Psalm 23 and The Elephant Man

Psalm 23 and The Elephant Man May 2, 2012

Last year, I watched David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. By the time I’d finished it (and wept about as hard as I’ve ever wept for anything), there was no doubt in my mind that I’d just seen one of the most heartbreaking, devastatingly beautiful pieces of film in cinematic history. If you can handle it, it is well worth watching. Though it takes some liberties with historical details, it is based on the true story of Joseph (“John”) Merrick, an Englishman born with severe physical deformities that made him a circus sideshow for much of his life. He found compassion through a doctor who took him under his wing, and by the time he died in 1890 at age 27, he had become a respected member of British society.

The film has many powerful moments, but I think one of the most beautiful scenes comes when Doctor Treves is attempting to keep Merrick from being moved out of the hospital. The chairman of the committee expresses a desire to meet Merrick, and Treves teaches him to say a few polite words to make a good impression. Along the way, he also coaches him in the beginning portion of Psalm 23. Merrick is then presented to the chairman, but is so overcome with humiliation that he all but freezes up, leading the chairman to conclude that he is simply parroting words and cannot think for himself. Merrick is then left alone in his room.
What follows at that point can hardly be described in words. I can only allow it to speak for itself. It’s like seeing one of God’s great faces. Embedding has unfortunately been disabled for the video with this scene, but click to watch it on Youtube here.
I loved something John Hurt (the British actor who played Merrick) said in a making-of featurette. He told a story about running into somebody at the Academy Awards who said, “Well John, it’s great that you’re here… just a shame you’re not gonna get it [the Oscar for Best Actor].” Hurt was mildly surprised, but graciously said, “Well, I think you’re quite right, it’s probably so-and-so’s year instead. But just out of curiosity, why do you think I’m not gonna get it?” The guy said, as if it were obvious, “Well… noone can see who you are!” Here Hurt chuckles and says, “To which I replied, rather naively, ‘I thought that was the point?'”

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  • Lydia

    That’s a wonderful, wonderful scene. I was afraid for a moment that he was going to freeze again when they came back into the room. (I’ve not seen the whole movie.)
    I admit this is a completely pedantic point, but he’s quoting Psalm 23 from the King James Version. The Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer are not in the KJV, and the wording of Psalm 23 is thus quite different from what we are most familiar with. (The history behind this is that the Psalter was translated before the King James Version in 1611, and it was always decided when the BCP was updated to retain the Psalter in its original, older translation.) He says he learned it from the Book of Common Prayer, but actually that isn’t possible. Nonetheless, I love the “hat tip” to the BCP.

  • Actually, my understanding is that he didn’t learn it from the BCP. He says that he reads the Bible every day and is very familiar with it (which is where he learned the Psalm), then adds that he is also familiar with the BCP.

  • Exact quote: “I used to read the Bible every day. I know it very well, and the Book of Common Prayer.The 23rd Psalm’s beautiful. It’s my favourite.”

  • Lydia

    Oh, good, it was just my bad hearing, not actually an error in the movie. (I’d have the dickens of a time watching that movie. I find him hard to hear.)

  • Well, any DVD would have subtitles to take care of that. Believe it or not, the real Elephant Man was actually far harder to understand. Because of his deformities, he could only open his jaw a few millimeters.
    Here is the featurette I was referring to in three parts (10 minutes apiece). I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s obvious that the film was a labor of love, and all the people involved were top class in every department.
    Part 1:
    Part 2:
    Part 3: