Monday, September 19, 2011

The Ugly Face of British Imperialism: The Elephant Man

The 1980 film The Elephant Man won 7 Oscars, including Best Actor for John Hurt (John Merrick), Best Director for David Lynch, and Best Picture. The question is: why would this film be made in 1980, and why would it receive so many awards? The physical body of John Merrick symbolizes the wounds and tumors of England itself in its building of Empire and industrialization; yet, in the film, actress and socialite Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) also tells him, "You are Romeo," and he is called "A son of England" by Queen Victoria. The Elephant Man acts as a testimony of Great Britain recognizing itself and its history at a critical time when choices needed to be made and the lessons of its ancient history needed to be remembered.
Winner of 7 Oscars, The Elephant Man of 1980.
The opening of the film provides us with the filmmaker's explanation of how John Merrick came to be the way he was: his mother was in her fourth month of pregnancy when she encountered a wild elephant in an un-chartered African Isle. This scenario, of course, doesn't resemble Joseph Merrick at all, and is entirely fabricated, and it is precisely for this reason that it is so valuable in understanding the psychological relationship between the Elephant Man and England: his mother is England herself, and what on earth should England be doing in Africa? England engaged in the "great game" of European powers in the Scramble for Africa, the attempt to gain as much land and control over the continent as possible. "Africa" is the wild elephant which deforms the children of England, and it was England herself who brought on the attack.
1913 map of Africa. Land claimed by the British appears in pink.
What is so telling about the Elephant Man being a "product" of the union of England and Africa is the steamers and pipes, the noises of "industrialization" when the film draws us into John Merrick's world, because the vast production powers of Great Britain were the logistical necessity of claiming African lands. In the opening credits of the film, a melancholic carnival song plays as the names are credited, suggesting the happiness of England in this time, the amusement and leisure which resulted in the accumulation of wealth; there is a close-up on a photograph of a beautiful woman, the mother of Merrick; then the sounds of a factory in the background as part of a "flashback" of the elephants encountering her and knocking her over. The theory of maternal impression is symbolically incorporated here: strong psychological or physical events effecting the mother also effects the unborn child and, if that "mother" is England, the child would be that generation living with the results of being a part of an imperialist empire. (Video of the Opening Credits and First Part of The Elephant Man here).
Circa 1889, Joseph Merrick, the real "Elephant Man."
As defined by the Dictionary of Human GeographyImperialism is "the creation and/or maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationship, usually between states and often in the form of an empire, based on domination and subordination." That has a very bitter taste to our common understanding of freedom and political systems today, doesn't it? It did at the time, too. Great Britain had ended up with, what art and cultural critic Simon Schama calls "the Wrong Empire": while the motivations of England were to extend to all countries the liberties and freedoms, the enlightenment and material wealth England herself had gained, instead, imperialism produced unequal relationships and that state of existence worst of all, "slavery."
The late Anne Bancroft as actress Mrs. Kendal in The Elephant Man. In the film, she makes a gift of her picture and a copy of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The gift of the picture helps John Merrick transcend his role as a freak in a traveling circus to a performer, like herself, elevating his status from a kind of vaudeville to theater. The "transformation" is complete when they "perform" Romeo and Juliet and she tells him, "You are Romeo," and that should be understood in the wider sense: John Merrick is the embodiment of the deep, refined soul which all Englishmen should live up to.
The situation is rather like the Elephant Man himself, in the reading of the article by Mrs. Kendal when in her dressing room: while he is hideously deformed, he is intelligent and his mind is even "refined." The motivations of the leaders in both government and industry were "refined," but the physical results were deformed and tumour-ous, and the Africans were not the only ones to suffer, so, too, did Britons. As an act of consideration, Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) forbids mirrors to be placed in John's room so not seeing himself will help him to forget how deformed he is. However, this absence of mirrors for him turns him into a mirror for each portion of London society in which they see themselves and how they behave.
John Merrick seized by a group of the lower class wanting to see him, courtesy of the night porter (seen wearing the hat in the right side of the frame). The "pouring out of alcohol" on John symbolizes the increase in alcoholism at the time among the lower classes who failed to reap benefits from Empire and instead ended up living in horrible conditions with no hope of material, emotional or psychological escape from poverty.
