Whether you know him as Mr Ollivander in the Harry Potter films, the War Doctor from Doctor Who, the ill fated Kane from the Alien film series, or even as the Horned King from the Black Cauldron. There’s a good chance that John Hurt will have been involved in a franchise you loved growing up.
The actor has amassed a truly staggering body of work over a career spanning 6 decades. Despite this I’d say that overall his biggest success has been in genre films and television series, which makes him a perfect candidate for this weeks cult actors.
John Hurt I think is easily one of Britain’s most versatile actors. He has managed to avoid being type cast. Unlike other great actors such as Christopher Lee who mostly played villains. Hurt has played just about every character you can think of. He’s never at any point in his career been pigeon holed into any one type of role.
He’s been the vilest villains from Caligula, to the Horned King to Chancellor Sutler, to General Wounderwort.
Yet he has also been the persecuted unfortunate victim just as much from Joseph Merrick, to Kane, to Quentin Crisp, to Mr Olivander. He has also been the central heroic figure too such as Winston Smith in 1984, Aragorn in the animated adaptation of Lord of the Rings, The War Doctor in the Day of the Doctor, and Hazel in the animated classic Watership Down.
Finally he has also played the wise old mentor too such as Kilgarrah the Great Dragon, Trevor Bruttenholm in the Hellboy film series and Harold Oxley in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
The only thing his characters often have in common is that they often die, or if not die have something horrible happen to them like get tortured, severely beaten, crippled etc.
Even Sean Bean is a total lightweight compared to John Hurt when it comes to dying.
He is definitely one of my favourite actors and I am going to enjoy exploring his career in this article.
During the 60’s and the early 70’s Hurt was primarily a stage and television actor. He had various roles in tv series such as the Sweeney, Z-Cars and ITV Play of the Week.
He did enjoy some acclaim during this period of his career. During the 60’s the Beatles were massive fans of John Hurt, having seen him perform on stage. The actor for a short while became good friends with the band.
One of Hurt’s first major film roles was as the villain Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons in 1966. The cast also included such big names as Orson Wells and Vanessa Redgrave. It would not be until 1975 that his career would take off when he appeared as Quentin Crisp in the ITV biopic of his life The Naked Civil Servant.
Quentin Crisp/ The Naked Civil Servant
Now regarded as a tv classic. This biographical film based on the book of the same name by the flamboyant, openly gay cross dresser Quentin Crisp was a truly ground breaking piece of television.
Homosexuality had been legalised in the UK a mere 7 years earlier, but even in spite of this breakthrough there was still widespread homophobia across the UK.
To even contemplate making a drama on mainstream television that focused on a gay man would have been a huge deal. The Naked Civil Servant however did more than that.
It helped to break down many stereotypes. Rather than be portrayed as a degenerate or a silly camp buffoon, as homosexual characters often were sadly in the entertainment industry in those days. Crisp is shown to be a very strong, charming, likable character who constantly has to battle ugly prejudice, but never lets the bullies and the thugs change who he is.
In the scene below even after he is savagely attacked by thugs, he still manages to crack a funny joke. “I seem to have annoyed you gentlemen in some way” he says whilst dripping in his own blood.
Not many programmes from that time on mainstream British television would have tackled a subject like homophobia. And to do so in such a way where we see how completely ordinary people are capable of the most extreme prejudice too was also very daring.
We don’t just simply see how the state punishes Crisp, or even the homophobic thugs on the street. The taxi driver who seems like just an ordinary person refuses to drive him to safety and happily hands him over to the thugs, who for all he knew could have beaten him to death.
The drama was in many ways decades ahead of its time and was really solely responsible for Hurt becoming a household name in the UK.
Hurt was absolutely sensational as Crisp. He really captures the flamboyance, the dry, self deprecating, naughty humour, and the charisma of Crisp superbly.
I think he really excels at showing us the inner torment and the strength of Crisp too. There are moments when we see Crisp clearly miserable and even somewhat frightened from all that he endures, but he always manages to overcome it and make the audience laugh again. With Crisp, Hurt gives us not only a very realistic portrayal of a man struggling to belong in a society that won’t accept him for his sexuality but also a very mature and sympathetic one too.
