A Victorian surgeon rescues a heavily disfigured man being mistreated by his "owner" as a side-show freak. Behind his monstrous façade, there is revealed a person of great intelligence and sensitivity. Based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the film), a severely deformed man in 19th century London.
After the short-film The Grandmother and the equally experimental feature Eraserhead, young filmmaker David Lynch agreed to direct a movie based on a script that would not have been written by him. He met a producer over lunch, who presented five scripts to him. The first one was titled The Elephant Man. David Lynch said, "that's it!" and off he went to start working on the film.
The beginnings were rather difficult to say the least. Lynch decided he would do the make-up himself, even though the producers told him that the role of a movie director is quite a busy one. And unfortunately, during pre-production, his attempts to make a believable John Merrick failed, leaving Lynch already behind schedule and feeling in a state of depression so vast that he contemplated suicide. Lucky for him, the producer Mel Brooks agreed to find a make-up artist and reschedule the movie so that it would allow for the changes. This worked and Lynch was back on track.
But things were not so easy then, as a relatively unknown director who had only directed a completely odd film, Lynch had to prove himself against the cast and crew. Even lead actor Anthony Hopkins doubted Lynch and asked why he was allowed to direct the film.
Even worse, near the end of the shooting, some members of the crew insisted to see a rough cut of the film. Lynch executed and the feedback was extremely negative, putting once again the filmmaker in the chair of the person being judged and having to prove himself.
Most people know David Lynch for his wild experimental movies that have either a profound meaning or no sense whatsoever, depending on who you ask. I believe that many under-appreciate the work from Lynch, by focusing on the crazy dreams and not understanding that he is a tremendously talented director. The Elephant Man is a proof of that.
From the very first second, the movie is a classic. The black and white, the sublime light, the cinemascope 2.35 format, the way Lynch tells his story and master the camera. There are some scenes that are so powerful that I have little words to describe them.
Behind his repulsive physical appearance, John Merrick is a refined and sensible person, finding beauty – and perhaps even solace – in reading the Holy Bible, appreciating wearing equally refined clothes, crafting a model of a church. What works great is that the story talks to each of us. We have all been John Merrick in our own lives, whether because of a physical abnormality or simply feeling outcast from a group or even from life itself. While the degree of loneliness varies, we are all or have been or will be John Merrick.
And logically, we can only truly and deeply care about John. When facing the wife of the doctor for the very first time, John breaks down and cries. When asked what is the matter, he simply says that he has never been used to be politely introduced before. Once again, this talks to the audience on a profound scale. By going into the abyss and the extraordinary case of John Merrick, we find the inner light and the so-called elephant man reveals his beauty.
Most people suffering from a handicap are not handicapped, but in a situation of handicap. What I mean by that is that it is society – and by society I mean people – that reflect the handicap in the eyes of the handicapped person. Let us say that someone would have a very large scar on his face. Would that be a problem in the daily life? Of course not one bit. But it is in the eyes of the others that the handicap suddenly is being revealed. When I see someone in a wheelchair or with a severe physical handicap, I do not watch at that person, but focus my attention on the surrounding people and how they react and gaze at the individual. I'm not saying I am better than them – or worse for that matter. All I am saying is that we are always handicapped compared to others. People may feel bad about their shortness, their hair, their teeth, their ears. People may walk differently or talk differently. But at the end, we are all on this Earth for such a short time that all the suffering means nothing and the morale is that we should be reminded that all people are created equal in their spirit and that we should not look at handicapped people with a stare, but on the contrary with a smile and give them our heart the same way we would to anyone else.
And in this film, we can see that the ugly ones are not John Merrick. The ugly people are the others. The ugliness resides in the heart and not in the physical appearance. At the end, the movie may have been called The Elephant Men.