While searching the carnival’s freakish sideshows,
Sir Frederick Treves finds one display that must close:
The Elephant Man, made grotesque, he hears tell,
When elephants struck his poor mother, who fell.
So hideous is this strange creature, Sir Treves
Must pay for a private exhibit and grieves,
But Treves, a rich surgeon, as well sees his chance
To show fellow doctors this medical glance.
He pays for John Merrick, the Elephant Man,
To come to the hospital, soon as he can.
He holds his own sideshow so doctors can gawk
And thinks John is stupid because he won’t talk.
When Merrick returns to his “owner” of sorts,
This drunken Bytes beats him so hard, he reports
To Treves that John fell and needs medical care.
Treves takes Merrick back, of his pains quite aware.
While Frederick takes custody of injured John,
He gets him to talk for his boss, one Carr Gomm.
Although John’s appearance is shocking at first,
He proves himself gentle and kind and well-versed.
By day, he gets visits from London elite,
Who drink tea with him while they cringe in their seat.
By night, a cruel worker intrudes on his stay
And lets people mock him as long as they pay.
One night, Mr. Bytes spirits John from this shore
And makes him a sideshow attraction once more.
Bytes beats John near death, treating him like an ape,
But John’s fellow freaks help their comrade escape.
John makes it to England (disguised, I should mention)
But causes a scene that attracts Treves’ attention.
John’s back home in comfort but dying he knows,
And since he has not seen a real play, he goes.
The theatre welcomes him with an ovation,
And John stands aghast at their kind commendation.
This happy night ends and so John Merrick lies
Like normal men do in their beds, and he dies.

The Elephant Man is a deeply somber film based on the life of the 19th-century British man Joseph Merrick, who was not born deformed as the film implies. It earned eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor, and was the main reason for the creation of an Oscar category for Best Make-Up and Hairstyling. John Hurt is unrecognizable as the title character, with loads of make-up and authentic prosthetics transforming him into what many in the film consider a freak and a monster. Yet his acting shines through it all and complements that of Anthony Hopkins as Sir Frederick Treves. In contrast to Hurt’s ugliness, my VC commented that Hopkins “never looked so good” with that beard and mustache. Other skilled thespians round out the cast, including John Gielgud as Carr Gomm, Wendy Hiller as the head nurse Mothershead, and Freddie Jones as the despicable Bytes.

It’s a very emotional film, meant to provoke emotions in its audience: anger at Bytes and the mocking crowds; sympathy for Treves, who questions his motives for helping John but ultimately embraces him as a friend; and especially pity, sorrow, and admiration for Merrick himself. Some have accused the film of being overtly sentimental; I don’t disagree, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Mel Brooks definitely went against type to executive produce such a serious film, but I recognized director David Lynch’s fingerprints. I don’t care for most of his films because of their frequent weirdness, and the beginning and end are certainly strange. The first scenes involving overlong shots of elephants and John’s mother screaming silently were unnecessary, and, while John’s death scene with Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” playing is certainly affecting, the following celestial imagery and the final line “Nothing will die” just left me scratching my head.

Still, The Elephant Man is a well-acted period drama, which is enhanced by its black-and-white cinematography and a haunting score that I can best describe as melancholy carnie music. To be honest, it’s a real downer, but with enough moments of kindness and light to make it worth watching, at least once.

Best line: (John to Treves, before his night at the theatre) “I am happy every hour of the day. My life is full because I know that I am loved. I have gained myself. I could not say that…were it not for you.”

Artistry: 9
Characters/Actors: 10
Entertainment: 3
Visual Effects: 8
Originality: 8
Watchability: 2
TOTAL: 40 out of 60

Next: #211 – Annie

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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