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For, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020


EDITOR’S NOTE: One of the best films of the 1980s came very early on in the decade and made David Lynch’s name, although it remains very different from most of the filmmaker’s oeuvre. This, after all, is the fellow who later came up with ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Twin Peaks’! But the PG-rated ‘The Elephant Man’ remains a profoundly moving film, and, 40 years later, as we are experiencing a distinctive racial divide in this country, it carries a message about profiling, if you will, that seems all the more important in 2020. If you’ve never experienced this one, consider it a must-see, and this reissue on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection is stunning. My review was published in the Deseret News on Oct. 16, 1980.


The most incredible thing about “The Elephant Man” is that it’s never been made into a film before now.


The life of John Merrick is, on some levels, a classic example of life mirroring a fairy tale or horror story, and is excellent screen material (this version is not based on the current Broadway version).


It’s sort of “The Ugly Duckling” with a touch of “The Wolf Man,” the twist being that the story is true.


Just as Hans Christian Andersen’s little outcast duckling became a swan, the grotesquely deformed John Merrick becomes a beautiful human being in the eyes of those who get to know him; just as “Wolf Man” Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) was pitiable in his attempts to fight off his lycanthropy, “The Elephant Man” struggles to let his real self be set free from the terrifying shell that envelopes him.


Merrick was born hideously twisted in bone and flesh after his mother was trampled by an elephant as she carried him in pregnancy. He was so outwardly diseased that he seemed destined to life as a carnival sideshow freak (labeled “Elephant Man” because his head was enlarged and misshapen so that a distended frontal bone gave his face a trunk-like appearance).




       John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, 'The Elephant Man' (1980)


As written by Christopher DeVore, Eric Bergren and David Lynch, Merrick’s character internally is the complete reverse of his outward appearance — he is intelligent, withdrawn and soft-spoken, without a hint of guile or even resentment for his lot in life.


That may be stretching the point but actor John Hurt transcends the simplistic to bring this character very much to life. Hurt, currently starring in the PBS miniseries “Crime and Punishment,” and probably better known as the man out of whom the “Alien” burst, as Caligula in PBS’s “I, Claudius” and as the philosophic prisoner in “Midnight Express,” is superb in a very difficult role.


Perhaps even more taxing than his characterization is performing in the incredible makeup job given him by Christopher Tucker, who has managed to authentically re-create to an amazing degree just what Merrick really looked like (Tucker used photographs of Merrick and studied the skeletal remains now preserved by London Hospital).


Anthony Hopkins, as surgeon Frederick Treves, who thoroughly examined Merrick and gave to his last years of life quiet and dignity, is equal to Hurt in his ability to make his character at once caring, questioning of his own motivations and unnerved by the entire experience.




Also fine are Freddie Jones as the sadistic “owner” of Merrick as a sideshow freak, John Gielgud as the hospital director, Wendy Hiller as head nurse and, in a small role, Anne Bancroft as the actress who brings Merrick to posh society attention.


“The Elephant Man” is also very much a director’s film, however. David Lynch’s only other movie is a midnight-circuit cult flick called “Eraserhead,” a very weird black-and-white picture made over a five-year period on a very meager budget That movie is full of wild imagery and amplified sound, both of which are used extensively in “The Elephant Man” (which is also in black and white).


The usage in “Elephant Man” is more lucid, however, and adds to, rather than deletes fo, the experience.


It’s not a film without flaws or weaknesses, but the overall power — delivered in a gentle, subtle manner — is so great that any complaints seem like carping.


If “The Elephant Man” doesn’t move you to think twice before condemning someone on the basis of outward appearances, nothing ever will.