“I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!”


The real Joseph Merrick.
The real Joseph Merrick.

In Victorian Era, London, lived, Joseph Carey Merrick, a seriously deformed and tortured soul who became the face of curiosity after years of being disrespectfully exhibited at freak shows, where his grotesque appearance earned him the nickname of the “Elephant Man”.


Joseph Merrick was born on August 5th, 1862 in Leicester, England. During his short yet challenging life, Merrick was constantly the subject of criticism when freak show hosts were benefiting from his misery. Fortunately, his formidable years of humiliation would ultimately come to a halt when he was rescued by Sir Frederick Treves, an eminent British surgeon who provided him residence at the London Hospital. After weeks of examination, Treves discovered that behind that hideous facade lived an extremely sensitive human being who exuded innate knowledge and had the capabilities of being loved.

birth cert
The birth certificate of Joseph Merrick.


The story of Joseph Merrick explores compassion, warmth, cruelty and degradation, but most of all, it is an inspirational account of a courageous human being whose life was destroyed from Proteus syndrome which left his face and body severely deformed. On the inside, Joseph Merrick was a man of profound intelligence who was interested in love and romance. Sadly, Merrick wasn’t destined to experience an intimate relationship or even marriage, but in his last few years he was blessed to be around people who loved and understood him.


After years of living in constant pain, Joseph Merrick passed away on April 11th, 1890 at the London Hospital. In the years that proceeded, Merrick’s life has inspired researchers and historians as well as the entertainment industry who saw great potential in his story and wanted to capitalize on his situation. Joseph Merrick was first revived in 1977 when a stage play titled The Elephant Man opened at the Hampstead Theatre in London. The success of the production led the show to moving to the National Theatre and Off-Broadway before closing to critical acclaim in 1981.

The skull of Joseph Merrick.


While the stage production was hitting triumphant peaks, the movie industry brought the life of Joseph Merrick to the screen in 1980 when a motion picture of the same name was released. The film was based on the book, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Frederick Treves and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu, and starred John Hurt in the role of Joseph Merrick.

Elephant Man 2



Often touted, “The greatest unknown director in the world.”, David Lynch was the only candidate that was deemed suitable to direct The Elephant Man. Despite being almost anonymous outside of the United States, Lynch made his directorial debut three years earlier with Eraserhead ( 1977 ), a significant cult classic that spawned his future success as a director.

As a first-time director, David Lynch was impressive. His work greatly astonished Mel Brooks personal assistant, Stuart Cornfeld, who immediately suggested David Lynch to Jonathan Sanger and persuaded him to send him a copy of the script. Upon reading the screenplay, Lynch expressed enthusiasm and automatically realized that The Elephant Man would be perfect for his next project, but before he was employed, Sanger and Cornfeld had to convince Mel Brooks that Lynch was the ideal person to direct The Elephant Man by arranging a private screening of Eraserhead at 20th Century Fox. At the time Brooks had not heard of David Lynch, though when he discovered that Lynch possessed all the qualities he was after in a director, he was elated that Lynch was being hired.

For David Lynch, The Elephant Man was a challenging project that would really test his directorial abilities. Instead of delving into familiar territory, Lynch had to detour away into an unknown region and direct a more conventional film that explored human courage and the severity of a medical condition that plagued a once existing figure. The task of traveling into foreign land and analyzing Merrick’s life was stimulating, but it also brought strain and grueling demands that Lynch wasn’t accustomed to enduring.  The hardest part was adapting to the twelve week schedule, which he described as “so expensive and so many people involved”. However, David soon found that these minor problems were only secondary. He began to realize that a lot more could be achieved with a legion of crew members involved.

Overall, David found that directing The Elephant Man was a pleasurable experience. His fellow crew members held him in high esteem and the cast noted that he was amiable and easy to work with. They also thought that his talents transcended beyond the capacity of any other new director of motion pictures.



Mel Brooks is a highly revered member of the motion picture community. During his successful tenure in film, Brooks has served as director, producer, actor and composure. These days however, he is best remembered for his unique and prolific flair for comedy. Although he was largely associated as a comedienne, Brooks prospered outside of the genre.

Mel Brooks played a pivotal part in the production of The Elephant Man, but due to his prominence in comedy he was mainly absent from the set during filming. He feared that his association with the film might tarnish his image as a comedienne. As a result he launched his own production company titled, Brooksfilms, where a large number of straight drama films were produced.

