Based on the real story of a man so disfigured he was dubbed ‘the Elephant Man’, it explores how he was taken in by a doctor and his struggle to be recognised as a dignified human being in Victorian London.
Notable for being director David Lynch‘s second feature (after Eraserhead) it features a raft of excellent performances from the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon and Freddie Jones.
However, in the lead role John Hurt is mesmerising, despite being buried under a lot of (quite brilliant) make-up which took hours each day to apply.
Although he would go on to have considerable success as an actor – often in supporting roles – this perhaps remains his greatest screen performance.
It is also a moving study of an individual struggling to come to terms with deformity and being a social outcast.
Another interesting aspect of the film is that it was produced by Mel Brooks, who became instrumental in getting the film made after his wife Anne Bancroft gave him the script to read.
When viewed in the context of Lynch’s career it has may seem different to his darker films such as Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart or Mulholland Drive but it demonstrates his early skills as a filmmaker and his taste for the fringes of society.
The extras include the following:
- Joseph Merrick – The Real Elephant Man: An highly informative 20 minute featurette on the real life of Merrick introduced by Jonathan Evans, an archivist of Royal London Hospital Museum. He describes the historical context but also explores the differences between the film and Merrick’s actual life. One of the most interesting snippets is that Merrick sought out his career in a freak show as a way to make money and that he was not such a victim as the film presents. It also speculates what disease Merrick was actually suffering from, a question that continues to baffle medical historians.
- Interview with John Hurt: In a 20 minute interview, the actor describes various aspects of his experience playing the role: how he based his physical movements on a corkscrew; the unlikely success of the film in Japan; working with fellow actors Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud, Michael Elphick and Hannah Gordon; the difficulty of the shoot, how he completed all of his work in between making Heaven’s Gate in two parts (he notes that the whole of The Elephant Man cost less than the prologue of Heaven’s Gate!); the studio exec who didn’t know how to sell the film and how he kept some of the props from the film.
- Interview with David Lynch: Another revealing 20 minute interview, this time with director David Lynch. He reveals several things about working on the film such as: his struggles after Eraserhead when he couldn’t find financing for his own script called ‘Ronnie Rocket’; how the pitch for The Elephant Man immediately appealed to him; the initial resistance to the project from studios; how Anne Bancroft loved the script and gave it to her husband (and producer) Mel Brooks; how Brooks loved Eraserhead and supported Lynch throughout the production; the origins of the script; the ‘beyond-the-beyond great’ cast who Brooks helped recruit; the importance of veteran cinematographer Freddie Francis in shooting the film in black and white; the makeup for Merrick, which Lynch actually worked on in a garage Wembley for a time before makeup artist Chris Tucker took over; how Hurt underwent 6-8 hours of makeup every day to become Merrick; the importance of visiting an old Victorian hospital and how only wants to work on digital film.
It also contains the original theatrical trailer:
Overall the extras are very good without being spectacular but this remains an excellent film, well worth checking out if you don’t already own it.