||Joseph Merrick was the Elephant Man, born in 1862, who became renowned in the Victorian era for his physical deformities which as well as being severe are still a mystery to this day as to their cause, despite belated medical investigations into them. He was only twenty-seven when he died and had become a celebrity of sorts, though this was boosted by his treatment and subsequent memoirs from Frederick Treves, the doctor who looked after him in the latter stage of his life, and some would say, made his own name by association with Joseph, who he called John. It was from these memoirs that the 1980 film biography took from.
The film started out as a spec script from Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren, who happened to have their work read by producer Jonathan Sanger, who then proposed he produce it under the tutelage of screen funnyman Mel Brooks' Brooksfilms company. Brooks kept his name off the credits lest people thought it was a comedy (he did the same with David Cronenberg's The Fly), but was instrumental in bringing in director David Lynch to the project; he had been building a reputation as a unique talent since his feature debut Eraserhead became a midnight movie favourite, but had had trouble getting anything else made.
Lynch loved the script and worked with De Vore and Bergren to tailor it more to his liking, and once everything was set in place, Anthony Hopkins hired as Treves and John Hurt as Merrick, filming began with a group of British thespians (and Brooks' wife Anne Bancroft in a key role), everyone believing they were onto something good here. And so it was, it was Oscar-nominated, won the BAFTA for Best Picture, and went on to be a cult classic, even declared as a masterpiece in many quarters, though an example of how fickle the film industry can be saw Lynch follow it up with science fiction epic Dune in 1984, which tanked.
He was never put in charge of a potential blockbuster ever again, and frankly did not seem too bothered about that if it meant he could continue to follow his muse in his own particular way, but The Elephant Man is sometimes regarded as an odd man out in his filmography, much as the comparatively mild The Straight Story would be in 1999. Yet the holdovers from Eraserhead were assuredly there, with Freddie Francis's rich black and white cinematography, frequent interludes to emphasise the alien quality of the Victorian landscape with its industrial progress which could equally be a nightmare, and an air of the grotesque.
What The Elephant Man had that Eraserhead did not was an enormous humanity. The question of whether Treves, Merrick's evil manager Bites (Freddie Jones) - an invented character - or even the film itself were exploiting Merrick is one that presses hard on the story, even bringing in the audience. Are we here to feel sympathy for a man blighted with misfortune, or do we wish to gawp at him for being, in Bites' parlance, a "freak"? Is the truth somewhere in the middle, and is there a human need to seek out the different to either abuse it or use it to boost our own sense of self, an ego that could get a little stroking when we feel we have done the right thing in being kind?
Some accused this film of being excessively maudlin, pushing the viewer's emotions to elicit tears in the most cynical fashion, yet it goes far deeper than that in searching for the motivation in this sort of empathy. However, it is never academic, and though it invents occurrences for dramatic purposes, those purposes are wholly to serve the theme. In Hurt's performance there was a remarkable degree of an actor completely lost in the character, and not simply because of his extraordinary makeup, he interprets Merrick as nothing else in his filmography and renders Merrick as far more than some sideshow exhibit with pretensions to make us guilty or tearful.
Although Hopkins was not so keen on his role, he is just as impressive, bringing a focus to the deceptively complex conclusions running through the film. But really, Merrick himself was too large a personality to be contained by this work, and he went on to crop up across pop culture for decades after this reminded us of him. In Richard Curtis' romantic comedy The Tall Guy, Jeff Goldblum has a hit playing Merrick in a musical, a spoof of the successful Broadway play where David Bowie took the lead. Singer Michael Jackson spread a rumour he had bought the bones of Merrick, and referenced him in his Leave Me Alone video, whereas Merrick as a cameo appeared in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's comic From Hell, as well as a camp version in the Matt Berry sitcom Year of the Rabbit. Merrick holds such fascination that his biopic became a lightning rod for all sorts of attention, and finally, you like to believe he would have appreciated all its efforts.
[Studiocanal release The Elephant Man in fully restored 4K in a variety of editions, UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and download, looking and sounding terrific if you get to see it in its highest definition. The extras are an interview with the film's stills photographer, an interview with producer Sanger and a special booklet and art cards if you get the collector's edition.]