Despite his absence from The Elephant Man, Mel Brooks was the instrumental force behind the production. He was responsible for the casting aspects, and in his spare time he spent long hours guiding the script and suggesting structural development with the writers. It has been said that Brooks contributed a lot to the films success.


hurt scenes

John Hurt was one of the most influential actors Britain has ever produced. From the moment he embarked on his theatrical career, Hurt evoked considerable popularity by portraying a diverse range of characters and demonstrating a gamut of emotions. The depths of his talents along with his sheer versatility and his utmost professionalism were among the assets that Mel Brooks, David Lynch and Jonathan Sanger continued to marvel at. It is because of these reasons that John Hurt was the only star they considered to play John Merrick.

The part of John ( Joseph Merrick ) called for an actor who could become the character they were portraying. While many stars didn’t appear authentic when it came to playing a particular person, John Hurt had the ability to successfully morph into the character and he always made it look believable. With that in mind, Mel Brooks instantly knew that John Hurt could give a realistic portrayal of John ( Joseph ) Merrick.

The only worry was that John Hurt might not accept, but luckily, Hurt had no other commitments at the time, and was looking forward to taking on the challenge. His biggest concern was the extraordinary make-up job that was involved. He knew that he would have to undergo a rapid transformation to play Joseph Merrick. This meant long hours and little sleep, but with his utmost determination, he was positive that he could handle it. John Hurt later stated, “That make-up job? – It’s one thing sitting in a make-up chair for seven hours watching oneself getting prettier and prettier. But I was getting uglier and uglier! I was uncomfortable. I couldn’t eat once the make-up was on. I started at with my head shaven, and by midday we had the head and the face done. Then it was time to do the body. It was evening before we began to shoot. It was such a performance that we could only do it all every second day.. Without the crew and cast, becoming John Merrick would have been real hell! In fact, it was a kind of joy. From David Lynch down to the electricians, they were fantastic people to work with.”

For a large majority of actors, the role of John Merrick would require an innumerable amount of research, but John Hurt approached his role with a different perspective. Like the previous characters and historical figures he portrayed, Hurt didn’t engage himself in hours of study. Instead of reading books and visiting museums etc., John Hurt was able to paint a clear picture of Joseph Merrick by just reading the screenplay. When the question about his lack of homework was proposed to him in interviews, John Hurt said, “It’s just the way I work. I know some people do endless research and are tremendously successful with it. But I find if the script doesn’t tell you enough then I think there’s something wrong with the script. I prefer to work imaginatively than totally out of observation. Of course one observes. But imagination to me is what heightens things. I think perhaps there are two major categories into which performances can be put. One performer will go to the character. Another takes the character to himself. I’m of the former really. I prefer to take whatever gifts I have to the character, so it doesn’t really matter whether it looks like me or somebody else. It’s the character I’m playing – I hope! – rather than the other way round. With John Merrick I was playing a role I wanted from the moment I first heard of it in Mel Brooks’ office.”. He then went on to state, “Merrick was obviously an amazing man. He was in constant pain, suffering from a disease that, to this day is still incurable, and he was destined for a very short life, dying at the age of 27. But with the help of Frederick Treves and others, his enormous courage and quiet dignity enabled him to find some enjoyment in his last few years.”



Frederick Treves was a man who embodied compassion and empathy. All most every actor wanted to play him, but nobody campaigned for the role harder than Anthony Hopkins who immediately felt that he was the perfect star to fulfill the role from the moment he read the script.

After his recent successes in motion pictures, Anthony Hopkins was the first in line to play Frederick Treves. The actor who is greatly recognized for his ability to portray an assortment of different characters from villains to a man of tremendous humanity, possessed all the ingredients that were required to play a highly respected physician who sees the beauty in a poor, gentle soul who is trapped behind his hideous deformities. In real life, Hopkins personified cordiality, and in many ways his personality paralleled with Frederick Treves. Upon securing the role, Hopkins stated, “I like Treves very much. He’s a nice quiet man and I’m very fond of him. The lovely thing about the story is that it’s about care. Treves was a remarkable man who stuck his professional neck out for John Merrick. He was genuinely concerned about him and felt a real love for this other human being who was in a terrible predicament. I think that makes Treves a very full and rich man. Like all dedicated men, he was a bit of a fanatic. A bit eccentric. Perhaps a bit blinkered even. But a lovely man.”

Unlike John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins believed that research should take higher precedence over imagining a character without studying the role. For his portrayal of Frederick Treves, Hopkins read Treves book, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences. While this was his main source of information, he occasionally searched around for other related facts, but most of his knowledge was grasped from Treves’ autobiography.



Set in Victorian London, The Elephant Man follows the story of John Merrick ( John Hurt ), a beloved man who suffered from a combination of Proteus syndrome and other medical conditions which left his face and body severely deformed. Although Merrick leads a miserable existence, he finds happiness in the hands of Frederick Treves ( Anthony Hopkins ) who becomes his pillar of strength, and supports him through his trials and tribulations.




