The Elephant Man

Movie Information

The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Elephant Man at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 11, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot on the left.)
Genre: Biography/Drama
Director: David Lynch
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones
Rated: PG

Probably David Lynch’s most completely accessible film, The Elephant Man (1980) often gets more than its fair share of abuse for both not being the film version of the stage show and for playing fast and loose with the truth for dramatic purposes. The latter likely wouldn’t matter if it didn’t result in the film’s tendency to topple over into cheap melodrama on a couple of occasions. Even that might matter less if the film’s “big scene”—in which a porter at the hospital where the title character is living turns him into a freak show for personal gain—wasn’t so clumsily handled. Lynch isn’t known for his ability to stage action, and this scene offers testimony as to why.

All the same, Lynch’s highly colored film on John (in reality Joseph) Merrick (John Hurt)—known as the Elephant Man due to his deformity—is a warmly human work of no little complexity in its insistence on probing the question of whether or not Merrick’s mentor, Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), mightn’t have inadvertently exploited Merrick before London society just as much as any freak show would have done. That Lynch takes the film a step further by simultaneously painting a nightmarish picture of England in the throes of the industrial revolution may be merely an atmospheric bonus, but it is a bonus.

Lynch very shrewdly places the viewer in a position where an attitude of moral superiority is impossible. He keeps Merrick out of our view for so long that we become no different from the patrons of the freak show, because we want a look at his freakishness, too, and keep being denied it. The payoff is everything it could be—we have to adjust ourselves to seeing the beauty and dignity of the man behind the deformity. The film boasts several emotional high points that would be shameless in their manipulation were it not for a sense of sincerity. Beautifully acted and photographed in absolutely gorgeous wide-screen black-and-white, the results are rarely less than stunning, despite the lapses into the melodramatic.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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2 thoughts on “The Elephant Man

  1. kevin

    Viewed this film in my early teens,
    not realizing the nature of this film.
    I recall how emotionally overcome it made me
    become, i.e. excessive tears and the feeling of loneliness. The score mixed to this film (also in Stone’s Platoon) just kept me spellbound.

    One of my favorites from Mr. Lynch

  2. Ken Hanke

    I first saw The Elephant Man because I was supposed to be taking a class in musical appreciation and needed to be somewhere for a couple hours so I could pretend I had gone to the class (which I loathed, but had yet to tell anyone I’d no intention of continuing it). I knew the essence of the subject matter, but hadn’t a clue as concerned the emotional impact it would have.

    By the way, the film doesn’t actually share a score with Platoon, but both use Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” on their soundtracks. It’s since been used over and over in everything for Amelie to Simpsons episodes. For the record, Lynch was the first to incorporate it into a film.

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