We don’t see the titular “Elephant Man” until around the 13 minute mark, and it is a further 30 minutes before we hear him talk. What we do see, however, are the reactions of others. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) meets John Merrick as we do; we hear the myth of his creation, wherein his mother was “struck down in the fourth month of her maternal condition by an elephant.” We are told that this man is a monster, and enter the carnival amidst the curious crowd. It is impossible not to pity anything that lives in such a state of discomfort, but the shocking discovery is that this is an educated and benevolent man. As Treves remarks before he knows of this, “He’s an imbecile, probably from birth, man’s a complete idiot. Pray to God he’s an idiot”. The Elephant Man indulges our voyeurism, then punishes it; leads us from pity to empathy.
Surprisingly, the man we have to thank for The Elephant Man is Mel Brooks. The comedy-director decided to finance the film, and insisted on hiring David Lynch as the director after seeing a midnight screening of Eraserhead. By his own request, Brooks was left uncredited, so that audiences would not associate the movie with his usual comedy fare.