The Elephant Man (1980)

PG   |    |  Biography, Drama


The Elephant Man (1980) Poster

A Victorian surgeon rescues a heavily disfigured man who is mistreated while scraping a living as a side-show freak. Behind his monstrous façade, there is revealed a person of intelligence and sensitivity.

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8.2/10
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  • Anthony Hopkins in The Elephant Man (1980)
  • Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt in The Elephant Man (1980)
  • John Hurt in The Elephant Man (1980)
  • Anne Bancroft in The Elephant Man (1980)
  • John Hurt at an event for The Elephant Man (1980)
  • Wendy Hiller in The Elephant Man (1980)

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Reviews & Commentary

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User Reviews


6 November 2004 | Bastian Balthazar Bux
a perfect film
If one was to turn on David Lynch's The Elephant Man midway through, without knowing what it was, one might be startled at the appearance of the main character. One might even be tempted to make fun of the character. But if one was to watch the film from the beginning, one's sympathy with John Merrick (John Hurt), 'The Elephant Man,' would be strong enough to deny that the former situation was ever a possibility. Lynch does not allow his audience to glimpse Merrick sans mask until his appearance has been built up substantially. When we the audience are at our zenith of anticipation, we see him-no dramatic music, no slow motion; a simple cut and he's there. There he is. And it's no big deal.

This is the beauty of Lynch's direction. We are led through our morbid curiosity at the same rate the characters in the film are. We develop alongside them. More specifically, we develop alongside Frederick Treeves, played with an astounding sublimity of emotion by Anthony Hopkins. Next to Treeves we pity Merrick, respect him, pity him again, and then ask ourselves with him, 'is he just a spectacle to me? Am I a bad person?'

Lynch certainly doesn't let us bypass this question easily. Are we bad people for being intrigued or are we good people for pitying? Certainly there is a mix of intrigue and pity with every character who first meets John, and we are not excluded. However, as with almost every character who truly comes to know John and confer with him, we learn to respect him as a human being and not as a spectacle. Nonetheless, this issue never finds close in the film, nor do I feel it ever can be closed in actual life. Hopkin's Treeves is never fully sated in how he feels about this dilemma, and so, neither can we be.

Technically, The Elephant Man is a beautifully shot film. In crisp black and white, the film recalls the cinematic technique of American cinema circa the 1930's. The scenes dissolve into one another; there is no brisk editing. The lighting is kept low-key during dark scenes, balanced during daytime scenes-this is standard film-making of the era. The one digression from this form are the distinctly Lynchian surrealities-pseudo-dream-sequences of commendably original imagery that break up the film and serve as distinct mood-setters for the audience. These are, for the most part, fairly intimidating sidenotes. We as an audience are caught off-guard because in these tangents we are not identifying with Treeves, we are put instead into Merrick's shoes. It is unsettling.

But Lynch has never been a director to flinch at unsettling prospects. We must watch Merrick beaten, abused, harassed, humiliated, and tormented. We may feel a surge of happiness when he finally stands up for himself, but by that point we still have to cope with what we've already, what he's already, experienced. I suppose that is the greatest and most devastating aspect of the film-empathy. Every moment is heartbreaking. Yet no matter how hard it gets, and how much better it then turns, there is always the threat of another jab. And those jabs only get more and more painful.

The Elephant Man is a perfect film. It is sorrowful but it apologizes not at all for it. It is a film about where our empathy stems from, a film that asks you to feel sorry but rebukes you for your blind pity. It asks you to respect Merrick, not cry for him. But you can't help crying. The Elephant Man is a film that treks you through despair and asks for your hope in the end. It asks you to hate humanity but to love the humane. It asks you to look at a man who appears sad and know that inside, he's okay.

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Did You Know?

Trivia

When the nominees for the 53rd Annual Academy Awards were announced in February 1981, many in the industry were appalled that this movie was not going to be honored for its make-up effects. At the time, there was not a regular make-up category, and winners for make-up were cited with a special award. Feeling that the make-up technicians deserved to be rewarded for this movie, a letter of protest was sent to the Academy's Board of Governors to ask them to change their minds and give the movie a special award. The Academy refused, but in response to the outcry, they decided a year later to reward make-up artists with their own annual category, and thus the Best Make-up Award was born. Because of earlier restrictions, some other notable movies did not receive Oscars for their make-up, notably Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).


Quotes

Skeleton Man: Get rid of them! I don't want to see them!
Fat Lady: Darling, don't be difficult! Let's take our sweet lovely children on an outing.


Goofs

When Frederick Treves is bring up the oatmeal to John Merrick and Carr Gomm startles him he puts the oatmeal behind his back as to hide it from him. In the next shot he has the oatmeal in front of him and puts it behind his back again while he is walking towards Carr Gomm.


Crazy Credits

Closing disclaimer: This has been based upon the true life story of John Merrick, known as The Elephant Man, and not upon the Broadway play of the same title or any other fictional account.


Soundtracks

Adagio for Strings, Op. 11
Composed by
Samuel Barber
Performed by London Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by André Previn

Storyline

Plot Summary


Synopsis (WARNING: Spoilers)


Genres

Biography | Drama

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