The real life Quentin Crisp was very pleased with this performance and even came to refer to John Hurt as “his representative on earth!”. Hurt would later return to the role of Crisp over 30 years later in 2009 in Quentin Crisp An English Man in New York which covered his later years.
This drama was actually very good. I was worried that it wouldn’t be a worthy successor to the original, but Hurt managed to slip into the character after 30 years like he’d never been away.
Overall the Naked Civil Servant is certainly deserving of its reputation as a tv classic and it not only helped to launch John Hurt into the spotlight, but it also gave him a reputation for playing complex, edgy characters.
John Hurt starred in this relatively obscure horror film in 1975 alongside another favourite of mine Peter Cushing. Of the two of them Peter Cushing has the meatier role as the tormented widower, who keeps his demonic flesh eating son locked up in the attic.Still Hurts’s character is important to the story too. This was actually the first place I ever saw Hurt.
His character Tom is a pervert, a low life, a thief, a rapist, a sadist, a racist and a murderer. He’s actually the most evil character in the movie far more so than even the titular Ghoul.
In many ways this villainous part can be seen as a rehearsal for his role as Caligula the next year. He even has the same horrible little cackle Caligula has when he sends a man plummeting to his death off a cliff.
The funny thing about Tom is that even though he is utterly deplorable, he is also a complete moron. He practically exposes the existence of the ghoul to the authorities through his own stupidity. At one point Cushing’s character nearly hits him across the face in frustration.
The character is still menacing however. In his final moments he tries to rape the main female protagonist after having spent the last ten minutes terrorising her. Ironically the flesh eating Ghoul seems heroic when it shows up and stabs him to death.
The Ghoul is a surprisingly brutal film, more so than many other British horror movies of its type. It was clearly meant to be made in the style of the Hammer movies, but at times it feels a little bit grittier. The only main character who survives is driven completely and utterly insane from what she sees. The rest of the cast are either stabbed to death, eaten or even kill themselves!
Hurt’s character I think plays a key part in making this film somewhat darker. In a Hammer film he would probably just be a generic lackey of Cushing’s character, but in this film we are taken deep into his twisted personality.
By far and away my favourite performance of Hurt’s. This was the role that made me a fan. Prior to this I liked John Hurt but it was only after seeing him as Caligula that I started to track everything he had ever done down.
The 1976 BBC adaptation of Robert Graves novel, I Claudius featured an all star cast. Brian Blessed as the mighty Augustus, Sian Philips as the scheming Livia, Christopher Biggins as the demented Nero and Derek Jacobi as Claudius himself.
Whilst all of the cast give stellar performances I think its really John Hurt that steals the show. The Caligula in this series was even more sensationalised than the version in Graves novel. Pretty much every version of Caligula on film and television has tended to exaggerate his depravity and crimes, but Hurt’s version is still probably the most wild.
Hurt’s Caligula murders his own father as a child. He kills him by slowly poisoning him which weakens his heart, then he steals a talisman that his father believes will protect him from Demonic spirits. His father now terrified of Demons is frightened to death by Caligula who places numerous horrific things in his bedroom to make him think evil spirits are coming after him. These include a baby’s corpse that Caligula murdered, and whose guts he tore out after having left it’s body to rot for days, the remains of several animals, and the head of a servant with a child’s severed hand stuck in its mouth.
Later as a man Caligula goes on to sleep with all three of his sisters, and its implied his great grandmother Livia. Later as Livia lies dying and gasping for air Caligula tortures her by taunting her that she will not be made into a goddess after she dies after he promised (which is the only way she can avoid going to hell after her sins in life). He also gropes her and forces himself on her as she is gasping for air and sobbing. What makes it even more disturbing is the cold and icey way Hurt plays it. In contrast to the later hysterical over the top psychotic performances, here he plays it in a calm almost detached way, as though his own Great Grandmother’s mental and physical suffering doesn’t even register.
I think this scene lets us know just how truly evil Caligula is. Up until this point Livia has been the main villain of the series. She is a scheming, manipulative murderer who is two steps ahead of everyone, even Augustus. Yet here she is helpless, crying, gasping for air and being sexually assaulted by Caligula.
