In the seedy carnival of London, a horrible and fascinating creature is discovered. The story goes that his mother was trampled by wild elephants while pregnant with him. Most don’t care about the story; they just want the curtain to lift so they can gawk at The Elephant Man.
Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) stumbles upon the carnival one day, and becomes curious about The Elephant Man (John Hurt), whose booth has just been shut down. He combs the alleys looking for him and meets Bytes, the man who seems to own the creature. Bytes allows Treves to study The Elephant Man (after paying to see him). At first, Treves sees The Elephant Man as just a specimen and exhibits him to his fellow doctors, as a rare find and educational tool. When Treves learns how harshly Bytes treats the man, Treves arranges for the man to stay at the hospital. What follows is a fascinating journey where Treves helps the man discover his humanity and dignity. But there’s always the barrier that makes him no more than a sideshow to gawk at.
This film can be considered a biography. Yes, John Merrick (aka The Elephant Man) was a real man, who had a rare condition to make him look this way. A good portion of the story is based off of Dr. Treves’ notes, which is also where the name John came from. Merrick’s real name was Joseph, but enough fun fact history, this is a film!
And what a film indeed. I’ll admit, there is a lot of allure here because the viewer simply wants to see The Elephant Man. How horrible is he? Is it true he’s got feet like an elephant? For the first half hour of the film, we only get shadowy glimpses and silhouettes of him, making that first clear look even more worth it. It’s only after we get over the initial shock that we can see John for more than a freak.
Once Dr. Treves tries to see John as more than a new chapter in a textbook, he’s able to break through barriers and find a real person under all that…elephantness. John is surprisingly smart, polite and always very gracious. He’s sweet and very soft spoken so we instantly love him and want him to have a wonderful life overcoming the obstacles and abandoning his sideshow life. When the seedy bastards from the dark alleys come to gawk and make him a spectacle for their amusement again, we’re heartbroken and horrified. I’ll admit, I was nearly in tears during his worst moment with a mob.
That is what makes this film so amazing. Not the daring black and white or the amazing makeup, but the amount of heart and sympathy it can pull from you. For anyone who was ever mocked as a child or felt like a deformed outcast, this film shows the most extreme case ever known. Some may identify, but none can ever imagine the hardships John faced. It’s hard to imagine such a sensitive human soul residing in such a terrifying body.
I want to recommend this film to everyone, but I know that’s not quite right. Not everyone can stand to see someone that deformed. It will disturb your kids. And the brutality John is treated with isn’t for the faint of heart. But it’s just an amazing film, daring, beautiful and heartfelt no matter how ugly.
“People are frightened by what they don’t understand.”
***Yes, this is my pick for 1980. It has just as much emotional weight, but it’s more amazing than Ordinary People, sorry Academy. Also, the achievement in makeup (one that has yet to be matched) was enough to create the award for best makeup. It is available on hulu.com right now…the whole film…for free…seriously, you’ve obviously got internet, why aren’t you watching it yet?!***