VideoA Study in Human Dignity – “The Elephant Man”

There are three reasons why every human being should see this movie. First, it’s one of the most emotional stories ever put on film. Second, it’s based on a true story unlike any other. Third, Anthony Hopkins may just be the most talented actor alive.

“The Elephant Man” tells the often unbelievable story of Joseph Merrick through the Oscar-nominated performance of John Hurt (“Alien,” “Midnight Express”). Born to a poor couple in Leicester, England, Joseph suffered from a variety of bizarre deformities. While no official confirmation of this story exists, Merrick insists that his mother was attacked and crippled by an elephant while pregnant with him.

Regardless of the cause, Joseph’s condition made it impossible for him to fit into society. When unable to find work to help support his troubled family, Joseph was forced to become a carnival side show attraction.

When a surgeon named Frederick Treves, played in the film by Anthony Hopkins (“Hannibal,” “Meet Joe Black”), witnessed a side show booth being shut down by the local authorities, who claimed it was degrading both to the man inside and to all who witnessed it, he dedicated himself to finding and learning about this mysterious “elephant man.”

What he found was a 21-year-old man whose existence was beneath that of any animal. Beaten by his “owner,” feared by all who saw him, and suffering deformations that left him grotesque and nearly crippled, Merrick was the most pitiable creature Treves had encountered. Merrick was offered a home in the isolation ward of Treves’ hospital, where he could be studied while attempting to lead a somewhat normal life.

The message of “The Elephant Man” isn’t subtle. Unfortunately, it’s also a message that never seems to sink into society’s consciousness: there are many ways in which a human being can be “ugly,” and physical ugliness is unquestionably the least objectionable.

“The Elephant Man” is sometimes painful to watch due to its portrayal of human nature. However, the movie can’t be faulted for its bleak picture of society, because one never doubts that this is exactly how people behaved when confronted with this unfortunate man. When watching this film, you should never forget that this is a true story, because Joseph Merrick’s real life was both tragic and inspiring.

The exact condition that caused Merrick’s deformities has never been determined. Some believe it was Proteus syndrome, characterized by abnormal growth of skin and bone. Others believe it was neurofibromatosis, which causes tumors to grow on the nerves as well as deforming the skeleton. Unfortunately, the tissues which were preserved from his body after his death were destroyed in the Nazi bombings of England during World War II.

Anyone with further interest in Joseph Merrick should read The Elephant Man and Other Reminisces by Dr. Treves himself, the book upon which this movie is based, or visit The Elephant House online at However, it is important to note that, for reasons never explained, Treves refers to Joseph as John Merrick, though all historical records show that Joseph Merrick was never known as John. This is a mistake from Treves’ writing, so don’t let it confuse you.

One of the strangest aspects of “The Elephant Man” is its production crew. The film was directed by David Lynch, best known for his strange and surrealist style in “Twin Peaks” and “Blue Velvet,” but was executive produced by Mel Brooks, creator of “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” and a string of slapstick comedies.

Perhaps out of respect for their subject matter, both Brooks and Lynch give Merrick’s story a solemn and serious treatment. While this will come as no surprise to fans of Lynch’s family-friendly and G-rated “The Straight Story,” “The Elephant Man” is remarkably straightforward. For his part, Mel Brooks simply declined to attach his name to the film for fear that it wouldn’t be taken seriously. His name appears only in the form of his production company, Brooksfilms.

If you’re looking for something to cheer you up, avoid “The Elephant Man” at all costs. While it could never be mistaken for a happy story, the tragic tale of Joseph Merrick is inspiring in its own way. This is a man who suffered more pain, more persecution, and more indignities than most men can even imagine, and emerged at the end with his gentle and refined spirit intact. “The Elephant Man” is a story about what makes people human, what separates overgrown boys from dignified men, and just how civilized we really are. You will not forget this movie.