“My life is full because I know I am loved.”

In addition to John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins, The Elephant Man boasts the talents of Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud and Wendy Hiller, who help round out the supporting cast. John Gielgud only plays a secondary role, but he is still an important character with a sizable part. As Francis Carr-Gomm, the governor of the London Hospital, Gielgud adds serious depth to the film and supplies a bit of tension. This is clearly apparent in the scenes where Francis expresses his disapproval over Treves providing Merrick with housing at the hospital. He is not willing to accept an incurable case and continues to stay firm on his decision until he finally realizes that Merrick is indeed quite scholarly. Mothershead, the steely and abrupt matron supports Francis’ idea, but compared to Francis, she takes a while to warm up to the decision.


I’m not sure how I feel about Wendy Hiller’s character. For most of the movie she appears rather aloof. Her relationship with Merrick seems to be somewhat distant at first, and its only when Merrick is guaranteed permanent residence by Queen Victoria that her personality becomes more amiable. Of course, Mothershead isn’t malicious and her intents aren’t harmful or anything. She just takes a while to adjust to John Merrick and the severity of his condition. Her biggest problem is that she doesn’t know how to react to someone as hideous looking as John Merrick, but that could be a challenge that anyone could face on their first introduction to John.


The one person who does emanate warmth when she enters into John Merrick’s life is Madge Kendal ( Anne Bancroft ), a dignified stage actress who is immediately accepting of Merrick’s condition and helps him find much deserved happiness. Despite her limited screen time, Bancroft infuses the very few scenes that she is in with feelings of sincerity and tenderness. She doesn’t look at him through the lens of his disability. She sees John Merrick as a man who epitomizes beauty and who is not incapable of love.


The relationship between John Merrick and Madge Kendal transcends any ordinary bond. The two forge a short but glorious friendship, and in the heartfelt moments they spend together, Madge introduces Merrick to Shakespeare, a kind and deeply touching gesture. It is during these times that Madge discovers that Merrick is profoundly interested in the theatre, but due to his condition he has never had the privilege to attend a stage production. Madge remedies that. She invites John Merrick to one of her shows and dedicates her performance to him.


Perhaps my favorite part in the movie is the Romeo and Juliet scene where John Merrick welcomes Madge Kendal in his room. After John reads a bit of the Shakespeare book he has just received from Mrs. Kendal, Madge touchingly says “Oh, Mr. Merrick, you’re not an elephant man at all. You’re Romeo.”. This particular scene clearly exemplifies the sweetness that Madge inhabits and the compassionate person that she is. You can watch that scene here.

“Why, Mr. Merrick, you’re not an elephant man at all.”

“Oh no?”

“Oh no… no… you’re Romeo.”

At the time of filming, Bancroft was married to the films co-producer, Mel Brooks. Brooks was the mastermind behind Bancroft being cast in the role of Madge. The Elephant Man was not her only collaboration with Brooks however. Bancroft had appeared in Silent Movie ( 1976 ) as well as playing an unaccredited part in Blazing Saddles ( 1974 )



The film is made up of many sweet components, but along with all the sugar, there is also a bit of spice. The Elephant Man introduces a few villainous characters who are only interested in profiting from John Merrick’s misery. These people see his macabre appearance as some form of entertainment for the general public, and they make him an exhibit at freak shows, where Merrick is viewed as a monstrosity. Seeing Merrick as the victim of humiliation is painful to watch, but it does paint a clear picture of the tribulations that Joseph Merrick endured in real life.

“Life!… is full of surprises. Consider the fate of this creature’s poor mother, struck down in the fourth month of her maternal condition by an elephant, a wild elephant. Struck down!… on an uncharted African isle. The result is plain to see… Ladies and gentlemen… The terrible… Elephant… Man…”


In The Elephant Man, the main antagonist is Bytes ( Freddie Jones ), a merciless showman who is drawn into the perils of alcoholism. We are first introduced to Bytes at the beginning of the film when John Merrick who is kept by Bytes is the star attraction at a Victorian freak show. Right away, Bytes is represented as a deplorable person whose motives are corrupt. All he wants is to earn a considerable income by making Merrick’s life a living hell. To further exacerbate matters, he often beats Merrick badly, which is fatal for somebody of Merrick’s condition.


It’s true to say that Bytes doesn’t understand the nature of John Merrick’s illness. He views Merrick as useless. To Bytes, Merrick is an absurd oddity whose restricted by an extreme handicap. But what he doesn’t know is that Merrick’s deformities do not affect his brain. In actuality, John Merrick has more intelligence than Bytes himself.


