The Elephant Man – film review
The film starts with a dream sequence, which showed how The Elephant Man came to be, we see superimposed images of The Elephant Mans mother and a tribe of elephants. She is being kicked and knocked around by them and we see her screaming, but we don’t hear her. In the background during this scene there is a piece of very eerie, circus like music playing, which sets the scene well as it sounds very scary.
The first scene we see is of the ‘freak show’ circus, being closed down by a police officer, who we see telling the man running it that his freak show is monstrous and degrading to The Elephant Man, already in the first scene of the film we know that The Elephant man must be horribly deformed and scary. The man who runs the freak show is a man named Mr Bytes, who parades dwarfs, giants, Siamese twins and other people with deformities for money, he does not care how the ‘freaks’ are treated, and the conditions in his freak show are terrible.
In the next scene we first meet Mr Treeves, who we see operating on someone who has suffered terrible injuries from a machine handling accident, this shows that Treeves is no stranger to blood and guts and the methods used in the Victorian era were very shocking in comparisons to the methods used in surgery today, for example the man Treeves is operating on has been tied down with rope to stop him from moving around due to the pain, this is an example of the primitive methods used in the Victorian era.
Mr Treeves was also present at the freak show which was closed down because of the terrible conditions and he has now become interested in meeting The Elephant Man for medical purposes and to try and find out what is wrong with him. Treeves talks to one of his colleagues in the operating theatre about the elephant man as if he is an ‘it’ and not a real human being.
Treeves makes some further enquiries about the elephant man around London, and he succeeds in trying to trace him from the help of a small boy, who then takes Treeves to meet the owner, Bytes. Treeves then pays Bytes to take him to see the elephant man where he is being kept, which we see is a desolate, small, dark room in the back of a building in a quiet alleyway. He is being kept in terrible conditions as if he were an animal and not a human being.
Because of the darkness, and the film being in black and white, the viewer can hardly see anything, and we can only just see the outline of the elephant man, which makes him even more mysterious than before, and this gives the viewer a sense of suspense, which is even more heightened when we see Treeves is actually crying while he is looking at the elephant man, we now know that the elephant man must be incredibly shocking, to make a grown man cry because of his looks and the conditions he is being kept in.
The next day the small boy who took Treeves to Bytes and then then the elephant man, takes him from where he is being kept to the medical examination. We see the elephant man is wearing a cloth mask over his head, with only an eye hole, he cannot speak, and he has trouble walking. The boy also comments on how he smells.
During the medical examination the viewer still does not get to see what the elephant man looks like, but we are given a description of his deformities by Treeves to the other doctors present at the examination, he tells them that the elephant is covered with tumours on 90% of his body, he suffers from chronic bronchitis, has a curved spine and an enlarged head. He also tells them he hopes that the elephant man is mentally ill, and has no clue about what he looks like and what other people say and do to him.
After the examination The Elephant man is taken back to where Bytes keeps him, in the next scene we see Bytes beating him hard with a stick, which makes him fall to the ground heavily, we hear the elephant moaning and wheezing in pain, the small boy pleads with Bytes to leave him alone, but he refuses. Here in this scene we first see how badly he is being treated, and the director of the film creates massive sympathy for the elephant man, no one can understand just what kind of a life he has had to endure, being treated like an animal and beaten and mistreated by his ‘owner’.
The small boy brings Treeves back to where the elephant man is being kept, as he believes he is seriously ill and will die if he does not receive any medical treatment, Treeves agrees to help him and takes him again back to the hospital to a small room where no-one else can see him. Here we first see the elephant man for the first time, it is very cleverly done in a way to shock the viewer after all the suspense which has been built up of what he actually looks like.
The young nurse is told to take blankets and food up to the room where he is being kept, but she has not been told of who is in there and to be ready for what she is about to witness. She enters the room and screams loudly, dropping the food as soon as she sees the elephant man, the exact same moment the viewer sees him also. This scene shows us finally just how shocking he looks like, and how people react when they see him.
In the first part of the film, the director wants to portray The Elephant Man as a monster, we see now that the directory is starting to show him as a real human being, from here on he tries to ‘humanise’ him and give him sympathy from the viewer. The film is now starting to portray a different take on the elephant man than it did before. In the next scene we first meet the hospital janitor.
