After the recent passing of Sir John Hurt, I felt myself compelled to write about him for this Musing. John Hurt has a large and impressive body of work, much of which I have not seen but have wanted to for a long time.
John Hurt’s most notable role was probably Kane from Alien. I love this scary sci-fi movie almost as much as Bob! The film revolves around the crew of the spaceship Nostromo. They are woken on their long journey by a distress call and go to investigate. Unfortunately, Kane is attacked by an unknown creature and is brought back on board where he eventually births the alien (which is an unforgettable gore fest). The atmosphere created in the film is great; the creature design is amazing and made all the creepier for keeping it mostly out of sight; and the small ship set makes you feel trapped. The film costars Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton and Ian Holm, but the lead role (Ripley) is the amazing Sigourney Weaver, playing one of the best women ever to appear in sci-fi. She would go on to reprise the role for several more of films in this franchise, thankfully. John Hurt’s Kane is a decent character. However, being the first to die, we don’t get to know him as well as a lot of other people aboard the Nostromo. Kane seemed to be a nice, hardworking guy and, though he is unforgettable, Hurt would go to play more interesting roles in the next few years.
John Hurt acted in three films from Mel Brooks. His oddest role was in History of the World: Part I, where he played Jesus as more of a running gag than of a character. In Spaceballs, he played a parody of himself from Alien. Unfortunately, I saw Spaceballs many years before I saw Alien so I completely missed the joke originally. His role in Spaceballs, though very short, was hilarious, as is all of the movie.
One of the most noteworthy films of John Hurt's career was also produced by Mel Brooks, albeit uncredited. The Elephant Man was a huge success, and was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and 4 Golden Globes. John Hurt himself was nominated for Best Actor in both. This film earned all of its praise! Though the film is often considered a biopic, it is more of a fictional retelling of Joseph Merrick’s life. Merrick lived in the 1800s and worked at a freak show as the "Elephant Man." He seemed to have several medical conditions that were misdiagnosed and unknown at the time that led him to have unusual growths of bones and skin. Due to his body being left to science, scientists are still attempting to find out exactly what caused his condition. I saw this film when I was fairly young, and it made me very emotional. It was a raw, powerful look at John Merrick’s life. Thankfully, some of the worst moments in the film are fictionalized. This film was directed by David Lynch, and co-starred Anthony Hopkins as Frederick Treves and Anne Bancroft (the wife of Mel Brooks) as Mrs. Kendal. The film was shot in black and white, and this made the atmosphere of the movie very intense. I would highly recommend this movie; I saw it many years ago and there are moments in the movie I have never forgotten. Though I did not know who John Hurt was at the time, his performance was seared into my memory. Grab a box of tissues and go watch it.
John Hurt also appeared in the 1984 adaption of the movie 1984. In 1984, Hurt played Winston Smith, a man who falls in love and begins to rebel against the dystopian society. The film also had Sir Richard Burton as the villainous O'Brien. I have watched both this and the 1954 Peter Cushing adaptation, and I read this book in high school. When I read the book I found it very poignant, moreso than when I first saw the movies. This is everything we fear when we think of a dystopian future, a world where they tell you how to think and what to think and believe. They rewrite history to serve their own needs and destroy words and art so there is no will to rebel. How can you want freedom when there is no word for freedom, or slavery, or even bad? The government has absolute control and enforces conformity, organized hatred, unending war and surveillance (Big Brother). John Hurt’s greatest asset in many roles is his ability to play them exceptionally nuanced, as here when most of the role of Winston Smith requires nuance. He is amazing in this role, and it is a strange twist that he essentially plays "Big Brother" in 2005's V for Vendetta, from what I hear.
In 1984 (the date, not the movie), John Hurt also played The Horned King in what is considered by many to be Disney’s biggest flop, The Black Cauldron. I did not see this film until a few years ago, and though incredibly dark for Disney, I also found it to be a pretty good movie. Yes, it was during Disney's less-than-perfect years when they were producing several sub-par movies (for Disney). The story follows a young hero who has to band together with a group of misfits to battle the ultimate evil (in this case, The Horned King). It’s basically what you would expect the film to be. I enjoyed it, but I do have a soft spot of Disney.
John Hurt was in many other animated movies, but the only one I remember seeing as a child was Thumbelina. The film was directed by the legendary Don Bluth, and it is a visually beautiful movie. The film has a pretty impressive voice cast, including Jodi Benson as Thumbelina, Kenneth Mars and June Foray as the King and Queen, Charo as Mrs. Toad, Danny Mann as Mozo, Gilbert Gottfried as Mr. Beetle, Neil Ross as Mr. Fox and Mr. Bear, and Carol Channing as Ms. Fieldmouse. Most of the characters appear very briefly in this film, except Thumbelina. The film followed her adventures after she met her prince, until she finds him again and gets her happy ending. The film feels a lot like a Disney film in that regard except she has a lot more adventures than most of Disney’s princesses, but she always has to get rescued...a lot. Hurt’s Mr. Mole hears Thumbelina sing and decides he wants to marry her, so he hires Ms. Fieldmouse to help get Thumbelina to forget the man she loves and chose him. After 15 minutes, Mr. Mole is never heard from again. Hurt was quiet and subtle in his performance and held his own against these other very strong actors. I don’t know if I can recommend this film to adults, but if there any kids around, go ahead and put it on.
In 2001, he became beloved to another generation as Mr. Ollivander in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. He would reprise his role a few times during the series. Unfortunately, in the movies, Ollivander is not given a lot of exposition, though John Hurt is able to make a fun quirky character mostly just though his expressions.
John Hurt also appeared in Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army as Professor Trevor "Broom" Bruttenholm. He was the friend, mentor and father figure to both Hellboy (played by Ron Perlman, in a part he was born to play) and Abe Sapien (played by Doug Jones and voiced by David Hyde Pierce in the first film only). I love both of these moves; the look is purely del Toro, which is a wonderful cross between gothic and Lovecraftian. Professor Broom was an old man who was dying when the first film starts, and was looking for a replacement to take care of the organization, along with Hellboy. The Professor is kind, intelligent and an interesting human character around these amazing otherworldly beings.
Last, but not least, in 2013, John Hurt became the oldest man to play the Doctor in Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor and he is my Doctor. I didn’t grow up on Doctor Who. I started watching the original series a few years ago, and have only see a few episodes of modern Who. I loved that, after they had two very young men playing the Doctor (who both appeared in the episode), they brought in this old, bitter, hilarious man to play The War Doctor. “The Day of the Doctor” is one of the funniest and most heartbreaking 79 minutes in television. Bob and I went to see this in 3-D when it was shown in theaters. This version of the Doctor, though beaten by war, has a charm and at times a humor that was beautiful. Hurt often played roles where he was very subtle, and this was still true for The Doctor, but this was actually one of his funnier roles. There are wonderful moments, especially when he is giving his later incarnations a hard time, where he is boisterous and larger than life. The joy you see when he works with the younger Doctors near the end of the film is infectious. Though he has very little time as The Doctor in the series, he gets so much to work with and he is amazing in this role.
John Hurt was an amazing actor, beloved for his sci-fi and fantasy work, and amazingly talented when given heavy projects. He has been glorious heroes, evil villains and lost souls looking for a better world. I loved John Hurt, and I feel the world will be less magical without him.