Sir John Hurt will always be acting royalty. He sits in that pantheon of British actors who could be in any movie and just class the place up no matter the quality of the material. The acting world is a less classy place with him gone, but specifically the sci-fi genre will feel the loss the most.
It wasn’t until he died that I realised how pivotal and important Hurt had been for science fiction movies. I knew about Alien and obviously that he was in Doctor Who, but after he died and I started looking at his filmography I saw the extent at which he was involved in science fiction over his six decade spanning career, and how influential he was.
I recently re-watched Alien with some people who had never seen it before. We had been playing the videogame Alien: Isolation over Christmas and they revealed to me that they hadn’t actually seen an Alien film before, which was something we had to quickly rectify. I had seen Alien for the first time as a kid, staying up late and watching it while my parents were asleep. Watching it as a child devoid of cynicism you don’t worry about wonky special effects or dated movie making, but watching it with a group of 30-year-olds I waited for the inevitable smirks or comments if anything looked too fake, or too silly. And they didn’t come.
The scene in which Hurt’s character gives birth to the alien has some model work that is a little silly, but it doesn’t matter because Hurt sells his pain and horror at this thing ripping out of him so well that when a small model of it whips across the table at turbo speed you’re still too traumatised to see it’s just a model pulled on wires. And it’s tempting to say that the scene only works because the movie has spent nearly an hour building up to it but watch it out of context and the scene still works because of how well Hurt sells it. He isn’t in movie pain, he looks like someone in real pain. He looks terrified and anguished and ill, and that’s why the scene is one of the most, if not the most, iconic in sci-fi movies.
Jump ahead 40 years and one of the biggest shows in the world is Doctor Who. The end of the seventh season finds the Doctor and Clara in a place filled with the Doctor’s former incarnations (we only see their legs and backs), and as they go to leave they see a figure that we don’t recognise facing away from us. A new Doctor, one who the current Doctor doesn’t want to engage with. Doctor Who has always been very good at playing its cards close to its chest so when this character appeared I had no idea who the character was and no idea who the actor was either. Until he spoke. He only had to say three words and I knew who it was. When he turned around and a title card appeared on the screen that read ‘Introducing John Hurt as The Doctor’, I was a squealing mess. The War Doctor, as Hurt’s character is known, appeared in the 50th anniversary special of the show alongside Matt Smith and David Tennant, and completely stole the show. He was old and wise and embittered, where the two modern doctors were wild and fun and silly. In some ways I felt like Hurt represented a part of the audience that loved the show but sometimes felt it was a bit catchphrase heavy and wacky (i.e. me). He took no shit off the young Doctors, he charmed everyone and, because he’s the Doctor, saved the day and got to blast off in his Tardis. There are few characters in science fiction as big as the Doctor and for Hurt to come in for one and bit episodes and ensconce himself as one of the best Doctors there’s ever been is a feat in itself.
And those are two of his big ones. He also had scene-stealing supporting roles in Melancholia, Contact, Spaceballs (spoofing his own Alien scene), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Hellboy, as well as playing a pivotal part in the fantastic Snowpiercer, as both mentor and friend to Chris Evans’ character. He also managed to play another of the most legendary science fiction characters when he was cast as Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Hurt’s power as an actor was his humanity. Few actors are as good as Hurt to find the true soul of a character and to imbue that character with realistic pain, fear, happiness, sadness,etc. With Hurt it never felt fake and he never tried to hide it. Winston Smith is a perfect role for Hurt. A character trapped by the world looking for any possible light he can find and, upon finding it, being punished brutally for that. Hurt’s performance, as with most of his performances, is heartbreaking and real. And the fact that Hurt also played the villain in the Nineteen Eighty-Four referencing V for Vendetta makes the latter film a wonderful meta-commentary as though Winston Smith grew up to be Big Brother.
Hurt has a list of great credits a mile long and he also carved out a nice niche in the fantasy genre too appearing as the Storyteller in Jim Henson’s the Storyteller, a show I watched religiously as a child on Sunday nights while I ate cheese on toast in front of the fire waiting for my hair to dry from my bath. He was also Ollivander the wand maker in three of the Harry Potter movies, securing his immortality with legions upon legions of Potter fans young and old, present and future.
Hurt will be missed but his legacy will keep his memory fresh and sharp in people’s minds. People will be always watching Alien and covering their eyes when the alien bursts out and they will go back and re-watch old Doctor Who episodes and wonder what other adventures the War Doctor could have had, and they’ll watch Nineteen Eighty-Four, weep at Winton’s plight, and wonder if it’s even science fiction anymore. Wherever Hurt is now, and he does have a Tardis so it could be anywhere, his work will live on and continue to inspire filmmakers and actors about how to inject humanity into your work and how to look like you’re having a hell of a time doing it.
Featured Image: BBC