The Elephant Man is a black and white film based on the life of Joseph Merrick, a 19th Century Englishman with a congenital disease that left him facially disfigured and forced to live as a sideshow freak. It explores in particular his relationship with a doctor, Frederick Treves.
It has been submitted to the BBFC several times on video and DVD after its initial classification on film in 1980 when it was passed AA despite some discussion of whether an A rating would be possible. (For more information about historical categories and certificates click here).
When it was seen on VHS in 1987 it was passed PG (there was no PG certificate in 1980).
The key classification issues are the elements of mild horror and scenes of mild violence. These have remained the key classification issues on all subsequent submissions - the most recent in 2007.
The horror sequences are effective and affecting, though lacking in strong gory detail – for example, the elephants screaming and the mother’s nightmare sequences.
The violence includes some brief moments of detail, such as some women cat-fighting in a pub resulting in sight of bloody scratched faces, and also includes scenes where the sympathetic lead character is treated roughly and humiliated - for example, by the night porter and later by Bytes who hurts him with a cane. It is clear in these sequences that Merrick is vulnerable and being treated cruelly and unkindly. The violence is not endorsed by the film.
Under current BBFC Guidelines, these moments are all also well contextualised, and containable at PG, where horror Guidelines direct that 'frightening sequences should not be prolonged or intense' and violence Guidelines state that 'Moderate violence, without detail, may be allowed, if justified by its setting'.
The PG category can also contain the two uses of 'bastard' in the film, which would be classified as mild language, especially when the term is directed at another person as happens here.