The thing about Livia’s cruelty was it was never senseless. She only ever murdered for what she thought was the greater good. To prevent the empire from descending into war, where as Caligula has no reason to do what he does here, other than simply because he gets off on hurting an old dying woman.
Caligula later along with the Emperor Tiberius orders the murder of the treacherous Sejanus played by Patrick Stewart, as well as all of his friends and family. Hundreds of innocent people are butchered, including Sejanus’s two young children one of whom is raped first.
Much like with Livia we actually end up feeling sorry for Sejanus despite the fact that he too was a ruthless, power hungry sociopath that killed and tortured innocent people to get what he wants. In the end even he is horrified at what Caligula and Tiberius carry out!
Caligula later murders Tiberius and becomes the new emperor. I’ve always thought Tiberius’s death had a certain black comedy to it. Caligula thinks Tiberius is finally dead and announces to the world that he is the new emperor, only to be humiliated when a young slave announces that he is still alive. I love the way that Caligula has Tiberius murdered more to save face than anything else. Though its also no doubt because he can’t be bothered waiting any more having come so close. I also love the way the other senators there basically want Tiberius out of the way too. After all they send Caligula and his right hand man, the ruthless Macro played by John Rhys Davies to check and see if he is still alive. They must have known it wouldn’t have ended well for him.
Of course as we know despite everyone’s high hopes things do NOT get better under Caligula’s rule.
Not long after being crowned emperor Caligula goes completely and utterly insane. He wasn’t insane before hand. Despite sleeping with his sisters, molesting and torturing his Grandmother, murdering his father and his stepfather, Caligula was completely in control of his actions up until this point.
I preferred this interpretation as it made Caligula into a more frightening villain that he wasn’t simply mentally ill. He was always just a cruel person at his core. It also I feel allowed John Hurt a chance to really develop his character. The cold, detached Caligula who enjoys hurting Livia in his first episode is worlds away from the crazed, cackling lunatic Caligula in the later episodes of the series.
Caligula is driven insane by a constant noise in his head that he describes as a galloping. The scene where has a complete break down is one of the best bits of acting in Hurt’s entire career. He is captivating as he shows Caligula become more unstable by the second the louder the noise in his head gets. He even manages to elicit some sympathy for Caligula, in spite of everything he has done, as we see him look so helpless and in such distress, as the pain gets worse until he just collapses screaming on the floor.
Hurt’s Caligula is frightening, yet tragic at the same time as we see him just become a shell of his former self.
After he awakens Caligula comes to believe that he is a god. In fact that he is the king of the Gods, Zeus! He then marries his favourite Sister Drusilla and impregnates her.
From here on things just get completely wild. Hurt as Caligula is comparable as a performance to Mark Hamill as the Joker. In both cases the villain is just so insane you have no idea what’s going to happen next.
Naturally there are moments with Hurt’s Caligula that are horrifying such as when he murders a small child for coughing. He has his head sliced off and then carried around by Macro joking “I’ve cured his cough”.
At the same time there are other moments where his madness actually becomes a source of comedy such as when he makes his horse a senator.
Even more hysterical is the famous dance scene. Here Caligula randomly demands that Claudius and several other men arrive at the palace and see him. They are kept waiting for hours and are terrified at what Caligula intends for them, assuming he has called them up to kill them. Instead however well see for yourself.
Caligula’s madness though lending itself to some comical moments always leaves the viewer on edge, as you never know what way his mood is going to turn. He can be jokey one minute and then just snap and have his closest friend killed the next. Its great watching his numerous senators try and find ways of appeasing him, only to fail miserably as there is no way to appease a psychopath.
The Caligula in this scene as you can see is worlds away from the Caligula who tormented a dying Livia. Both are just as evil and twisted as one another, but one is very calm, manipulative, knows exactly what he is doing, knows how to play people’s emotions, how to hurt them in the worst way possible. The other is like a demented child throwing his toys out of the pram, stamping his foot, whimpering, crying and killing on a whim. Its a truly remarkable character development in just 4 episodes.
