read the books upon which the film is based, I cannot say how much of the film reflects reality (or at least the reality contained within the pages of the said books), but as a work of cinema it is impressive. It’s unusual theme and good reviews ensured its commercial success.
Merrick died of asphyxia on the 11th April, 1890, aged twenty-seven. Treves, who carried out the autopsy, actually stated that Merrick had died of a dislocated neck, the result of wishing to sleep laying down, when he usually had to sleep sitting up because of the weight of his head. Treves wrote: ‘his death was due to the desire that had dominated his life – the pathetic but hopeless desire to be like other people.'
As a postscript, one cannot help but reflect on the nature of Treves, for although there is no question that he helped Merrick escape the vulgar carnival show in life, he could not allow Merrick to rest in death, for after he dissected Merrick’s body, he mounted the skeleton, which stands to this day in the pathology collection at the Royal London Hospital. Although it has never been on public display, images of it are easily accessible, as above, and poor Merrick is still a spectacle. As Mrs. Mothershead (Wendy Hiller), the matron in the film, said to Treves when Merrick was being visited in his hospital room by polite members of London society, ‘He’s only being stared at all over again’. This, at least in the film, is appreciated by Treves, when he asks of his wife: ‘Am I a good man, or am I a bad man?’ One cannot help but ponder if today, as a society, we have progressed much beyond the Victorian fascination for exhibiting the unusual, irrespective of the sensibilities and good taste. Is it not time for this tormented soul’s remains to be finally laid to rest, to be given some peace away from staring eyes?
Powell, D. (2004) Quote from Punch. In J. Walker (ed.) Halliwell’s Film, Video and DVD Guide 2005 (HarperCollins, London).