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“The Elephant Man: The Story of Joseph Carey Merrick”
An act of kindness will always dispel the most hideous cruelty. The universal religion is kindness.
The following is a review of David Lynch’s 1980 film, “The Elephant Man,” based on the life of Joseph Merrick who suffered horrible disfigurement from neurofibromatosis type I or Proteus syndrome. DNA tests proved inconclusive. Merrick’s life was full of tragedy and despair, and a triumph of human kindness in his last days.
The films opens with a montage of photographs of Merrick’s mother and slowly moving elephants, visually previewing the carnival talker’s tale of the Elephant Man’s origin: his mother was thrown down by an elephant in the fourth month of her maternal condition, the shock creating his deformities. The opening sequence evokes Lynch’s remarkable film Eraserhead, with clouds of steam and clanking machinery.
Treves (Anthony Hopkins) walks through a carnival, where he observes police entering a freak show. He follows them in, walking past bearded ladies, dwarfs, and other human marvels before seeing a couple exiting a portion of the exhibit, the woman sobbing. The police drive Treves and the others away, and close the portion of the exhibition containing the Elephant Man. We see his “owner,” Bytes (Freddie Jones), unsuccessfully argue his case before the police before being shut down.
Next we see Treves at work in London Hospital, operating on the victim of a machine accident. A boy interrupts the surgery to to tell Treves, “I found it.” Treves walks through a rough part of town to find Bytes and his “treasure.” Bytes gives his bally pitch to an audience of one before drawing the curtain to reveal Merrick to Treves. Treves is stunned, as are we, as Bytes commands Merrick to stand up and turn around, and we get our first look at the terrible Elephant Man. The camera cuts back to Treves who stands in shock, a single tear running down his face.
Treves arranges for Merrick to be delivered to London Hospital, where he is examined by Treves and exhibited to surgeons as part of an anatomy lecture. During the examination and exhibition, Merrick never speaks, and all assume that he is mentally defective as well. When he is returned to Bytes after several days, Bytes beats him savagely. Bytes’ Boy runs for help to Treves, and Treves takes Merrick to London Hospital to care for him.
Treves places Merrick in the isolation ward and begins his care. He is immediately taken to task by the Director of the London Hospital, Carr Gomm for taking in an incurable. Treves slowly begins to win Merrick’s trust, as we hear Merrick speak for the first time. Treves carefully coaches him for a conversation with the hospital director.
Treves encounters Bytes in the hospital, who demands to get his man back. “All you do is profit from another man’s misery,” Treves says. “You think you’re better than me?” Bytes asks. “You wanted the freak to show to those doctor chums of yours to make a name for yourself.”
Carr Gomm appears as Bytes threatens to go to the authorities; Car Gomm dares him. As Bytes leaves, Carr Gomm asks to meet Merrick the next afternoon.
The meeting of Merrick and Carr Gomm goes stiffly when Merrick, who is very nervous, cannot speak extemporaneously. Carr Gomm leaves, with Treves following, as Carr Gomm congratulates him on his brave attempt to coach Merrick to speak words he has been taught. Through the closed door, Treves hears Merrick reciting the 23rd Psalm, including a part that Treves has not taught him. Treves and Carr Gomm burst in to hear the end of the psalm, as Merrick speaks spontaneously for the first time.
Soon Merrick is the talk of London, as letters describing his refined mind are published in the newspapers. Mrs. Kendel (Anne Bancroft), a famous actress, reads these accounts with interest and resolves to meet Merrick.
A night porter discovers Merrick in the hospital, and takes to leading groups of drunken revelers to see the freak. Strangely, Merrick never tells Treves of these visitations.
In one of the film’s most powerful sequences, Treves invites Merrick to his home for tea to meet his wife Anne. Treves is initially overwhelmed at being treated kindly by a beautiful woman, but settles bravely into polite conversation over tea. Then it is Anne’s turn to be overwhelmed when Merrick shows her a photograph of his mother, who is beautiful.
Merrick says that he is sure that he must have been quite a disappointment to her, but Anne reassures him that no mother could be disappointed in so loving a son. Merrick wishes that his mother could see him now, among such lovely friends, and that then it might be possible for her to love him as he is. Anne breaks down sobbing, overwhelmed by the isolation that Merrick’s condition has caused.
Merrick takes to decorating his room at the hospital, and undertakes the building of a paper model of a cathedral. One day his is visited by the famous actress Mrs. Kendel, who is utterly charmed. Treves leaves them alone, as Mrs. Kendel presents him with an autographed portrait of herself and a volume of Shakespeare. Merrick begins to read a scene from Romeo and Juliet, which of course Mrs. Kendel knows, and the two enact the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet, ending in a kiss, easily the strangest cinematic kiss or enactment of Shakespeare ever seen. She learns that Merrick has never been to the theater, and encourages him to attend.
Treves has a moment of reflection late at night. As his wife finds him sitting alone in their parlor, it is clear that the words of Bytes haunt him. He says that he has made Merrick into a curiosity all over again. Anne reassures him that he has given Merrick a good life.
There is a tense meeting of the board of the London Hospital as the issue of Merrick’s residence there is about to come up for a vote. The Board votes to allow him to live there permanently.
Soon after, the night porter returns with another group of patrons, including Bytes. Merrick is kidnapped. We see him exhibited at a carnival in France. He is clearly in ill health and can barely stand for the exhibition. At night, Bytes, very drunk, drags him off to sleep in an animal cage. The other freaks get together to release him and set him off back to London. There is a tense scene as he is caught in a crowd in London, who pull off the hood that he wears over his head in public. He cries out, “I am not an animal! I am a Man!”
Once back at London Hospital, he is dressed up in white tie for his first trip to the theater. He sits in a private box to watch a Victorian pantomime. At the close of the performance, Mrs. Kendel steps out in front of the curtain to dedicate the night’s performance to Merrick, who rises to acknowledge the audience and receives a standing ovation.
That night, he once again contemplates one of the pictures on his wall, of someone lying in bed sleeping. He has expressed the wish that he could sleep lying down like a normal person, which he is unable to do. On this night, clearly the best of his life, he lies down like a normal person, and goes to God.