The story of The Elephant Man is an ostensible tale of sadness and cruelty. However, The Elephant Man is really a wonderful testament to the capacity for compassion that resides within every human being.
The Elephant Man, a dramatized account of Sir Frederick Treves’ memoir of the same title, is a much more complex film than the general movie enthusiast realizes. Mel Brooks produces this film in 1980 during the peak of his comedy career. Up to this point, he is best known for films like The Producers (1967), Blazing Saddles (1974), and Silent Movie (1976). He goes on to make even more successful comedic films like High Anxiety (1977), Spaceballs (1987), and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). (He’s clearly a man with a schtick!) The reality that Mel Brooks produces a nearly perfectly executed dramatic film is genuinely confounding given his repertoire.
The Elephant Man is a great film in its own right, but diving into the irony of Mel Brooks’ participation makes the film that much more compelling. Mel Brooks commendably steps outside of his comedic comfort zone and successfully delivers a story that utilizes the drama surrounding the story of Joseph Merrick to demonstrate humanity’s ability to intelligently recognize and inherently understand pathos. He uses the film to effectively indict people that exploit the suffering of the less fortunate and challenges the ethos of people that simply ignore that suffering. It can be viewed as a brilliant crash course in Greek philosophy.
Mel Brooks and director David Lynch make several bold stylistic choices for the film that are worth noting. The most obvious elephant in the room is the choice to show the film in black-and-white. (Brooks actually has to justify his choice to Paramount Pictures to film the movie in black-and-white just to get it distributed.) With the advent of color television, black-and-white films are seen as potentially difficult to market because they are starting to feel anachronistic. However, the choice to use black-and-white feels right because of the story’s setting. Joseph Merrick exists in London during the 1880s and David Lynch uses the perspective of the era as the stylistic basis for the film.
The film does an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere of the time. Lynch commits himself to highlighting the pollutive consequences that the Industrial Revolution has on England. The black tones enhance the texture of the dirt and grime that came along with said revolution and effectively make the dirt seem dirtier. The overwhelming literal and figurative darkness of the film seems to suggest that the Industrial Revolution does not only sully the streets of cities like London, but also the souls of the people that inhabit those cities. Overall, the visual tones of the film make the project feel temporally and thematically immersive.
Lynch uses surrealism as another way to create a sense of immersion. The opening scene, which Paramount Pictures wants to cut, stands out. It’s reminiscent of a rape. Joseph’s mother writhes on her back as an elephant interloper looms over her. And just to be clear, the scene is meant to simulate a purported elephant rampage that disrupted her pregnancy and turned Joseph into a “freak.” Both propositions are preposterous and that is what makes the scene so necessary. The idea that an elephant would be at all responsible for transmogrifying a fetus into a half man, half beast is ridiculous. The Elephant Man flips the script and makes the normality of post-industrial society the absurdity.
The film uses the character of Sir Frederick Treves, played by Anthony Hopkins, to make this point. The compassion that Treves shows Joseph Merrick throughout the film feels extraordinary. Treves' care, compassion, and tenderness are admiral, but it all feels ironic. The irony is that Treves is treating Merrick with a baseline level of respect that any human being deserves. It is even more ironic that a comedian, who is more likely to poke fun rather than empathize, helps create a film that shows us how to be compassionate.
An argument can be made that Brooks uses The Elephant Man to simply show off his superior artistic intellect or moral character. His impressive body of work might suggest that he has an exceptional capacity to tell stories whether they be comedies or dramas because of his intimate understanding of people. However, I believe that the film is doing nothing more than plainly presenting a challenge to the ethos of industrialized societies: Treat the “undesirables” in our midst better. The screenplay transforms Joseph Merrick from a circus freak into a human being by simply putting his humanity on display and giving viewers a chance to embrace it. Ignoring that humanity says more about you than it does about The Elephant Man…
The Elephant Man can be streamed on all major platforms.