The Elephant Man

Nothing Will Die

A film essay by: Witney Seibold



“The world was never made;
It will change, but it will not fade.
So let the wind range;
For even and morn
    Ever will be
    Thro’ eternity.
Nothing was born;
Nothing will die;
All things will change.”



            – from “Nothing Will Die” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson



            Joseph Merrick was born on 5th August 1862 in Leicester, England. He suffered from, what was diagnosed years after his death, a condition called Proteus syndrome which afflicted his skeleton with porousness and unusual growth. His skull was many times larger than average, his right arm, legs, and spine were twisted and he had trouble walking. He could not lie down, else he suffocate. His skin was afflicted with chronic tumorous growths, and hung from his skin loosely in many places. It has also been said that he suffered from neurofibromatosis, or NF.


            He was, as a small child, abandoned to a man named Mr. Bytes, who would feature Joseph in a circus sideshow. Bytes was a horrible man who beat his charges and drank heavily. Joseph Merrick was hidden away in a cage for most of his life. When a curious medical doctor named Frederick Treves visited Bytes’ sideshow by chance one evening, he asked to have a private meeting with Joseph. Dr. Treves, calling Merrick “John” in his medical notes (reason unknown), exhibited Joseph to the medical society of the day. Joseph, with his expressionless mutated face and utter silence was assumed to be an imbecile. His mouth was shaped as such that he could not smile. He was, however, able to weep.


            Eventually Treves was able to rescue Joseph from the filth and abuse of Bytes, and take him into his care where he learned that Joseph could actually speak after all. Indeed, Joseph was a curious and sensitive thinker who loved the theater, could quote poetry and Bible scriptures, and was well-read. He was gentle and inquisitive and liked nothing more than to engage Treves and others in intellectual debates. He also had a talent for sculpture, and once made a model of a church for one of his favorite actresses. Joseph eventually made many friends in London’s polite society, and was even able to attend theatrical productions.


            Joseph Merrick died on 11th April 1890. He was 27 years old.


            If one were to believe a sideshow barker, anyone born with a mutation or a chronic ailment is the result of sin or corruption. Joseph Merrick’s mother, if sideshow banter is to be believed, was a single pregnant woman who was attacked by elephants late in her pregnancy. As a result of this event, her child was born part elephant. If it weren’t for Frederick Treves, Merrick would have likely died in silent misery in a cage somewhere outside of London. But he was rescued, and had a chance to be a real human being for a few brief years.


            There was a play written about the famed Elephant Man, written by Bernard Pomerance in 1979. Called (what else?) “The Elephant Man,” it won the Tony for best play that year. The story of Joseph Merrick had been revived for all to see.


            However, the play was not an accurate depiction of Merrick’s story. It was a melodramatic adaptation, involving a lot more sex and romance. The following year, Michael Powell and Peter Ford collaborated on a book about Joseph Merrick. It was called The True History of the Elephant Man, and it purported to be a holistic and accurate biography, based largely on Dr. Treves’ notebooks. It eventually became the basis for David Lynch’s 1980 motion picture.


            Mel Brooks (yes, that Mel Brooks) saw Lynch’s “Eraserhead,” and was so impressed with it, that he wanted to fund Lynch’s next project. He had to invent a studio with an innocuous name, Brooksfilm, in order to take his name off of it, however. He didn’t want audiences associating his brand of goofy comedy to an otherwise “prestigious” project.


            Every time I was the film “The Elephant Man,” I come close to crying. What a gentle, quiet movie. It is able to incorporate darkness, brutality, and the truly bizarre, and manage to make us have feelings for it. Joseph Merrick’s story is tragic and inspiring and fascinating, and David Lynch managed to make his most touching motion picture out of it. Here is a tale of a man who was rescued. A man who was assumed to be half animal, with no language and no humanity. A man who was quietly suffering the weight of the damned, and whom no one would think about in polite society. A freakish monster that most people can’t look at without screaming. And, thanks to the scientific curiosity of one man, was pulled out his mire, was finally allowed to speak, became whole.


            Merrick’s story is a story of the triumph of science over ignorance, of humanity over cruelty, and of sensitivity over brutality. Imagine the life Merrick must have had before he was discovered by Treves. He was beaten every day, people screamed at him, he lived in a cage in his own filth. For decades. And yet he managed to hold onto his sanity and to his humanity. I think most people, mutated or not, would be destroyed by such an experience.