He tells the elephant man that he is going to exploit him by charging people money to see him, this creates sympathy for the elephant man, as in a way it could be seen that he is back in a circus, being treated as an animal and having people ogle at him, the scene also creates a hatred for the janitor, who evidently does not care about anyone but himself. After this we see Treeves and the elephant man alone together for the first time, he is trying to teach him to talk, which is another method by the director to ‘humanise’ the elephant man, Treeves tries to get him to say his own name slowly, and he succeeds, “John Merrick”.
Treeves tells John that at 2 o clock tomorrow, he will receive a visit from the director of the hospital, and that he will have to make a good impression on him by showing the director that he is able to talk and be able to have a conversation with him. The director of the film uses a camera technique to make the point that John is transitioning from monster to human being, the camera pans up to where his cloth mask is hanging up on the wall, no longer needed as he is finally safe from humiliation. The next day when the director of the hospital arrives to meet John, he has huge problems speaking due to nerves.
The director questions Treeves if the conversation was scripted, and if he had told John what to say. Carr Gomm does not believe Treeves when he says it was not scripted and he says John will have to be moved to the hospital of incurables, because here there is nothing that can be done for him. While they are both talking, John starts reciting a poem from a book, Treeves and Gomm rush wonder where the noise is coming from and rush back into the room while John carries on his recitation of the prayer.
Throughout this scene poignant music is playing in the background, which gets louder as John speaks, the viewer here feels a sense of proudness, due to the music, that he can actually talk and is infact very intelligent and not mentally retarded as Treeves first thought and hoped would be the case. John is intelligent enough to understand he is different from other people, here the director creates a lot of sympathy for him, how he has always known what people say and thought about him, how he is treated and how what he must have been through and had to endure his whole life.
In stark contrast, in the next scene we scene the janitor bringing in drunk people who paid him to for a glimpse of John, from the pub he was drinking in, when they all see him in his room, they scream and scare John, this creates more sympathy for him because even though for the first time in his life, he is being treated well and cared for by Treeves and others, he is still being paraded by the janitor as a freak and an animal in a circus.
Treeves invites John to his house for tea, he John meets Treeves’ wife, and he begins to cry because he tells them he has never been treated so friendly and nice by a beautiful woman, this is where we see that not only is John highly intelligent, he also has feelings too. Treeves then shows John pictures of his mother, and family, in politeness John then shows Treeves and his wife a picture of his own mother he keeps with him, “she had a face of an angel, I must have been such a disappointment to her” he says.
Treeves wife then begins to cry, because she cannot understand what kind of a life he has had. Her crying creates more sympathy for John. The next day we are also show that John has a creative side, he is making a model of the church he can see from his window. John asks Treeves if he is able to cure his deformities, and he becomes sad when Treeves, with dismay, says he cannot do anything for him. After news of ‘The Elephant Man’ staying at the hospital spreads across London, a famous stage actress, announces she would like to meet John and get to know him, as he sounds very interesting.
They both meet and she gives him a signed picture of herself and a copy of Romeo and Juliet. They read out a scene from the book with John being Romeo and the actress being Juliet. She kisses John and tells him that he is not an elephant man, but he is Romeo. John is overwhelmed that everyone is being really nice to him, over the next couple of weeks more people come to visit him because it has become fashionable to visit ‘The Elephant Man’. He is very pleasant to everyone who visits, and shows good manners to all, acting a real gentleman.
The head nurse however sees what is happening and tells Treeves that she thinks that he is still in a freak show, but now a different type, with more professional people visiting him, because it has become fashionable to visit ‘the freak’. Treeves does not believe what she says, and tells her he is enjoying the company that is all that matters, however deep down Treeves knows that he is still being paraded but is too scared to believe it himself.
The next sequence is another eerie and scary dream sequence, this one shows us what John has come from and the harshness of his life and where he worked in one of the dangerous work houses. Treeves then realises that he has made John a spectacle again. He questions whether he is a good or a bad man, and he breaks down in front of his wife. The way that he obviously cares about John, and he is questioning his motives, shows that he must be infact a good man.
In the next scene the hospital committee holds a meeting to decide whether they should allow John to stay at the hospital permanently, almost everyone is against him staying, but this changes when the princess of Wales arrives with a telegram from the queen, thanking them for there good will of looking after John and keeping him safe. The princess asks the committee to do “the right thing” and a vote is held and it is unanimously decided that John should be allowed to stay at the hospital permanently and moved to a more suitable room.