One of the funniest examples of one of Caligula’s lackey’s trying to appease him and it backfiring is when a particularly sychophantic senator attempts to kiss Caligula’s ass by saying when Caligula is ill, that he would gladly give his life to the gods to spare Caligula’s. When Caligula gets better however he makes him carry out his debt to the gods and forces him to kill himself!
John Hurt named that scene as his own personal favourite from I Claudius.
The most sensational and horrific moment however is when Caligula murders his own sister and eats their child!
Caligula believing he is Zeus, decides to consume his own child from his sisters stomach. Just as Zeus did with his daughter Athena whom he pulled from his wife Mettis’s stomach and swallowed. Athena later sprang from Zeus’s head as a warrior woman.
Caligula by this point is so insane he actually believes that his child will spring from his head! He chains Drusilla up and slices her gut open with a knife and devours the fetus.
We don’t actually see him slice Drusilla open. It cuts off just as he pulls the knife on her and we hear her screaming in pain. We then see Caligula emerge with blood and flesh dripping from his mouth and a look of horror on his face. I love the way Hurt plays this scene. He almost gives Caligula a look of clarity as he leaves the room. During that one moment Caligula went so far, even he realises what he has done. It was almost enough to snap him back to sanity even just for a few seconds.
Apparently a scene showing Caligula slicing Drusilla’s guts open was filmed but cut at the last minute.
One of the most fascinating things about Hurt’s Caligula are his interactions with his uncle Claudius. At certain points Caligula seems to enjoy tormenting Claudius most of all. He forces him to marry Messalina. At first Caligula claims its because he thinks it would be funny to force a “silly old crippled fool” like Claudius to marry a young beautiful woman, but it seemingly backfires as Claudius and Messalina actually do fall in love. Later after Caligula’s death however it is revealed that Messalina is a lying, vindictive bitch who plans to overthrow Claudius and cheats on him hundreds of times and makes a fool of him. I often wondered if Caligula was aware that Messalina was so twisted and set her and the kind hearted but somewhat naive Claudius up as a result?
Whatever the case Messalina is Caligula’s last horrible little trick on poor old Claudius.
In spite of his vile treatment of Claudius however, at other times Caligula seems to be paradoxically particularly fond of him. He often keeps him around for company more than anyone else, invites him to live in his palace, and at various points considers him another living god, Vulcan!
At one point Caligula is shown to reveal a more vulnerable side to Claudius where he confesses that he fears he will die hated by his own people. This fabulously demonstrates just how insane he is. He regularly murders them en mass for kicks, yet its only just occurring to him now that his people might not like him? He also asks Claudius if he thinks he is going mad which though a hilarious thing for Caligula of all people to ask.
However again this shows how in spite of his vile behaviour towards Claudius he has a certain degree of trust in him, as he is willing to share his doubts about being a god with him!
Claudius is often able to talk Caligula out of killing both himself and other people, often by playing on his vanity. Though Caligula is a lunatic, Claudius knows him better than anyone else and thus he is often the only person who is able to talk his way out of being killed. Even then though there are moments when even Claudius is only saved from being butchered by Caligula by sheer luck, such as when Caligula tosses him into a river and he barely survives drowning. At one point Caligula was going to murder Claudius for simply having more hair than he did, but spares him when Claudius says something nice about him being a god.
John Hurt and Derek Jacobi play off of each other brilliantly. Apparently the two had tremendous fun working together. So much so that Jacobi actually selected a Caligula/Claudius moment as his favourite from the series. Jacobi says that it was always very hard for the both of them not laugh when acting out some of Caligula’s more intense moments. Personally I’m amazed anyone was able to keep a straight face during the dance scene.
After a reign of terror in which hundreds more innocent people are butchered Caligula is finally killed by his own guards. His guards murder him simply for their own safety. No one is safe under Caligula’s rule. At the same time however many of Caligula’s assassins do still take pleasure in murdering him. One of them’s wife was driven to suicide by Caligula who forced her to regularly take part in his obscene parties where she was forced to sleep with many men against her will. Another was regularly humiliated by Caligula after he cried whilst being forced to torture someone on Caligula’s orders. It makes you wonder what horrors Caligula wanted him to inflict on the prisoner if even his own torturer cried!
