The Elephant Man

This note was prepared by Erlin Goentoro ( for the screening of “The Elephant Man” on Saturday, May 8, 2010, as the 2nd film of May 2010 Focus Director: David Lynch, in C2O library, Jl. Dr. Cipto 20 Surabaya 60264. Screening was attended by Andre, Carlos, Pundi, Indra, Erlin, Yuli, and kat.

General Information:

Eraserhead brought Lynch to the attention of producer Mel Brooks, who hired him to direct 1980’s The Elephant Man, a biopic of deformed Victorian era figure Joseph Merrick (John Hurt). Lynch brought his own distinct surrealist approach to the film, filming it in black and white.


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. Following the publication of Montagu’s book, Merrick returned to popular attention around 1980 when two high-profile productions made him their subject. His life story became the basis of the 1979 Tony Award-winning play The Elephant Man, in which he was initially played by Philip Anglim, followed by David Bowie. The play was notable for the fact that no prosthetic makeup was used on the actor portraying Merrick

Recognition and Critical Reception:

  • Dubbed by some as one of his most conventional film (I haven’t seen Straight Story though)
  • One of his most commercially successful film: 8 Academy Awards Nomination, BAFTA Awards (Film, Leading Actor, Production Design), Rotten Tomatoes: 91%, Top 250 Imdb: #93

Make Up:

– Hurt’s makeup was made from casts of Merrick’s body, which had been preserved in the private museum of the Royal London Hospital. Lynch originally attempted to do the make-up himself, but the results were not filmable. The final make-up was devised by Christopher Tucker. The Elephant Man makeup took 7 hours to apply each time. John Hurt would arrive on set at 5.00am and shoot from noon until 10.00pm. Because of the strain on the actor, he worked alternate days. After the first day of shooting, when actor John Hurt was exposed for the first time to the inconveniences of having his make-up applied and walking around in it, he called his wife, saying, I think they finally managed to make me hate acting.

– When the nominees for the 53rd Annual Academy Awards were announced in February 1981, many in the industry were appalled that this movie was not going to be honored for its make-up effects. At the time there was not regular category and winners for make-up were cited with a special award. Feeling that the make-up technicians deserved to be rewarded for the film, a letter of protest was sent to the Academy’s Board of Governors to ask them to change their minds and give the film a special award. The Academy refused, but in response to the outcry, they decided a year later to reward make-up artists with their own annual category, and thus the best make-up award was born.

Joseph Merrick:

– The true name of the Elephant Man was not John Merrick as most believe, but Joseph Carey Merrick. Merrick was born in Leicester, England on August 5, 1862, and died in the Royal London Hospital on April 11, 1890, at the age of 27.

– Joseph Merrick was originally thought to be suffering from elephantiasis (a disease that is characterized by the thickening of the skin and underlying tissues, especially in the legs, male genitals and female breasts – Maybe this is why Treves emphasized that Merrick’s genitals remain intact and unaffected so many times – this or just because Lynch likes the talk about genitals). The latest diagnosis of Merrick’s condition is due to a combination of Proteus syndrome (named for the shape-shifting god Proteus, a congenital disorder that causes skin overgrowth and atypical bone development, often accompanied by tumors over half the body) and neurofibromatosis type I (a tumor disorder that is caused by the malfunction of a gene on chromosome 17, that is responsible for control of cell division).

Social Conflict during the Victorian Era due to Industrial Revolution – Contrast between Victorian high society and increasingly larger slum dwellers:

“We’ve seen a lot more of these machine accidents. Abominable thing these machines. We can’t reason with them.”

Starting in the later part of the 18th century there began a transition in parts of Great Britain’s previously manual labour and draft-animal–based economy towards machine-based manufacturing. It started with the mechanisation of the textile industries, the development of iron-making techniques and the increased use of refined coal. The first Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th century, merged into the Second Industrial Revolution around 1850, when technological and economic progress gained momentum with the development of steam-powered ships, railways, and later in the 19th century with the internal combustion engine and electrical power generation.

19th century Britain saw a huge population increase accompanied by rapid urbanization stimulated by the Industrial Revolution. The large numbers of skilled and unskilled people looking for work kept wages down to barely subsistence level. Available housing was scarce and expensive, resulting in overcrowding. These problems were magnified in London, where the population grew at record rates. Large houses were turned into flats and tenements, and as landlords failed to maintain these dwellings slum housing developed. Kellow Chesney described the situation as follows: “Hideous slums, some of them acres wide, some no more than crannies of obscure misery, make up a substantial part of the metropolis… In big, once handsome houses, thirty or more people of all ages may inhabit a single room.”


Lynch was quite hands on for he musical direction and sound design of this film. It has effectively created the dark troubling atmosphere: the unnerving background sound of the industrialized city: constant hissing, pounding, and humming of machinery combined with the heavy difficult breathing of John Merrick and the music that help directed our emotions.


It’s about the evolution of John Merrick from a mere freak, an Elephant Man to a human being with dignity, both in his and our eyes (with Dr. Treves as our moral compass).

