TCC Films: The Elephant Man

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The Elephant Man

Millions have seen the photograph of Pope Francis caressing and kissing the head of the man whose body is covered with tumors. This condition, called neurofibromatosis, is especially difficult to bear because of the disfigurement the tumors often cause. We recommend an award-winning 1980 film, “The Elephant Man,” which is based on the true story of neurofibromatosis patient, Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the movie.)

Merrick lived in Victorian England. When the movie begins, he is an attraction in a freak show. A London surgeon, Frederick Treves, sees the man and thinks he will make an interesting specimen for his colleagues and students. He brings Merrick to the hospital where he is once again displayed for others to look at and remark upon his condition.

Angered that his act has left the grounds even for a short time, the owner of the sideshow, Bytes, beats Merrick so savagely on his return that another employee alerts Treves. The surgeon returns Merrick to the hospital, where, slowly, he is revealed to be, not a freak, but a man, a gentle man.

We thank Pope Francis for showing us the face of Christ in every human face.

When Merrick takes up residence at the hospital he is mute. Everyone assumes he is an imbecile. Treve teaches him a few phrases, but it appears Merrick can only mimic the sounds he is taught without understanding the words. In one pivotal scene, just as Treves and the skeptical governor of the hospital are taking leave of Merrick, their patient begins quietly reciting the Twenty-third Psalm. This is nothing Treve had taught Merrick, and it is clear from Merrick’s delivery that he knows and treasures the words.

Shot in black and white, perhaps both to suggest the soot-soaked London of the era as well as the ways in which we divide the world into beautiful and hideous, this film opens the eyes of the characters, and we who view it, to the full humanity of John Merrick.

The cruel circumstances of Merrick’s life are shocking. If parents choose to allow their older children to watch “The Elephant Man,” be sure and watch along with them. You will want to be present to discuss and consider the story with your kids. There is one disturbing scene when Merrick is taunted by a group of boys. They chase him and Merrick runs, accidentally knocking over a girl as he tries to escape. A mob corners him, ripping off the mask he wears in public. He cries out, “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!”

We thank Pope Francis for showing us the face of Christ in every human face.