Later the janitor leads another party of people to ogle at John, among the party of people is Bytes they are all drunk and enter his new room, where they throw him around like an animal, and force him to drink alcohol, they also force John to look at himself in the mirror. The eerie circus music is also playing in the background to set the scene of a circus, the music is very important in this scene because its shows he is still in the circus, being passed around like an object and abused.
When everyone else has left, Bytes is still hanging around in his room, and talks to John while he is trying to recover from being thrown around. The film is structured in a way that in one scene we see John being treated like a human being, and being treated well, but then in the next scene we see him being treated like an animal, and being treated badly, the film is structured this way to ask if John can ever be completely happy and secure, because in his own home he should be at his most secure, but he is actually at his most vulnerable as we see these people can break in and abuse him.
The next morning Treeves enters Johns room to find he is missing, he frantically searches for him asking the head nurse and janitor, another care taker tells Treeves he witnessed what happened last night, so he goes back to the janitor and demands him to tell him where John had gone, he told Treeves he had no idea but didn’t he didn’t believe him, the anger in Treeves voice shows how he did not want to fail John, and that he very much cared for him. In the next scene we find out that Bytes has taken John back to his ‘freak’ circus, which has now moved onto the continent, probably to Belgium.
Once again he is paraded as a freak again in his old show, he is very ill and falls over while he is performing, crashing to the ground and Bytes starts poking him with a stick to get up, the people watching the show spit at Bytes and walk off, because even they are dismayed out how badly he is treated. Bytes is extremely angry with John, he does not seem to care one bit that he is very ill, and out of anger he locks John in an cage next to some monkeys and leaves him there. Here we see John in probably the worst moment of his life, just a few days ago he was the happiest, but now he is very ill, and back being horribly mistreated.
There is symbolism of him being in the cage because of people treating him like an animal, and now he is actually in a cage with animals. The other ‘freaks’ from the show agree to rescue John from the cage and take him home, they take him to the ferry and he sets off back to England. John is wearing again his old cloth mask. When he arrives back in England he starts being chased by some young boys who are teasing him, as he is running away he accidentally runs into a small girl, and then more people including the police start chasing him.
He becomes cornered by the group chasing him, and he mask falls off, he then shouts at them “I am not an animal!. I am a human being. I.. Am… A Man! ” This is the main ‘tagline’ of the film and features on the poster used to advertise the film. The point the director is trying to make, is that even people who are deformed or seen as freaks should be treated the same as normal people. In the next scene we see that John has been found and has brought back to the hospital and re-united with Treeves. John’s condition has worsened after all he is been through, and we find out that he is dying.
John is invited by the famous actress to see a play with her at the theatre, something he has always wanted to do. The famous actress dedicates the performance to him at the end, and he receives a standing ovation by the audience. We see that John is finally happy and fulfilled, and that perhaps he knew in his mind that now was the right time to die, if not now then once again he might have been abused by someone, or become unhappy once again, this was inevitable as he could sadly never lead a normal, happy life.
The final scene in the film is a very sad one, and is very symbolic, we see John at the end of his life ‘trying’ to be a normal human being, by sleeping in a normal position, and sadly he suffocates to death. The sadness of this happening is magnified by the highly emotional song played in the background, Adagio for Strings. This is faded right to the end and then we see one last dream sequence, of Johns mother saying “No one ever dies”, which in a way is true because he was one of a kind, and will always be remembered as being different from everyone else.
It ensures that the last scene in the film of John’s death is very emotional to the viewer. My thoughts on the film are that it is very well directed and acted, all the characters played there parts amazing well, especially Hurt who played Merrick with emotion and passion, even though he was covered in heavy make-up all the time during the film, his depiction of Merrick was so believable, it was hard not to believe he actually was ‘The Elephant Man’.
The Film was shot in black and white, a decision which was hard to make, and when it was shot colour had been available for decades, but the director made the right choice, because if it had been shot in colour then it would of lost all the darkness in the film, the black and white made the sad scenes in the film especially moving because they were so blunt and colourless. The film makes you think about a lot of things, because of all the emoticon it brings out of you, it especially makes you think about treating people with disabilities with respect, and trying to not treat them any different to someone without one.
The whole point of the film is to ask us the question who are the freaks? The people in the freak show or the people who go to see them? It points the finger at Victorian people and at us it asks what kind of society do we live in? Do we see ourselves as any better as the Victorians, who went to see freak shows, or is there still a certain discrimination against people with disabilies or different races? Even though we treat people better then the Victorians, banning freak shows they used to have, we are still treating people who are different to us differently.
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