After his death Caligula does appear in the final episode of the series as a hallucination of Claudius, or possibly a ghost alongside hallucination’s, or ghosts of other emperors such as Augustus and Tiberius. Caligula tells Claudius that he was genuinely shocked that he wasn’t a god when he died.
Uncle Claudius it turns out I wasn’t the messiah after all. You could have knocked me over with a feather when they told me.
I always loved the way that’s all he had to say for the hundreds of innocent people he killed under the mistaken belief that he was a god. Including his own sister/wife/mother of his unborn child that he ate!
I Claudius was a massive success all over the world. John Hurt has credited the series with launching his career in America.
To this day the image we have of Caligula stems from Hurt’s portrayal. In real life whilst many historians do believe that Caligula was a schizophrenic there is actually very little evidence that he slept with his sisters. He also most certainly did not murder Drusilla or eat his child.
In popular culture we always hear that Caligula eats his own son. In the Red Dwarf episode Meltdown, Lister tells this to the Cat as though its a historical fact but its not. It stems entirely from Hurt’s portrayal. Even in Robert Graves original novel Caligula is only speculated to have killed Drusilla by Claudius. The whole eating the fetus from the baby thing is entirely the creation of this miniseries.
Hurt’s performance as Caligula is like Bela Lugosi’s or Christopher Lee’s as Dracula. Its the one that there are elements of in all who come after.
Hurt’s Caligula has also gone on to influence other similar crazy villains in popular culture. Emperor Cartagia from Babylon 5 was directly inspired by Hurt’s version of Caligula according to the creator and writer of the series Joseph Michael Stracinzski.
The Master in the new Doctor Who meanwhile was based off of Hurt’s Caligula. Russell T Davies who reintroduced the Master, was a big fan of I Claudius, having cited it along with the original Doctor Who series as being the two series that made him interested in working in television in the first place.
In the new Doctor Who, the Master is revealed to have been driven mad by a constant drumming in his head exactly like Hurt’s version of Caligula. He also later becomes the emperor of earth and is shown to rule like Hurt’s Caligula. Simm even based aspects of his performance on Hurt’s too.
Think of the Simm Master as being an intergalactic version of Hurt’s Caligula.
Derek Jacobi himself was cast as the fist incarnation of the Master in New Who as an homage to I Claudius. Of course the great irony is that many years later John Hurt would be cast as the Doctor. Thus Doctor Who reversed their roles in I Claudius. Here Derek Jacobi plays the unpredictable, vicious psychopath, driven mad by drums in his head, whilst Hurt plays the misunderstood heroic character. Though Hurt’s Doctor and Jacobi’s Master never met they were both the versions of those characters who fought in the time war.
Caligula and Claudius have certainly changed over the years.
Caligula is definitely one of Hurt’s most iconic roles and for me it remains his greatest performance. I tend to think of him as Caligula more than any of the other characters he has played over the years. Whenever anyone mentions John Hurt, its the evil baby eating psychopath I picture rather than the tormented, disfigured intellectual.
Possibly Hurt’s most famous role. Ironically Kane is a minor character who gets killed off relatively early into the film, but its how he gets killed off that has secured him a place in cinema history.
Kane is attacked by an alien parasite which lays an egg down his throat. Later whilst he is eating his breakfast the egg hatches and the alien bursts violently out of his chest.
Apparently during the making of this scene the director Ridley Scott didn’t let anyone else know that there would be an alien prop bursting its way out of Hurt’s chest. Thus all of the actors reactions to the alien are genuine!
Its not hard to see why this scene entered into popular culture. I have always said that the first Alien was the best entry in the series simply because of how strong its story is. If you were an actor you’d b happy with any role in Alien. They are all memorable due to their death scenes. Its not like that in the sequels, where a lot of characters are just red shirts who get sliced to bits.
In this movie every death is drawn out which makes them linger in the viewers minds for longer afterwards. Whether that’s the alien bursting out of John Hurt’s chest, the Alien slowly lowering itself behind Harry Dean Stanton, or the Alien sneaking up on Tom Skerritt in the vents. All of these sequences have entered into popular culture.