            I refuse to use the word “courageous” to describe Merrick, though. He was not courageous. He was simply surviving. It’s not his overcoming of his physical ailments that makes Merrick’s story fascinating. It’s not even his ability to fit into “ordinary” society. It’s that he was able to stay human, despite years of torture, and dismissal as a monster. It would be easy to believe you were a monster if you looked the way Merrick did, and everyone told you that you were a monster every day of your life for nearly 20 years. Merrick did not have a sense of irony about himself, he did not jokingly use gallows humor to take the edge off of his appearance. He merely wanted to talk to people and to attend plays. He may have been a celebrity because of his story, but he’s only interesting because of his ability to stay sane.


            David Lynch manages to capture all of this in his film.


            The look of the film:



            The flat matte-like quality of his black-and-white photography, the constant grinding of late 19th-century machines and billowing of smoke put us in a world where industry is only just now coming into being. Technology is nascent, and a sense of European and American enterprise is on the tip of everyone’s mind. Lynch, however, does not see this as a positive thing. Anyone who has seen his “Eraserhead” can see that Lynch takes a very dim view of industrialization. It obscures the sun, traps humans, and spawns claustrophobia, grime, and death. Surely large industry did wonders for the comfort and well-being of humanity, but, in Lynch’s mind, the trade-off is sizable.


            Periodically throughout the film, Lynch will cut to an exterior shot of smoke billowing beautifully-yet-ominously into the air. He shows large hissing engines, boiler rooms, and damp, rusty corners. Lynch seems to be indicating that the world is simultaneously opening and closing. As implied by the Tennyson quote n the film, nothing is dying, things are merely changing.


            Lynch also occasionally shows us, most notably at the film’s opening and closing, hallucinatory dream sequences where we see fantasies of Merrick’s mother. At the outset, she is suffering and being trampled by the hypothetical elephants of the sideshow barker’s tall tale. At the end, she is smiling beautifully, staring at the camera, reminding Merrick, called “John” in the film, and reminding us that nothing will die. Death is not an ending. It is a change. We have moved from a nightmare to a dream.


            The actors:


            Dr. Frederick Treves is played by Anthony Hopkins. He is perfect in this role. Hopkins has a face that seems to be barely masking the horror and confusing that he is constantly feeling. As a scientist, he is able to look at thinks analytically and practically. When we first see him, he is at a carnival, he spins, and in an instant, his face has conveyed that he is, at once, exhilarated, slightly frightened, superficially bemused, and completely out of his element. When he sees Merrick for the first time, a single tear runs down his cheek. He is also moved.


            Treves, although heroic for rescuing Merrick from Bytes, is not depicted as a hero. At first, he is merely a scientist doing his job, then a fascinated observer of humanity (he teaches him how to speak and relate to people), and then, eventually, merely a good friend and caretaker. A British father figure.


            John Hurt plays Joseph “John” Merrick. Yes, the same John Hurt whom we saw in “Alien” the previous year. It’s not just because he’s wearing 60 pounds of makeup (which were, incidentally, based on a mould taken from Merrick’s actual head) that we don’t recognize him, though. Hurt manages, somehow, to express emotions through latex, bodysuits, and dental appliances, and give us the gentle language and dignified poise of a peaceful soul. It would be hard enough to do anything in the special makeup designed for the film, but that he could do so much with his eyes proves what a fine performer he is.


            The audience does, of course, want to see the Elephant Man, especially since he spends the bulk of the film’s first act obscured. We have the same freakshow mentality of the slack-jawed gawkers in the film. Just how ugly is this guy? Will he make me scream? Will he make my girlfriend scream?



            When we finally do see Merrick’s face for the first time, though, it’s not so much a “big reveal” and a mere uncovering. He sits quietly on a bed, vulnerable in pajamas, backing up against a wall due to a nurse’s scream. Hurt manages to take the prurience and money-shot-mentality of the moment out of the equation. We want to see him, sure, but we already feel for him, even though we’ve only, up to that point seen him under a hood, or in silhouette. Hurt’s barely-readable expression is one of genuine terror. It’s hard to gawk at a think we feel for while it is in abject terror.


            Merrick is given one moment of assertion and strength, and that is the fames “I am not an animal” scene. Merrick expresses genuine rage. And, my God, to think how much rage he carries within him. He screams at a crowd. “I’m a man!” he sputters. And then collapses. He can barely stand upright, and yet mustered up a few moments of anger. He saved himself. His anger only makes Merrick all the more well-rounded. We may be tempted to lionize him as a Christ-like bastion of patience and goodness otherwise. He is not. He is a man.


            The hospital’s boss is Car Gomm, and is played by John Gielgud, often credited as one of the best actors of his generation, if not of all time. Miraculously, he does not inflate his relatively small role. I love the work ethic of British actors. They truly give their all to the part, despite its size, potential for fame, or “importance.” No role is more important to another, according to this ethic. They are all acting jobs. Gielgud gives us a stuffy administrator who is at once a bit dry, but fully sympathetic. He does a lot with little.


