Movie Spotlight: “The Elephant Man”: A reflection on David Lynch’s classic film.

A few weeks ago I watched David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man.” I am not sure what I think of David Lynch. Up until then, I hadn’t seen any of his movies, but the first word that comes to mind is lunatic. I think anyone who has read anything about his film “Eraserhead” is forced to agree. 

For being a David Lynch film “The Elephant Man” is quite tame. The movie is based on a true story. It focuses on a man named Joseph (John) Merrick, who was known as the elephant man. He was a severely deformed man, who traveled with circuses during the late 1800s. 

I am not always a fan of movies based on true stories. They often are cheesy. More than often they can get away with being unartistic, by luring people in with their true stories. There is nothing that irritates me more than people praising a movie just on the grounds that it is a true story. After I saw “The Elephant Man” I was surprised by how much of it is based on actual fact. I think Lynch balances telling a true story and attempting to make a work of art well in this film. He doesn’t become possessed by trying to tell a true story, but he also does not allow his desire to produce art to detract from John Merricks’s story. 

Anthony Hopkins plays Sir Fredrick Treves, the doctor who rescues John Merrick from the circus. Originally, Frederick Treves is only interested in John Merrick for medical purposes. He believes him to be incapable of rational thought. As time goes by he comes to the realization that John Treeves can speak. But this is only the beginning of his discoveries. He realizes the beauty of John Merrick’s soul. He finds that he has a love for Psalm 23. He discovers he has a great love for the theater, and for all things beautiful. The contrast between the ugliness of Merricks’s body and the beauty of his mind is wonderful. The makeup used on Actor John Hurt, who plays John Merrick, took eight hours to apply. John Hurt does an excellent job of bringing out Merricks’s humanity. Bringing a character’s life under so much makeup is hard, but John Hurt is able to pull it off.

The movie is filmed in black and white, which helps to stress its serious tone. The directing is by no means flawless. (This is Lynch’s second film.) At times it drags, and a couple of the scenes seem unnecessary. Despite this, Lynch is able to create moments of brilliance. I once heard James Stewart talk about how movies are made great by great moments. There seems to be some truth in this. It is these moments that make “The Elephant Man” a great movie. 

The greatest moment is the ending scene. I will not spoil it because I want you to watch the movie. I will only note that Lynch uses Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings” perfectly in the last scene. The piece itself accounts for much of the power of its power. What Lynch does best in the movie is his highlighting Merrick’s desire to be treated like a human. John Merrick’s beautiful and almost pitiful line captures this. “I am not an elephant. I am not an animal. I am a human being. I am a man.”

These lines capture the theme of the film. Its simplicity is quite beautiful. The story is nearly unbelievable. That a human being would have to go through what John Merrick did. The movie is a testament to John Merrick as a man. More importantly, it is a testament to the love of beauty, something John Merrick, despite his pain and apparent ugliness, possessed.