Elephant Man, The (1980)

Elephant Man, The (1980)

“I am not an animal — I am a human being!”

In Victorian England, Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) rescues a severely disfigured man (John Hurt) from his abusive carnival “owner” (Freddie Jones), and allows him his first chance at a life of dignity and respect.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Anne Bancroft Films
  • Biopics
  • Carnivals and Circuses
  • Character Arc
  • David Lynch Films
  • Doctors and Nurses
  • Historical Drama
  • John Gielgud Films
  • John Hurt Films
  • Wendy Hiller Films

Although it’s often considered to be something of an aberration from director David Lynch’s usual oeuvre, this heartbreaking biopic is actually well in alignment with Lynch’s fascination for the disenfranchised and downtrodden. Oscar-nominated John Hurt (who’s completely unrecognizable) plays the title role of Joseph Merrick, a real-life young man who suffered from a rare congenital deformity known as Proteus Syndrome, making him look decidedly freakish and abnormal; and while there’s no denying Hurt’s inestimable skills as an actor, his success here as Merrick is due in no small part to the tremendous efforts of make-up specialist Chris Tucker, who developed an elaborate synthetic “mask” based on a cast of Merrick’s actual head. Anthony Hopkins — equally affecting in a less “showy” role — plays the doctor who at first is merely fascinated with Merrick’s physical condition, but soon comes to realize that an intelligent, sentient being exists underneath the bulbous folds of skin and bone.

Merrick’s transformation from mute “creature” to dignified gentleman — the crux of the film — is truly a wonder to behold; even those who rarely cry at movies (myself included) will find themselves hard pressed not to be moved by this one. Scene after scene — enacted by a crew of exceedingly well-cast supporting actors — prompts a renewed investigation of our own prejudices, as we realize just how important a relatively “normal” appearance is to our acceptance of others as human. My favorite scenes are those between Merrick and a renowned actress (Anne Bancroft) who barely bats an eye upon seeing Merrick for the first time, and remains resolutely dedicated to treating him like the gentle hero he is. Equally touching is the initial scene between Merrick and Dr. Treves’ wife (Hannah Gordon), whose “natural” acceptance of his appearance causes him to break down in sobs of gratitude.

Some (including, I suspect, Peary, who neglects to nominate either Hurt or the film itself in his Alternate Oscars book) find The Elephant Man overly cloying — and there’s no doubt that our heartstrings are strategically tugged throughout the entire film. Indeed, the final portion of the story — in which Merrick is kidnapped back by Jones, and forced to temporarily revert to his former status as a carnival freak — is nearly too much to bear, and shifts the story into undue pathos. Apart from this aberration, however, Merrick’s journey remains a fascinating one to watch, and proves that there’s nothing more uplifting than watching a character transform and transcend his initial limitations.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Hurt as Joseph Merrick
  • Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Treves
  • Anne Bancroft as an admiring actress
  • Wendy Hiller as a no-nonsense nurse
  • John Gielgud as Treves’ superior at the hospital
  • Freddie Jones as Merrick’s abusive captor
  • Hannah Gordon as Dr. Treves’ sympathetic wife
  • Chris Tucker’s extraordinary make-up design
  • Freddie Francis’s cinematography
  • Atmospheric period detail
  • Many heart-breaking scenes
  • An effective soundtrack by John Morris

Must See?
Yes, as a “good show” by an important director.


  • Good Show
  • Important Director
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Elephant Man, The (1980)

  1. A once-must, for its challenging subject matter and as one of director Lynch’s best films.

    It’s probably not so much that this is one of the director’s more ‘normal’ films as it’s one of his more ‘traditional’ ones – in terms of dramatic structure and standard storytelling. That, in itself, is not what makes it better – but it’s clearly evident that Lynch was capable of reining himself in considerably, if necessary. …As his career progressed, he found that less and less necessary.

    I’ve seen this film twice; I’m not sure I could handle it again. (It’s sort of like ‘The Pawnbroker’ in that sense; years may go by, but the imagery is seared into the brain.) I did, however, also see a stage version on Broadway – with David Bowie as Merrick. I recall being immediately struck by its approach: Hurt had been made-up beyond recognition; Bowie hadn’t been made-up at all but used physicality to suggest deformity.

Leave a Reply