            Anne Bancroft plays the glowing Mrs. Kendall, Merrick’s favorite actress. A child of the theater, she seems the least threatened by Merrick’s appearance. Surely she would have seen his picture in the papers or through an intermediary by this time, but she barely even flinches when she sees him. She is not responding to his ugliness at all, but to the dignified humanity she has heard so much about. She smiles, offers her hand. This is, like everything else in “The Elephant Man,” not the least bit showcase-y. She is not showing off her ability to withstand his ugliness. She is genuinely not bothered.


            I was used to seeing Bancroft in lame comedic roles in clunkers like “Love Potion #9,” “How to Make and American Quilt,” and her husband’s “Dracula: Dead and Loving It.” She was a good comedienne, but I didn’t think these films were anything special. It wasn’t until later that I saw “The Graduate,” “The Miracle Worker,” and “Jesus of Nazareth,” and got a better sense of her true abilities. When she smiles in “The Elephant Man” sunlight enters John’s life for the first time, and into the audience’s. It is a small but outstanding role.


            “Why Mr. Merrick, you’re not an elephant man at all. You’re Romeo.”


            Freddie Jones has a face like a semi-inflated pig bladder constantly sloshing about a glass of whiskey. His eyes dimly shine, semi-conscious, through a haze of smoke, inebriation, and unadulterated greed. Bytes is a horrible man, and he seems to take pleasure in cruelty; like inflicting pain on smaller, weaker beings is his only thing staving off a cirrhosis-induced suicide. I would be tempted to say he cares only about himself, but I don’t think his caring extends even that far. He’s not smart enough to be a nihilist, and not calculating enough to be a villain. He is merely horrible.


            Jones is a reliable character actor with over 100 credits to his name, including Lynch’s own “Wild at Heart” and his maligned “Dune.” He has a beautifully gravelly voice that, like tragic barroom crooner Tom Waits, seems to speak eons of pain and regret. He is one of those actors that seems able to express emotions without much of a physical change in his features. In “The Elephant Man” he does the unthinkable: he turns an otherwise melodramatic, moustache-twirling villain, and turns him into a terrifyingly real human being.


            Bytes never gives a second thought to Merrick. But when Merrick nearly slips his grasp, Bytes retaliates be kidnapping him again. Not necessarily to continue his revenue stream (although that is a huge motive), but, I think, to assert that small scraps of power he has in this world. He berates his boy (Dexter Fletcher), who is already becoming like him, and beats his freaks because it is the only was he’ll feel anything close to authority. His only moment of emotional vulnerability comes when he confronts Treves at one point, quietly pleading “I want my man.” We may hate Bytes; he is hatable. But Jones turns the line into an infinitely sad moment.




            Consider the following dialogue between the head nurse (Wendy Hiller) and Treves:



            Mothershead: “Sir, I don’t quite understand why you allow people like that in here”

            Treves: “Why? Because he enjoys it and I think it’s very good for him.”

            “Yes, but, sir, you saw the expressions on their faces. They didn’t hide their disgust. They don’t care anything about John. They only want to impress their friends.”

            “I think you’re being rather harsh on them, don’t you, Mrs. Mothershead?”

            “I beg your pardon!”

            “You yourself hardly showed him much loving kindness when he first arrived, did you?”

            “I bathed him, I fed him, and I cleaned up after him, didn’t I? And I see that my nurses do that same. And if loving kindness can be called care and practical concern, then I did show him loving kindness, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.”



            Is parading John in front of society people any different than parading him in front of nickel-paying gawkers? Do any people care about him other than Treves? Can you loathe his appearance and be suspect of his abilities, and still care? If a man is undeniably a freak, is wanting to see him always going to be a freakshow? How implicated are we, the audience, in John’s degradation?


            Well, John Hurt is just in makeup, so we’re not too implicated. But would we want to see the real Elephant Man anyway? Even after we’ve waded through the introductory moment of terror, and realized the man’s humanity, how much are we still starting at his deformities? And can our gawking ever truly end? Something to consider.



            “The Elephant Man” was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1981, and won none, although it did win many many European film awards. More importantly, though, it is just as powerful and as melancholic and as beautiful as it ever was. We have a beautiful story told in a beautiful way, and now it belongs to the ages, and Merrick, in a small way, can now live with us.




O never.

Nothing will die.

The stream flows,

The wind blows,

The cloud fleets,

The heart beats.

Nothing will die.

Published in: on September 4, 2008 at 11:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

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