(Originally posted on 17 May 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)
One of the most famous figures in the history of Victorian England was Joseph Merrick, later referred to as John, but best known as the Elephant Man. Merrick, born in 1862, was incurably deformed, with a severely enlarged and misshapen head, an alarmingly curved spine, a near-useless right arm, and skin that was covered almost entirely by large tumors. Merrick lived a good deal of his short life in freak shows, being exhibited to gawking thrill-seekers, before spending most of his final years in hospitals under medical and scientific observation before dying at the age of 27.
David Lynch’s The Elephant Man initially introduces us to Merrick (played by John Hurt) through the character of Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), an eminent physician and lecturer at the London Hospital during the 1880s. We first meet Treves at one of London’s many carnivals, sneaking into the freaks tent, no doubt to get a look at the legendarily monstrous Elephant Man. When the police close down the exhibit due to punter reactions, Treves has a young boy hunt down Merrick, and when they are found he pays Merrick’s keeper Bytes (Freddie Jones) for “a private showing.” When he sees the extent of Merrick’s deformity, he sheds a tear. He then offers Bytes more money for the chance to show him at a lecture. When Merrick has a spotlight shone on him and paraded in front of staring scientists, it’s tempting to think that, for Merrick, the difference between the carnival and the scientific lecture is mainly academic.
After Merrick is beaten by Bytes upon his return to the freak show, Treves comes and returns him to the London Hospital, where he tries to sneak the hooded and robed Merrick into the Isolation Ward in the attic. However, this catches the attention of the hospital’s House Governor, F.C. Carr Gomm, played by John Gielgud. After Treves comes down from the Isolation Ward, he runs to the kitchen and fetches a bowl of oatmeal for Merrick, but as he is on his way back upstairs, he is stopped by Carr Gomm, who inquires after the bowl in his hand.
“Good heavens, you haven’t acquired a taste for this sort of stuff, have you?”
Treves responds, “Yes, sir, it’s quite nutritious.”
“Possibly, but not quite the diet of a grown man.”
This exchange sticks out to me for two reasons. The first is because of how succinctly it illuminates the snobbery still in force during the supposedly enlightened Victorian era. A century and a half before, Dr. Samuel Johnson infamously defined oatmeal as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Carr Gomm, despite being a member of the medical establishment, still holds to the traditional view of oats as a food for children, and certainly not for gentlemen like himself or Treves, even with its nutritional benefits.
In addition, the use of food in this scene is something that would soon be a Lynch trademark. Rarely is the old adage “you are what you eat” more applicable in movies than in the world of David Lynch. Consider the dichotomy of beers in Blue Velvet (Heineken for the good characters, Pabst Blue Ribbon for Frank and his gang), the ice chest full of meats (frankfurters, braunschweiger) Alvin carts along with him in The Straight Story, or Agent Dale Cooper’s constant wolfing-down of high calorie foods like pie on Twin Peaks. And so key is coffee to Lynch’s worldview, especially in his more recent work, that he recently started his own line of coffee, available by mail-order.
Carr Gomm, recognizing that Treves is up to something, takes the bowl of oatmeal from him and gives it to a nearby nurse, directing her to “take this to the patient in the isolation ward, will you?”
Noticing the look of trepidation on the nurse’s face, Treves comforts her by saying, “Don’t be frightened. He won’t hurt you.”
It’s at this point that the scene goes in two separate directions. As the nurse walks away with the oatmeal, Carr Gomm takes Treves into his office. “A hospital’s no place for secrecy, Treves,” insists Carr Gomm. “Doctors spiriting hooded figures about in corridors is apt to cause comment.” He then questions Treves about the lapse in proper procedure and the nature of the new patient.
Treves, more than a little nervous (and who wouldn’t be in the presence of the formidable Gielgud?), becomes evasive, talking about Merrick’s deformity and the possibly shocking effect he might have on other patients, but never coming out and saying who it is. He finally admits that the new patient is “an incurable,” and Carr Gomm latches onto this point. He insists on the hospital’s policy on incurable cases, but Treves offers that “this case is quite exceptional.”
Then the scene cuts to the nurse, still climbing the stairs. She becomes even more anxious with each step she takes. The scene then cuts back to Carr Gomm.
“Yes, I quite appreciate your problem, Mr. Treves. But why not contact the British Home, or the Royal Hospital for Incurables? Perhaps they might have a place for him.”
Treves answers, “Yes sir, I’ll look into it. Would you like to meet him?”
Finally, the scene returns to the nurse slowly entering the room and seeing Merrick. She screams, drops the bowl on the floor, and runs out of the room.
Treves then excuses himself from Carr Gomm’s office and bolts up the stairs into Merrick’s room. The camera holds on Gielgud’s face as he realizes, simply, “It’s the Elephant Man.”
At its core, this scene is a marvelous piece of suspense filmmaking in the classical sense. Hitchcock once defined his philosophy of suspense by saying, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” So it is here. Because we not only know what Merrick looks like but also how others react to his appearance, the climax of the scene is pre-ordained as soon as Carr Gomm places the oatmeal in the nurse’s hand. Treves knows this too, which explains his nervousness around Carr Gomm. The nurse has a pretty good idea of it too, having seen Treves sneaking the hooded figure up the stairs and fearing the worst. Only Carr Gomm is oblivious to the inevitable outcome, which makes his reaction to the scream the perfect punctuation to the scene.
But what makes the movie as a whole such an achievement is that it is never content to make Merrick the monstrosity he appears to be. Tellingly, Merrick reacts to the nurse’s scream by screaming himself, as frightened in his way as she is in hers. After this scene takes place, the focus of the film begins to shift away from Treves to Merrick himself, as we stop seeing Merrick through the eyes of those around him and start to observe him and his way of life. That the film is able to pull this off is due in no small part to John Hurt’s performance, which doesn’t shy away from Merrick’s physical condition — the suitably grotesque makeup allegedly took 12 hours to apply — but somehow projects humanity through the layers of latex. The most tragic thing about Merrick’s life wasn’t simply his appearance, but the way it kept most people from seeing him as a man, much like any other. Or, as Merrick himself infamously proclaims late in the film, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!”