– “I am not an elephant! I AM NOT AN ANIMAL! I AM A HUMAN BEING! I…AM…A MAN!”

At first he accepts the bad animal treatment given to him, but later, as his surroundings treated him more like a human being, he finally builds some self-respect and dignity, and rebel against an inhumane treatment.

Key Scene of transformation: Tears of Merrick after Anne Bancroft kissed him and called him Romeo.

– “Am I a good man or a bad man?”

It’s easy to condemn the bad treatment given to him by his proprietor/owner and the night porter, it is also easy to condemn the hypocrisy of the white collar (the Victorian high society) that would like to get acquainted with John Merrick because it is the fashionable thing to do (Head Nurse: They’re disgusted and only want to impress the society. He’s only being stared at all over again). But how about Dr. Treves who seems to really want to help Merrick but also fully aware the social and financial advancement he benefited from doing so.

– “He’s the greatest freak in the world!”

What’s this fascination with freaks? We fear them yet we have this insatiable curiosity to see them – only at a safe distance of course. Lynch is skillfully building the expectation our curiosity to this Elephant Man, only finally showing us Merrick’s face 30 minutes into the film. Our emotion is going on a roller coaster ride throughout the film from horror to fear to disgust and later to pity and empathy, in the end we realize that all these feelings are inseparable, Lynch has successfully orchestrated the ups and downs of our emotions while at the same time made us ponder whether we’re a good decent person or just a hypocrite.

Key Scenes:

> “Where are the children?” – Even Treves also has some reservation upon his children having some contacts with Merrick.

> The tea time between Merrick and the high society couple – Wouldn’t we also cringe being that close to Merrick.

> The forced kiss scene between Merrick and the girl – While we feel the utmost pity on Merrick, but don’t we also empathize with the poor girl that has to kiss him?

Lynch Commentary:

‘It was a very, very difficult film for me, because I was in a place where a lot of people thought I didn’t belong. I had made one feature no one had heard about, and here I am, born in Missoula, Montana, making a Victorian drama. I think a lot of people thought: Who is this nutcake? Who was I to be doing this?’

It’s extraordinary that ‘The Elephant Man’ got made at all, at least in its finished form. Having completed the oblique, deeply personal ‘Eraserhead’ in 1977, the director was fishing around for new ideas. ‘I wrote a script called “Ronnie Rocket”, but I couldn’t get anything going. I met a man named Stuart Cornfeld, who worked for Mel Brooks and had loved “Eraserhead”. One day, just on a feeling, I said, “We’re not getting anywhere with ‘Ronnie Rocket’; are there any other scripts that I might direct?” And he said, “There are four scripts. Come to Nibblers and have lunch, and I’ll tell you.” The first thing he said was “The Elephant Man”. And an explosion went off in my brain. Very strange. I said immediately, “That’s it. That’s what I want to do.” ’

There are parallels between ‘The Elephant Man’ and ‘Eraserhead’, not least the sense of a thunderous industrial underworld barely buried beneath everyday existence. For Lynch, the period element was one of the screenplay’s most appealing aspects. ‘I always loved smokestack industry, and I love towns or cities that have grown up around factories. So here is Victorian England, and I don’t know this land, but I know factories, I know this is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, so that side of it resonated with me. Then one day I’m standing in East London Hospital. A derelict hospital, but it still had beds in the wards. Thousands of pigeons, broken windows, but long, glorious hallways, fireplaces, all the details. I’m there in the hall looking into a ward and a wind entered me, and I was back in time. I knew it: 100 per cent. Victorian England. And I said: “Now I know it. No one can take it away from me.” It just came in.’

Lynch personally scouted out many of the locations used in the film, shooting key scenes in Liverpool Street Station and Butler’s Wharf in Southwark. ‘But if we’d tried to do “The Elephant Man” even a year later, we couldn’t have. They were redoing the wharf area and just tearing out all the old places we’d found, that had been there for who knows how many hundreds of years. We were so lucky to get certain places. The feel of Victorian England was still there. You could go down the street and see people coming towards you from the 1800s. It was a different London.’

‘You know they say forest fires are around 2,000F? This was a baptism by fire far hotter than that. I thought I would be fired off the film. But I had total support from Mel, and it all came right in the end. Mel gave me so much freedom and support.’

One of Lynch’s greatest pleasures was working with the distinguished cast, particularly John Hurt, whose portrayal of Merrick is the raw, bleeding heart of the film. ‘Those actors were beyond great. I cannot say enough good things about John Hurt. What he did is just glorious. His character is so fantastic. It’s a human-being thing; your heart just goes out to him for what he went through.’

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graduated from University of Wisconsin – Madison with majors in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. She worked as a Systems Analyst in Deloitte Consulting before she became a Chief Operating Officer in c2o library & collabtive, a Program Manager in Ayorek! and a monkey coder at Chimp Chomp Design. She loves traveling, taking lots of pictures, and sometimes experimenting (and/or creating explosion) in the kitchen. Holopis excites her in its exploration of local food as well as its aim to change urban lifestyle to be more healthy and appreciative of local food through fun and engaging methods.

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