The Elephant Man

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield, was in Cambridge on Wednesday to introduce David Lynch’s movie The Elephant Man.


Thanks to world-wide publicity, magnificence of performance and make-up, (the Academy was prompted to create a new category of Oscar for Best Make-up), The Elephant Man is considered one of Lynch’s masterpieces. The film received eight Academy Award nominations and won the Bafta for Best Film, Best Actor (John Hurt) and Best Production Design.


Based on Frederick Treves reminiscences, it presents itself as is the story of Joseph (John) Merrick, a man suffering from severe deformities exhibited in a penny gaff shop in Whitechapel.


Most of the discussion focused on the problems the film posed, and the way movies and historical scholarship interact. A great piece of cinematography, the movie nevertheless confronts historians with serious issues.


Part of the problem comes from the fact that, although the film made Merrick one of the most famous side show participants, his act was virtually unknown in the nineteenth century. At the time Merrick was actually taking part in a rather dated form of freak show, a ‘footnote’ or ‘an anomaly’ in the history of entertainment in the capital in the 1880s.


Vanessa Toulmin particularly questioned the stereotyped depiction of the showman, who is unnamed in the movie, and portrayed as an alcoholic. Merrick had willingly signed a contract with a syndicate of four showmen. The manager, Tom Norman, far from being an alcoholic was actually member of a Temperance Society. The Norman family’s collection is still kept in the National Fairground Archive. Lynch had based his script on Treve’s 1920s reminiscences,  but was not so interested in depicting the real world of shows and entertainment of the late nineteenth-century London. A fact that is not clearly perceived amongst the level of care and details brought to the set-décor and costumes.


The issue of exploitation by the medical profession also came up. The movie presents Treves as a conflicted, repentant scientist who, although uses Merrick to further his career, takes him out of the gutter and, ultimately, makes his life worthwhile.  One could also deplore the mawkish ending to the movie, which sentimentally turns the ‘phenomenon’  into, not a Man, but a kind of angel – once more depersonalising the Human Being that was Joseph Merrick.


Listen to the film introduction by Vanessa Toulmin here.



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