Much like the iconic mexican stand-off during the climax of Sergio Leone’s classic Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the production of The Elephant Man is the result of a collaboration between seemingly opposing forces. On one side is film-maker David Lynch, Lynch’s directorial debut Eraserhead had enjoyed some success as a cult movie, but had failed to capture the attention of mainstream audiences. In the opposite corner is director Mel Brooks (yes, that Mel Brooks), who allowed Lynch to direct The Elephant Man after seeing Eraserhead, Brooks took the decision to remove his name from the credits to distance the film from the comedy genre but The Elephant Man is still somewhat of an anomaly amongst the films produced by Brooksfilms. The final piece of the puzzle is the material itself: a humanist drama of the real-life struggles of Joseph Merrick, a man who was born with a severe disfigurement, the film does not play to the strengths of Lynch or Brooks. As a result The Elephant Man is a relatively flat affair, it is admirable in attempting to tell the story of a man who faced unbelievable hardship and rejection, but it does little with the material aside from the obvious allusions to Frankenstein.
The most positive aspect of the film is the central performances by John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins. Hurt is buried under layers of makeup as the eponymous Elephant Man but still manages to capture the quiet dignity of a fiercely intelligent individual who is trapped by the tumours that cover his face. However if the brilliant performance by Hurt manages to transcend the limitations of the heavy makeup then it is severely weakened by the lack of characterisation in John Merrick. Merrick is essentially a cypher for the audience to project emotions onto: we cry when he is mistreated, we smile as he is befriended by surgeon Anthony Hopkins, and we cheer when he finally declares “I am not an animal”, but aside from this admittedly powerful moment there is very little depth to The Elephant Man as the film appears afraid to portray the character as anything other than a flawless individual. In much the same way the surgeon played by Anthony Hopkins is allowed a scene in which he is forced to confront his own manipulation of Merrick, but the subplot is quickly abandoned so the character remains consistently simple.
It must also be said that the cinematography is stunning. There are sections in the film that are truly gorgeous to look at, this is especially effective in the early sequences involving Anthony Hopkins walking through the fairground en route to the freak-show. This should be the one moment that would be enhanced with colour, but actually it benefits greatly from the black and white photography. The flashes of fireworks, or the intimate light of a flame that would be rendered inconsequential if filmed in colour are enhanced by the lack of colour that surrounds us. As each of the flashes occurs on-screen our eyes are instantly attracted to their blinding ferocity, this assault on the senses places us amidst the action of the busy fairground in a way that colour photography could not replicate.
The Elephant Man remains a strange entry in the filmography of director David Lynch. It contains none of the surrealist imagery, savage violence or twisted characters that would come to define Lynch’s work, but is instead focused on a far straighter tone. This is not necessarily a criticism, and in the hands of other filmmakers or writers the film could have been far more intresting affair, but as it is The Elephant Man is a rather mundane telling of a remarkable individual. Next up in our travel through the films of David Lynch is a trip to the white picket fences of Lumberton; although, as