Aside from his iconic death scene. I think that Kane may have also perhaps helped to prevent John Hurt from being typecast, as Kane is a much more quiet, reserved character.
Prior to Kane Hurt had been known mostly for playing crazy villains like Caligula and Tom, or flamboyant characters like Quentin Crisp. Kane I think showed people that he could play more normal, straight roles just as well.
The makers of Alien have said however that they don’t think Alien had any real impact on Hurt’s career at all.
Still it remains one of his most iconic parts and to this day Hurt says he has people come up to him and ask him to act it out.
Hurt would go on to parody his death in the Mel Brooks comedy Spaceballs.
Its nice to see that he fully embraced the cult following the movie, and his character in particular, gained over the years.
From a tyrannical ruler as Caligula, to the victim of an oppressive regime as Winston Smith. This movie released in 1984 itself, is arguably the definitive adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel.
At times its a little bit slow. I’m not sure that 1984 translates that well onto film. Parts of it are just the protagonist sitting on his own with his thoughts. That’s fine in a novel, but on the screen it just leads to long scenes of John Hurt sitting in his room writing.
Still Hurt manages to carry the film none the less with his obvious screen presence. The role of Winston Smith really needs an actor with gravitas like Hurt or Peter Cushing who played him in the 1950’s tv adaptation.
Hurt gives a very thoughtful, sombre and reserved performance that is truly worlds away from the hysterical cackling of Caligula. He is the perfect Winston as he makes him seem not only quiet and intelligent, but also somewhat vulnerable and sensitive too particularly in his relationship with Julia. This helps to make it all the more terrifying when he is captured at the end. That’s the key I think to getting someone right for Smith is that you need someone who can seem very thoughtful and intelligent, yet at the same time somewhat timid and sensitive, so that it is believable when he fails to resist Big Brother’s cruelty at the end of the story.
By far and away the greatest moments in the movie are the torture scenes where we see Winston’s humanity slowly get crushed out of him piece by piece. Credit must also go to Richard Burton who plays Smith’s torturer O’Brien. Burton is absolutely excellent. He gives the character a cold and steely demeanour, which contrasts superbly with Hurt’s emotional, tortured hero.
Whilst there have been many great actors who have played Winston Smith over the years, Peter Cushing, David Niven and Patrick Troughton. Hurt ultimately has to be the definitive Winston for me. I don’t really think anyone else captured the various different layers of the character quite as well as Hurt. From Smith’s loneliness before he finds Julia in a corrupt society, that only he can see for what it truly is. To his more vulnerable side when he is with her, to the sheer terror that grips him when he is finally broken in room 101, Hurt excels completely and gives a very moving and powerful performance all around.
John Merrick/ The Elephant Man
Hurts most famous role, I wasn’t sure on whether to include this as its obviously not a genre role and its not a really a cult film either. Still I don’t think you can really mention John Hurts career without commenting on this classic film, so I’m making an exception here.
The Elephant Man released in 1980 tells the story of Joseph Merrick (renamed John Merrick for the film) A kind hearted, intelligent, sophisticated man who was born with an unfortunate deformity.
The film charts Merricks life from when he first started living at the London Hospital right until his untimely death. The movie despite its reputation does have its uplifting moments, as we see John finally make friends after a life time of cruelty, and his joy at finally being accepted somewhere. Of course there are still plenty of moments that will break your heart.
Worst of all is when he is attacked by a group of people in who are led to the hospital by Jim the porter. They torment and demean him, at one point even forcing him and a woman there to kiss against their will. By far and away the most vile character in the film however is Mr Bytes played by Freddie Jones, the Circus Ringmaster who originally owns Merrick and later captures him again.
He regularly beats him and locks him up in a cage like an animal and its tragic watching him capture John again after he finally escaped from his cruelty earlier on.
The film obviously has some of the best make up for John Merrick, in fact that Oscars were forced to create a new category, Academy award for best make up and hairstyle the following year.
Still it’s Hurt that really makes the film. He brings a real innocence and sensitivity to the role. Part of what makes the film so hard to watch is how vulnerable Merrick seems. With Quentin Crisp in spite of the persecution, he always remained confident and fun. Hell he still cracked jokes even when he was dripping in blood.
