I feel an incredible need to write about this after watching it on DVD, before it fades in my memory. The Elephant Man is an old 1980 black and white movie that tells the true story of John Merrick, a severely deformed man in 19th Century London.
The immaculate detail and labourious task of researching and replicating the appearance of the Elephant Man, in a time where prosthetic make-up was in its primitive stages ought to grant it an Academy Award for Best Make-Up but that was in an era where the category wasn’t even set up yet.
The movie really doesn’t escalate into anything dramatic and pretty much hinges on the life of John Merrick, first as a circus freak, and then taken under the care of Frederick Treves (played by Anthony Hopkins) at the London Hospital. What was deeply thought-provoking was the fact that how sometimes we all have a self-centredness that renders what we assume is objective and valuable ironically the opposite. How we think advocating change would bring good to others, when really, it only serves our own purpose because the view is from within. Treves questioned if he was no different from the circus manager, because his good intentions only serve to draw greater attention to John Merrick, albeit they come from a different class of people. The fact that the Elephant Man remained a perverted representation of the human form, only housed in a legitimate vicinity, was a painful reminder to me that this was a man whose fate had been pretty much sealed the moment he was born.
John Merrick suffered immense cruelty from people who made use of him for the wrong reasons, constantly mocked at and frightened of others as much as they are of him. For me, the tear-jerking moment was when he was invited to have tea at Treves’ house with his wife, and the Elephant Man said to her that he wished his mother was there to see him with such wonderful friends, that perhaps she would love him for who he is upon seeing that, because he had tried so hard to be good. The desire for his mother’s acceptance is so untainted and pure, like a child, that my maternal instincts kicked in, developing a sort of imaginary love for this child trapped in a monstrous body.
He only wished that he could sleep lying down.
An act that we’ve all taken for granted was one that would kill him.
Can anyone imagine what’s it like to be him?
No way anyone would even come close to understand what it’s like to be ridiculed, ill-treated, viewed with fear and scorn, and the physical discomfort (even this word is an understatement) of having an engorged skull, a displaced bone and wisdom tooth resulting in an inability to move the jaw, breathing issues, skin problems and a list of other physical inconveniences.
This story marks the triumph of human dignity over all the hatred, prejudice, ignorance and fear.
Watching behind-the-scenes interviews was highly enlightening because I feel a sense of victory for the team when they discuss in retrospect the initial problems, fears, concerns faced from the time the script was born, to pitching the story, casting, make-up, choice of shooting in black and white and so on. What was particularly interesting was their explanation for shooting in original black and white. It helped to set the old Victorian mood, and indeed gave the set a sort of character and aged-ness that was endearing. The other reason was to ease the gangrenous appearance of the make-up for the Elephant Man because it was believed that what some would find repulsive and unacceptable in colour would be less so in black and white.
They borrowed the one and only cast model of the original Elephant Man from the museum for the make-up artiste to work his mold and create parts for the actor. It was a huge challenge creating something that was as close to the real thing as possible, and it made me realise that when you really put your heart, mind and soul into something, anything can be done. The human will is extremely powerful and more often than not we fail to exercise it to its fullest potential.
I have a lot of respect for John Hurt, the actor who played The Elephant Man, for sitting through 12 hours of make-up and then going on set to deliver his performance. For us, 12-hours is a full working day. For him, the day has just started. The commitment and passion he put in for the role is immensely inspiring and for all that is worth, he is totally unrecognisable and convincing as John Merrick.
Finally, I’ve never been a fan of Anthony Hopkins because he is most memorable to me as Hannibal Lecter and I don’t really like intelligent, psychotic serial killers. But after watching this old movie, my ignorance is replaced with a new found admiration. He is very engaging, handsome, charming and unpretentious in his role as Frederick Treves. His eyes are so telling, he really doesn’t need to say anything.
Watch the trailer again and see how his eyes reflect disbelief, horror, sympathy and love upon first laying eyes on The Elephant Man.