The Elephant Man

By Sofia S. Gutierrez-Ortiz

The Elephant Man, Movie Jacket a movie directed by David Lynch and released in 1980 was based upon the book, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Sir Frederick Treves; the screen script also utilized Ashley Montagu’s The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity. As a result, the movie plot and cast are excellent. John Hurt as John Merrick (the elephant man, actually named Joseph Carey Merrick); Sir Anthony Hopkins as Sir Frederick Treves, as well as John Gielgud, and Wendy Hiller as the mother, all rank at the top of their professions. Their splendid acting capabilities give this film an enduring sense of reality.

The script and cast are truly remarkable, but they are not the only reason that made this motion picture a real masterpiece; the costumes and settings make a splendid contribution to the film’s veracity. The costumes, in particular the coats, dresses, uniforms, hats, types of canes, and the speaking manner are all impeccably Victorian. The most difficult costume of John Hurt as the elephant man is stunning. Hurt’s mask ultimately achieves the grotesque and turns into a rather exquisite piece of art. The mask was so detailed and large that The New York Times review termed it, “remarkable. It can’t be easy to act under such a heavy mask.” Moreover, the make-up displayed the deformation of his oversized head, the large tumors, the immobile right arm, and the curvature of Merrick’s spine with painful realism.

Thus, the setting of The Elephant Man is that of a horror film, with eerie music and sudden cuts. Although the film reflected various aspects of a mild horror movie, the so-called monster is a real human, scared and pursued. These professional and technical decisions transport the audience back to the 1880s and refine the contrasts between a grim Victorian London and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The black and white cinematography focused on the two aspects of life: the poverty and the extreme hopelessness of the lower classes. The immense goodness of a few individuals, superbly and subtly acted, provides perfect contrast. The audience can see clearly how John Merrick’s life changed by the simple fact of living with educated, kind people in an environment of comfort and safety.

As the movie begins, Merrick in the Freak Show there are flash backs of an elephant hitting a pregnant woman and knocking her straight to the ground. Then the story moves to John Merrick, grotesquely deformed and explore how his life was shaped and affected by his horrific disease, as well as the presumption that he is by nature a dumb, brute animal like the elephant. Certainly he was so treated by many. Poor and uneducated, John Merrick made his living by working in a freak show in the streets of London. His employer mistreated and beat Merrick brutally. As an exhibition, Merrick’s life had been predictable and painful and would have probably continued if not for Dr. Frederick Treves who seeing him on display, takes a special interest in him.

Dr. Treves, like everyone around him, believed originally that John was an imbecile by the simple fact of his physical deformation. Merrick proves him wrong in a strong scene where he recites all of the Psalm 23, “As I walk in the valley of shadows…” Dr. Treves & John Impressed, Dr. Treves decides to observe John and offers him care and a more comfortable way of life rather than the misery he has always known. This decision transforms the Monster. Although to the majority of people, Merrick was horrifying, the nursing staff gradually grew fond of him and were able to see him as a gentle, smart, and dignified person. During this stay in the hospital, the doctor invited Merrick to his home to meet his wife for afternoon tea. Mrs. Treves & John This scene is the Break Out Moment; it is the first time the audience one can see the doctor recognizing that Merrick is an actual, thinking and sensitive human being. The New York Times reviewer noted that in this key sequence, Dr. Treves, played with urbane, quirky compassion by Anthony Hopkins, is reinforced by the feminine presence of Mrs. Treves, the homely use of a civilized tea time, and the “perfectly ordered Victorian drawing room.” Merrick has finally found a place where he can be safe and at peace.

Unfortunately, greed overcomes a hospital guard who brings a crowd of spectators to gawk at this grotesque animal. Escaping, John is quickly caught by his former employer and taken with the freak show to France to be marked as a creature of laughter and scorn again. On board boat to France Merrick, tired of the abuse, returns to London with secret help from other participants in the freak show. At the train station, Merrick runs into trouble and one of the strongest scenes of the movie occurs as John, cornered by several men, yells at them, “I am not an animal. I am not an animal. I am a human being.” This is the first time in the entire film when Merrick stands up for himself. The scene is an eye opener not just to the men in the train station, but also to the audience because for the first time Merrick shows his angry frustration and lets other people know how he feels. He returns to the hospital and to the care of those who have learned to love him. He spends the rest of his days there. He finally decides to make his one dream come true—to sleep like a regular person. When John makes this decision, he knows that will be his last experience of living; sleeping in a normal position will bring suffocation and death.

In Merrick’s life time, his doctors believed he suffered from elephantiasis, a disease of the lymphatic system that caused severe swelling. In 1976, a doctor postulated a new theory that Merrick was the victim of neurofibromatosis Type One, a rare genetic disease that creates tumors on the nervous system and is marked by brownish spots on the skin. Yet, further research showed that Merrick’s deformation was skin and bone growth unconnected to tumors. Joseph Carey Merrick Moreover, photographs of John Merrick failed to show the characteristic brown pigmentation. The view changed again in 1996 when Dr. Amita Sharma of the National Institutes of Health examined x-rays and CT scans of John Merrick’s skeleton. She determined that he had suffered from Proteus Syndrome and not neurofibromatosis Type One.

Proteus Syndrome is another rare disorder. The name comes from the Greek god, Proteus, known as a shape shifter. This condition can cause a variety of skin growths but more often creates a thick, raised, deeply grooved lesions. Although not the case with Merrick, some people with Proteus Syndrome have neurological abnormalities, sometimes including intellectual disabilities, seizures, and vision loss. This syndrome is also hereditary and characterized by hemi-hypertrophy, which is an overgrowth of one side of the body, multiple lesions of the lymph nodes, an abnormally enlarged head (macrocephaly), partial gigantism of the feet, and darkened spots or moles called naevi, on the skin. Body parts affected frequently are the bones in the limbs, skull, and spine. Affected individuals also have distinctive facial characteristics; for example, an elongated face, outside corners of the eyes that point downward, a low nasal bridge with wide nostrils, and an open-mouth expression. John Merrick’s skeleton carries all the characteristics of Proteus Syndrome. Even though the case of John Merrick was more than one hundred years ago, no cure exists for this disease at this time. Some drugs, radiation, and chemotherapy are used as a way of treating the symptoms. The people who suffer from this disease not only have to endure the deformities and symptoms, but also endure the inhumane people who only see the grotesque appearances and never see the actual person behind the mask.

John Hurt as John MerrickThe Elephant Man, directed by David Lynch, is a great film because he makes the simplicity of the movie have such an informative meaning. Lynch emphasizes the selfishness, greed, pain, misery, as well as the compassion, selflessness, fright, and human courage during the harsh times of nineteenth-century London. The New York Times review held, “In such a setting, it’s no surprise that a kind of sad, desperate genteelness was once equated with human dignity. To be kind, polite, in such a landscape, under such circumstances, when the masses were living in such squalor, was a reassuring sign of orthodoxy to a threatened London Establishment.”

This critically acclaimed movie won much international attention although some scenes are depressing and torturous to watch and may not be suitable for young children. The Elephant Man remains an excellent film for mature and thoughtful audiences. (with staff)

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