The story of "The Elephant Man" has become a modern myth. Books have been written about him, he is the subject of a long-running Broadway hit, and now a new movie tells his history.
Does all this interest amount to a positive sign of the times? I think so. Despite the sad underpinnings of the tale, its message is optimistic and charged with faith in the ultimate goodness of mankind. Who was the elephant man, after all, but a person whose moral strength reundaunted no matter how difficult his physical circumstances became?
The actual elephant man was John Merrick, a handicapped Englishman born in 1864. As a child, he spent years in the workhouse. Later, unable to function in ordinary society because of his appearance, he eked out an existence being exhibited by showmen (whence came his flamboyant nickname). Just when things seemed most miserable, he was befriended by a London physician named Frederick Treves, who took him in and sheltered him. During the rest of his short llife he became a fashionable figure, visited and entertained by members of the highest society.
The inspiring thing about Merrick was his complete lack of bitterness toward the world or his fellowmen. Despite the severity of his handicaps, despite the brutal treatment he received from strangers and acquaintances, he never showed anger or hostility. Rather, he impressed people with his meekness and generosity.
In his book on Merrick, anthropologist Ashley Montague writes at length about the "strength, health, integrity, and gentleness" of his character. In his own memoir about Merrick, referring to the later years of his life, Dr. Treves calls him "one of the most contended creatures I have chanced to meet," and recalls Merrick saying more than once, "I am happy every hour of the day."
In the current Broadway play about Merrick, the hero is portrayed without the use of disfiguring makeup. Instead, his appearance is merely suggested, through movements and gestures. Since film is a more "realistic" medium by nature, it's not surprising that the first movie about Merrick takes an opposite approach, depicting him in detail.
It's hard to argue with this on general principles, since Merrick's fortitude was most remarkable by contrast with the hardships he endured. Yet some of the movie's devices lean toward cheapness. The early scenes deal coyly with Merrick's appearance, teasing us with glimpses and silhouettes, then trying to shock us with sudden closeups. This is the stuff of stale horror pictures, not serious cinema. Also, the film occasionally drags in extraneous medical details which are simply connected with the business at hand. while such moments are kept within PG limits, they add a tinge of harshness to the tale, as does a subplot about a mean-spirited lout who exploits Merrick after he had thought he was safe from such attacks.
Aside from these lapses, however, The Elephant Man is an uncommonly involving experience. It is a privilege to watch the selfless Dr. treves, patterened after his real- life counterpart, pour himself into the task of reclaiming the hapless Merrick, who responds with a miraculous torrent of faith and trust in his bevefactors. Splendid performances help bring this portion of the film to life -- most impressively from John Hurt, who dows his acting from beneath a pile of makeup that must set some sort of Hollywood record. Anthony Hopkins is equally convincing as Dr. Treves, with John gielgud as high-powered bureaucrat who also joins in the good fight. Anne Bancroft plays a lady of "the theatah" who becomes another Merrick ally.
As the beginning of the film is marred by cheapness, some later scenes sink into a gummy sentimentality. This is partly because the filmmakers have accepted the Montague theory that Merricks goodness was the result of an early childhood steeped in love and understanding from a devoted mother, and as such was relentlessly naive in nature. As critic Leslie Fiedler has indicated in a more recent book, Victorian "momism" may be an attractive attitude, but it doesn't go deep enough to explain Merrick's extraordinary personality. surely other forces were at work, as well.
Even when its psychology becomes simplistic, though, "The Elephant Man" is explosively bold in tis audiovisual style. Credit for this goes entirely to the young director, David Lynch. Curiously, he has made only one feature before now , a piece of unprecedented surrealism called "Eraserhead," about a weird-looking baby born into an equally weird family. Repellent at some moments, darkly compelling at others, the film has gained Lynch a small but solid reputation as an utterly original talent -- and it impressed Mel Brooks enough to put his Brookfilms production company behind Lynch's debut in "the Elephant Man."
In many of its details "The Elephant Man" is like a commercial remake of "Eraserhead." Lynch told me recently that he was attracted to "The Elephant Man" by its title alone, even before he knew the story. "It suggested so many things ," he said during a conversation not long ago. "and it seemd right down my alley, though I'm not sure just what that alley is."
He considers Merrick an "admirable" character. "He had a terrific load in life," says the filmmaker, " and he carried it so well. He's a lessont to lots of us. And he brings out the good in people -- not necessarily when he was living, but now, as symbol. I like the idea that some good came out of his experience. He overcome so much. The overall feeling of his story is so positive."
True, both "Eraserhead" and "The Elephant Man" have scenes depicting the dark side of human existence. Says Lynch, "I was born in Montana, and I had a very nice childhood. I grew up in Sand Point, Idaho, and Spokane, Wash. I can remember white picket fences and real red flowers and green leaves against beautiful blue skies with little planes droning overhead, and me in my overalls and suspenders and little round shoes.
"It was heavenly. But then I found out the world is not like that. It's hard and dark. Maybe for people who grow up in big cities, the big surprise is that there's good in the world. for me it was the other way around. I am fascinated with this dark side."
Appreciating the irony of the idea, Lynch agrees he's like a backward elephant man, since Merrick came from gloomy surroundings and discovered the great glories of life. But Lynch knows that discovering "the dark side" is only a beginning to understanding. "There are good things hidden away in it all," he says. "It looks like the negative is the most powerful thing, but it isn't. Ultimately, the good es extremely powerful. The trick is to findm the good in all this darkness. I'm real interested in that. Both my films have happy endings."
Indeed, the end of "The Elelphant Man" is downright transcendent, which may startle viewers accustomed to neat plot conclusions. "Nothing is ever locked up tight," Lynch says. "Life is proving that all time. The trouble is, if you put a little vagueness in a film, people wonder what's going on. But sometimes it's necessary. I've just touched the tip of the iceberg in exploring this. Done right, it could drive people -- in a good way, in inspiring way."
Though "Eraserhead" is a movie of thoroughgoing visual originality, Lynch feels "The Elephant Man" took mor personal courage to make. "This was a major commercial picture with heavyweight actors," he says. "And all those considerations are betweenm the idea and the film. You have to cut through the money and the cast and the Hollywood glamour -- and remember that the idea, on a little piece of film, is what it's all about. That'sm what takes courage."
Lynch recognizes the hazards of being a personal artist in a basically commercial medium. He hopes public tastes are "coming around" to mesh with his own interests. In that case, he'll be able to make his next project, "Ronnie Rocket," which he describes only as a "strange" film with "some music in it." He insists he doesn't want to make movies he doesn't believe in. "I'd rather not make films at all," he says. "I'd do carpentry work instead, which I love. You should really stick to pictures you believe in. Then if you make something and people don't want to see it, at least you have the movie for yourself."
Discussing his philosophy of film, Lynch says that "feelings, impressions, and moods are the things I really love -- things that are a little below the surface. I want to go as deep as I can. Only there's so much between the original, mental idea and what finally comes out in the movie."
To me, it sounds like Lynch is echoing a cry in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," yearning for a "magic lantern" that could "throw the nerves in patterns on a screen." Lynch agrees with this observation, saying, "That's the whole thing. I want to send out my ideas as directly as possible. and cinema can do that so well, with picture and sound barreling along together. that's what film is all about, really."