The Elephant Man is filled with many characters who inhabit different personalities, some who model civility like Frederick Treves and Madge Kendal and some who are the essence of cruelty and sadism, but the heart of the film is John Merrick. As John Merrick, John Hurt delivers a touching portrayal of a man whose life was ruined by his severe deformities. Playing a person with abnormal body distortions is quite challenging and complex. The role required an actor with an air of professionalism. John Hurt hailed from this pantheon and he certainly was no stranger to depicting real life figures on screen, but John Merrick was by far the most difficult. For his performance, Hurt had to endure hours of wearing heavy make-up, which meant that he was forced to go without food and sip through a straw. John Hurt received an Academy Award nomination for his role, but lost to Robert De Niro who won for his performance in Raging Bull. 


On its release, The Elephant Man was financially successful. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards including John Hurt’s nomination for “Best Actor”, but lost in all categories. The fact that Elephant Man was not even recognized for the extraordinary make-up effects sent the movie industry into an outrage. A letter of protest was sent to the Academy’s Board of Governors, requesting that the film be given an honorary award. However, the Academy rejected, and did not even take their frustration into account. Although, the make-up artists did receive their only category in the next years Academy Award and An American Werewolf in London was the first recipient.


The Elephant Man may have been robbed at the Academy Awards, but its progress at the BAFTA Awards proved to be more successful. John Hurt took home the statuette for Best Actor while the film won for Best Film. In addition to its winnings, the film was nominated in four other categories.


Although it was a difficult film to make, The Elephant Man reached critical acclaim on all levels. From the masterful cinematography by Freddie Francis to John Morris’ exceptional music score, this heartfelt and moving production gives viewers a rare glimpse into the life of one of London’s most unfortunate citizens.



Following the death of the real Joseph “John” Merrick, parts of his body were preserved for medical science to study. Some internal organs were kept in jars, and plaster casts were taken of his head, an arm, and a foot. Although the organs were destroyed by German air raids during World War II, the casts survived,, and are kept at the London Hospital. The make-up for Sir John Hurt, who played Merrick in this film, was designed directly from those casts.

The last lines, spoken by Merrick’s mother, are quoted from Alfred Lord Tennyson‘s poem, “Nothing Will Die.”

A lifelong smoker, Sir John Hurt still managed to smoke his cigarettes through the heavy facial prosthetic make-up, whenever the urge came on, during the lengthy hours on-set.

Sir John Hurt kept the prosthetic cast of Joseph “John” Merrick’s head after the shoot. He stored it in a cupboard in his house. Several years later, his house was burgled while was out, a friend phoned him and said, “There has been a burglary at your house.” John asked what was taken, and the reply was, “Nothing! The robber must have opened the cupboard and the mask fell out! The burglar must have fled the scene in fright!”

Sir Frederick Treves great nephew played a cameo role in the movie.



John Hurt: Born, John Vincent Hurt on January 22nd, 1940 in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England. Aged 76. Died: January 25th, 2017 in Cromer, Norfolk, England. Aged: 77.

Anthony Hopkins: Born, Philip Anthony Hopkins on December 31st, 1937 in Margam, Port Talbot, Glamorgan, Wales.

John Gielgud: Born, Arthur John Gielgud on April 14th, 1904 in South Kensington, London. Died: May 21st, 2000 in Aylesbury, United Kingdom. Aged: 96.

Anne Bancroft: Born, Anna Maria Louisa Italiano on September 17th, 1931 in The Bronx, New York. Died: June 6th, 2005 in Manhattan, New York. Aged: 73.

Wendy Hiller: Born, Wendy Margaret Hiller on August 15th, 1912 in Bramhall, Cheshire, England. Died: May 14th, 2003 in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, England. Aged: 90.

This post was written for the Rule Britannia Blogathon, hosted by Terence at A Shroud of Thoughts. To view the other entries being exhibited during this event, please click here.


  1. This is one of the most moving and powerful films ever made. I get so angry on John’s behalf when I watch this and see people being so cruel and evil towards him. At least the real John found some small degree of happiness in his last years. Excellent performances from everyone in the cast.


  2. Poor John Hurt. First, he has a monster burst form his chest in “Alien.” Then I can’t imagine trying to smoke a cigarette through 15 pounds of rubber, then Richard Burton almost lets a rat eat his face in 1984!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember, at age 16, being haunted by a commercial announcing this movie. I didn’t watch it at the time – probably by the same reasons I didn’t watch Freaks, because I was afraid of seeing myself in the explored “monster” – and it was never on TV since then. I think I’m now ready to see it. And, well, I didn’t know Mel Brooks produced the movie! Very enlightening review.


  4. Mike Noonan

    Excellent analysis Crystal!! A very good and moving film. Haven’t seen it in 30 years but still stays with me. I met John Hurt in a restaurant once and told him how much I admired his performance in the film. He was very gracious.


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