The night porter of London Hospital (Michael Elphick) takes money of some bar patrons to see the Elephant Man and, to "get a rise" up out of John Merrick, the night porter cruelly holds up a mirror to John so he can see himself and, consequently, scream, which pleases those who have assembled to see him. The act of showing him the mirror makes him "reflect" on what he is, but it's the lower classes who have gathered that are "seeing themselves" in the Elephant Man, because the deformity he bears is their own: they treat him the way the middle and upper classes treat them, with mockery and contempt. Whereas John Merrick is a source of self-hatred for the lower-class, the upper-class attempts to show him compassion, and it is here that royalty demonstrates genuine royal sentiments of the human spirit: Queen Victoria herself, the "Mother" of the Empire, writes a letter on his behalf urging the London Hospital board to provide for this "most unfortunate son of England," as an act of Christian charity, and the letter is delivered by Alexandra, Princess of Wales, who even attends the theater and sits next to John Merrick during the performance.
John Merrick in his permanent room at the London Hospital. On his fireplace mantel are arranged photographs of those who have come to visit him, the social elite of London society.
 There is an important dichotomy of display and masking upon which the film's values build: when John Merrick is displayed as the Elephant Man, the stage and voice of Bytes (Freddie Jones) creates an objective distance of safety to view the deformed body. When John Merrick is exhibited for the surgeons of London, he is again viewed in dis-passionate terms of objectivity. Head nurse Mrs. Mothershead (Wendy Hiller) complains that the visits from high-society puts him on display again, and the attendance at the theater could be another act of displaying John Merrick, not to use him as a freak, rather, a sign of righteousness and a sign of compassion. But there is also the mask which John wears, covering himself, the way the name "Elephant Man" covers up his real name, his real identity. The mask is its own kind of awfulness, its own deformity, covering up another deformity, his body, but the act of covering up is like calling the impoverished lower-class "industrialization," and enslavement and subjugation as Imperial and Empire. A mask always covers something, and in The Elephant Man, it covers the real deformities of England, the poor and lower-classes, and those conquered by Great Britain, their identities as free humans taken away and political identities of "subjects" bestowed upon them.
Portrayal of John Merrick wearing the mask of the Elephant Man.
"I am not an animal, I am a man!" is quite a defiant cry. While the name "Merrick" means "confident and dignified," within the context of this film, it takes on an even greater "class" connotation: I am not an animal of animal passions and animal comforts; I am not an animal uninterested in my fellow man; I am not an animal without emotional and psychological needs; this is the cry of the generation and not the cry of one, isolated and deformed human being. It was an important claim to make in 1980, because the next year, Quest For Fire would be released, suggesting that, indeed, we are nothing but animals (I will be posting on this film at a later date, it's too important to ignore).
To view image in greater detail, simply click on it and it will open in another window. Manchester from Kersal Moor by William Wyld, 1857, just a few years before the birth of Joseph Merrick. Such a painting depicting the physical changes the Industrial Revolution spawned upon the landscape of Manchester graphically invokes the deformed body of the Elephant Man: the enormous factories with all their pollution shows us today how the fast-paced growth of urban centers "marred" the great beauty of the English landscape and people.
John Merrick leaves the audience with an artistic demonstration that he is not an animal, in the spire of a cathedral he views from his window (the window is a symbol of inner-reflection and meditation), he uses his imagination to construct a cathedral of great beauty that, indeed, testifies to his being a child of God and the inherent dignity each human being has, including those under the rule of a foreign government, the British Empire. In this very real sense of injustice, the life of John Merrick clearly teaches us that we are no more or less the way we treat others, and an enormous Empire treating people as animals is itself an animal of hideous proportions. The British Empire learned this lesson, and learned it well.
The real-life cathedral constructed by Joseph Merrick at London Hospital.
If we can see the wounds of England's empire building in the form of John Merrick, we must also see the wisdom and concern of England's reforming leadership in the generosity and compassion of Dr. Treves: "What was it all for? Why did I do it?" and his self-awareness in both recognizing mistakes and steering towards a "self-correction" and, it is for this reason, that the British Empire has survived and continues to thrive, and will do so: it corrects itself. Just as Treves is a "physician" for John Merrick and helping Victorian society understand what happened to him and to themselves, so the film The Elephant Man is medicine for the world in 1980, showing us where we came from so we can take the medicine of self-reflection and avoid repeating history and the consequences of enslaving people and ourselves under certain words and certain liberties that, when un-masked, reveals the truth deformed.
Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Frederick Treves, the surgeon of rescues John Merrick.
The entire film of The Elephant Man is available for viewing at this link: