(director/writer: David Lynch; screenwriters: Christopher de Vore/Eric Bergren/based on The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu and The Elephant Man by Sir Frederick Treves; cinematographer: Freddie Francis; editor: Anne V. Coates; music: John Morris; cast: Anthony Hopkins (Frederick Treves), John Hurt (John Merrick), Anne Bancroft (Madge Kendal), John Gielgud (Carr Gomm), Wendy Hiller (Mothershead), Freddie Jones (Bytes), Michael Elphick (Night Porter), Hannah Gordon (Mrs. Anne Treves), Helen Ryan (Princess Alex), John Standing (Dr. Fox); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jonathan Sanger; Paramount Pictures; 1980)

“It’s an amazing story about the human spirit that’s told with great sensitivity.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

David Lynch (“Eraserhead”/”The Straight Story”/”Wild at Heart”) helms this accessible and emotionally moving film of a Victorian surgeon who rescues (for questionable reasons) a severely disfigured English man (a head twice the average size, a twisted spine, an inability to lie down without risking asphyxiation and a useless right arm) who is mistreated in childhood and while surviving as a carnival show freak. It’s based upon the life of John Merrick and uses the following books as sources: Sir Frederick Treves’ book The Elephant Man and the one by Ashley Montagu entitled The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity. It’s written by Lynch, Christopher de Vore and Eric Bergren.

In London, in 1884, the renown and affluent Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) gets a chance to see John Merrick (John Hurt), the freak in a carnival side show managed by the rummy mountebank Bytes (Freddie Jones), and borrows Merrick to use as a model for a lecture before his academic colleagues. Merrick, because his grotesque deformity is so terrible, is called “The Elephant Man” and must wear a hood in public. After returned to the abusive owner, Treves is called back to the carnival site to revive a severely beaten Merrick. Treves then has a hard time convincing Mr. Gomm (Sir John Gielgud), the chairman of the institution’s board at the London Hospital and the head nurse (Wendy Hiller), to allow Merrick to be a patient in treatment and a source of study while kept in the isolation ward. When the two become friends, Treves is surprised to find out that The Elephant Man is not an idiot, as first thought, but a sensitive and intelligent person. His wife Anne Treves (Hannah Gordon) also forms a strong bond with Merrick. Publicity surrounding this unusual case attracts the elites and Merrick is visited by royalty and celebrities. The famous socialite actress Mrs. Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft) persuades Merrick to read Romeo to her Juliet and brings out in the open his tender heart. But a vile night porter (Michael Elphick) secretly exhibits him at night as a freak and torments him. Bytes also returns to kidnap him to France for further exploitation, but Merrick returns to London. Despite these temporary setbacks, Merrick finds peace in his last years under the care of Treves and dies accidentally by asphyxiation at the age of 27 in 1900.

The unique look of Merrick is particularly striking; Chris Tucker, the makeup specialist was given access to actual plaster casts of The Elephant Man’s head and limbs, held by the London Hospital, and used them to create an exact look in every detail. Also, the black-and-white film is beautifully photographed by Freddie Francis. The photography further captures a dark Dickens-like atmosphere that presents in the background a London caught in misery due to the Industrial Revolution.

It’s an amazing story about the human spirit that’s told with great sensitivity, as Merrick’s humanity clearly comes through despite his hideous deformity. Lynch navigates the same turf as Truffaut’s The Wild Child, with equally good results.