The Elephant Man (1980)

The Elephant Man is a 1980 American drama film based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the film), a severely deformed man in 19th century London. The film was directed by David Lynch and stars John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon, and Freddie Jones.

The screenplay was adapted by Lynch, Christopher De Vore, and Eric Bergren from the books The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923) by Sir Frederick Treves and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu. It was shot in black-and-white.

The Elephant Man was a critical and commercial success, and received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture in 1980.


Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a surgeon at the London Hospital, discovers John Merrick (John Hurt) in a Victorian freak show in London’s East End, where he is managed by the brutish Bytes (Freddie Jones). Merrick is so deformed that he must wear a hood and cap when in public, and Bytes claims he is an imbecile. Treves is professionally intrigued by Merrick’s condition and pays Bytes to bring him to the Hospital so that he can examine him. There, Treves presents Merrick to his colleagues in a lecture theatre, displaying him as a physiological curiosity. Treves draws attention to Merrick’s most life-threatening deformity, his oversized skull, which compels him to sleep with his head resting upon his knees, as the weight of his skull would asphyxiate him if he were to ever lie down. On Merrick’s return, Bytes beats him so severely that a sympathetic apprentice (Dexter Fletcher) alerts Treves, who returns him to the hospital. Bytes accuses Treves of likewise exploiting Merrick for his own ends, leading the surgeon to resolve to do what he can to help the unfortunate man.

The ward nurses are horrified by Merrick’s appearance, so Treves places him in a quarantine room under the watchful care of the formidable matron, Mrs. Mothershead (Wendy Hiller). Mr. Carr-Gomm (John Gielgud), the hospital’s Governor, is reluctant to house Merrick (who has thus far remained mute), as the hospital is not designed as a residence for “incurables”. To persuade Carr-Gomm that Merrick has potential, Treves coaches him to recite a few polite phrases. Carr-Gomm sees through the ruse, but as he walks away, both men are astonished to hear Merrick recite the 23rd Psalm. Shocked by this display of intelligence, Carr-Gomm allows Merrick to remain.

Merrick is gradually revealed to be sophisticated and articulate. Carr-Gomm arranges a suite of rooms for him to reside in at the hospital, and Merrick passes his days reading, drawing and making a model of a church visible through his window. One day, Treves brings him to take afternoon tea at home together with his wife, Ann (Hannah Gordon). Merrick, overwhelmed by the familial love he perceives in the domesticity about him, shows them his most treasured possession, a picture of his mother, and expresses his wish that she would love him if she could only see what “lovely friends” he now has. Later, Merrick begins to receive society visitors in his rooms, including the celebrated actress Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft). He becomes a popular object of curiosity and charity to high society. As these connections and visits increase, Mrs. Mothershead (who has charge of Merrick’s daily care) complains to Treves that he is still being treated as a freak show attraction, albeit in a more upper class, celebrated style. For Treves’ part, this observation (and his role in this situation) deeply trouble him, and he begins to question whether or not he has done the right thing. And while Merrick is treated well during the daytime, the Night Porter (Michael Elphick) secretly makes money by bringing punters from nearby pubs to gawk at Merrick.

Threatened dissent at a board meeting toward the decision to keep Merrick indefinitely is overturned when the hospital’s Royal Patron — HRH The Princess of Wales — pays a surprise visit with a message from Queen Victoria, stating that Merrick will receive permanent care at the hospital and the necessary funds have been arranged. But Merrick is then returned to his old life when Bytes gains access to his room during one of the Night Porter’s late-night “viewings”. Bytes abducts Merrick to continental Europe, where he is once again put on show and subjected to cruelty and neglect. Treves, consumed with guilt over Merrick’s plight, takes action against the night porter with the help of Mrs. Mothershead.

Merrick escapes with the help of his fellow freak show attractions, and makes it back to London. However, he is harassed by a group of boys at Liverpool Street station, and accidentally knocks down a young girl. He is chased, unmasked, and cornered by an angry mob, at which point he cries out: “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I … am … a … man!”, before collapsing. When the police return Merrick to the hospital, he is reinstated to his rooms. He recovers a little but it is soon clear he is dying from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. As a treat, Mrs. Kendal arranges an evening at the musical theatre. Resplendent in white tie, he rises in the Royal Box to an ovation, having had the performance dedicated to him from Mrs Kendal. That night, back at the hospital, Merrick thanks Treves for all he has done and finishes his model of the nearby church. Imitating one of his sketches on the wall—a sleeping child—he removes the pillows that have allowed him to sleep in an upright position, lies down on his bed and dies, consoled by a vision of his mother, Mary Jane Merrick, quoting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Nothing will Die”.

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Learn more about the concepts, principles and symbolism behind the subliminals found in this film: