The move from low budget independent movie making to the Hollywood mainstream is one rife with hazards, but serendipity landed David Lynch with a project that couldn't have suited him better. Mel Brooks had acquired the script of The Elephant Man written by Christopher Devore and Eric Bergen for his new production company Brooks films and was shopping around for a director. Lynch was recommended by his PA, and the director has told the story of how he paced outside a screening room while the comedian watched Eraserhead. Obviously, the tone of the film is dramatically different from what you would associate with the director of Blazing Saddles, but Brooks loved it and Lynch was hired.
The film is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (in the film John Merrick following the account by Dr Frederick Treves on which the film is partly based), a man with staggering deformations of the face and body. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) finds the Merrick (John Hurt) in a carnival sideshow run by Mr Bytes (Freddie Jones). He arranges to present the case to an audience of doctors, but when he discovers that Merrick has been beaten and is unwell, he takes him into the hospital, providing him with medical care and shelter. Slowly, he comes to realize that Merrick is not an imbecile as he had previously thought, but in fact an intelligent and much abused man. When Merrick receives a visit from a famed actress Mrs Kendall (Anne Bancroft), he soon becomes the curiosity of Victorian high society. Unfortunately, a brutal night porter (Michael Elphick) has taken to exploiting him, selling tickets in the local pub. During one of these nightmarish exhibitions, Bytes returns and kidnaps Merrick, fleeing with him to Europe. Although once more beaten and treated abhorrently, Merrick manages to escape with the aid of the other members of the carnival. He is hounded by a crowd at Liverpool Street Station in London, but is finally returned to the care of Dr Treves and his rooms in London.
The story has all the potential of an overly lachrymose piece of sentimental victoriana, but the strength of the film comes from Lynch's determination to make the film his own. Shooting in black and white was a bold but important move and means that visually the film has a consistency with Eraserhead. The theme of the marginalised and deformed is also obvious. Likewise, both films feature prologues and epilogues which step outside of the realist narrative of the films and present almost poetic visions. The beginning of the film shows the incident with an elephant and Merrick's pregnant mother which serves as a 'just so...' explanation for his affliction. The epilogue features the return of the mother as an angelic figure essentially welcoming John to a version of heaven as he commits suicide. There are also moments of impressionistic effect, such as the camera traveling into the hole of John's mask and then through the pipes of the hospital, a shot referenced in the Coen Brothers film Barton Fink. Rather than showing a realistic recreation of Victorian street life, Lynch employs little moments to suggest a toxic industrial landscape. Men work at satanic machines, like Jack Fisk's lever operator from Eraserhead.
Of course, not everything was plain sailing. To begin with, Lynch had decided to design the make up himself and failed terribly, leading him into a deep depression. Also the actors were not entirely confident of this young and relatively experienced director, especially Anthony Hopkins, who although by no means the star he would become, had for more time in the business than his new director who was on only his second feature. John Gielgud proved much easier to work with and friendlier. John Hurt in the lead role was at the beginning of his career but managed excellent to convey the wounded humanity, despite being under half a ton of make up which took hours to apply every day. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the performances are superb across the board. Hopkins is superb in his quiet professional who begins to doubt the morality of his own motives, asking his wife: 'Am I a good man, or am I a bad man?' Jones and Elphick both make convincingly nasty villains and Gielgud and Bancroft round off the good guys with Hannah Gordon as Treve's wife and confidant.
How does the film actually deal with deformity? How is the film any different from the show which Mr Bytes produces? The strength of the film comes from the way that these questions are brought to the fore. The audience are drawn into the film with the portrayal of other audiences. Are we the carnival audience? Or are we the analytical medical audience marvelling at Merrick's ordinary genitals? Are we Treves and his single tear of awe and disgust? Does he find there something beautiful and tragic here? Or are we the bourgois theater going audience who applaud Merrick on his trip to the theater incidentally flagging our own virtue at the same time? Or are we the baying mob in the railway station? Oi! Mister, why's your head so big?