With John however he can’t stand anyone even looking at his face. He is ashamed of who he truly is and that makes him all the more tragic. Quentin in spite of everything the bullies did to him never let them truly get him down, but sadly John does, which makes the moment where he finally does scream that he is not an animal all the more powerful.
Its impossible not to be moved by Hurt’s performance. Whilst Caligula is my favourite performance of Hurt’s. I can see why the Elephant Man will probably always be his most famous role.
Aragorn/ The Lord of the Rings
Hurt provided the voice for this heroic character in the original animated adaptation of J .R.R Tolken’s classic.
Sadly this version hasn’t aged well. It was certainly a noble attempt and it did inspire Peter Jackson definitive version, but still don’t expect an overlooked classic when you watch it.
Hurt is one of the film’s saving grace’s. His strong voice suits the character and helps to contrast with the somewhat more wacky Hobbit voices in the film.
Overall a good performance from Hurt but its not one of his more interesting characters.
Hazel/ Watership Down
Hurt’s performance as the main hero in this animated classic is probably his most famous animated role.
The character of Hazel much like Winston is more of an intellectual hero. Though he is ultimately shown to be a lot stronger and more charismatic than Winston.
This film released in 1978 also continued Hurt’s reputation for starring in somewhat edgy, darker projects.
Despite being a children’s cartoon the movie featured some explicit violent content which provoked some complaints from parents. When it was repeated recently this Easter during, it drew many complaints from angry parents.
Still in spite of the controversy it remains one of the best loved British animated movies.
Hurt would go on to play the main villain General Woundwort in television adaptation of Watership Down.
The Horned King/ The Black Cauldron
The Horned King is arguably Disney’s darkest and most frightening villain. He is an evil zombie/Demon creature that seeks to gain access to the black cauldron, so that he can use it to create an army of zombies with which he can destroy all life on the planet.
Hurt plays the character in a cold, detached way except when he is hurting people. I found this to be very effective as it felt as though the Horned King was so twisted and evil that he could only feel joy when he was causing pain and misery.
Freddie Jones also appears in this movie in the heroic role of Dallben. Jones appeared in the Elephant Man as Mr Bytes, Merrick’s cruel, sadistic owner. Here the roles are obviously reversed. You don’t even think of either of them as their characters from the Elephant Man, which is testament to what great actors both men are.
Trevor Buttenham/ Hellboy
Trevor Buttenham is the adopted father of Hellboy. He is a typical, Rupert Giles/Peter Cushing style expert on the occult who meets a tragic end when he is killed by the main villain of the piece, after being made to see how his son would seemingly one day become a monster.
Hurt isn’t given that much screen time but he makes the most of the relatively small role he is given like all truly great actors. He brings a real sense of authority and maturity to the role which contrasts superbly with Ron Pearlman’s gun ho, somewhat immature characterisation of Hellboy.
Pealrman and Hurt have great chemistry with one another which makes their relationship seem more real. When Buttenham is killed off it could have easily felt like just a red shirt being killed off in order to make things harder for the hero. Hurt however manages to flesh the character out to the point where the viewer is sad at his demise.
Chancellor Sutler/ V for Vendetta
The complete opposite to his role in 1984, I’ve noticed that John Hurt tends to play either the victim’s of an unfair society, Quentin Crisp, John Merrick, Winston Smith even Kilgarrah, or mad Tyrants like Caligula, The Horned King and Sutler. Depending on the role he’s either at the top or the bottom of a fascist society.
Suttler is the head of the fascist party Norsefire which rules over the United Kingdom. Norsefire has absolute control. All opposition to it is crushed ruthlessly with all political opponents along with homosexuals, immigants and Muslims being rounded up into concentration camps.
Throughout the film Sutler appears mostly on tv screens ranting about the superiority of Norsefire. At the end of the film however when he is finally killed, we see what a miserable pathetic little coward he is. Its a great example of how the man often doesn’t live up to the image that is presented of him.
Suttler is probably the villain role that Hurt is most recognised for among modern audiences. Sadly I don’t think its quite as good a part as Caligula or the Horned King as he has less screen time but still its good that Hurt in the later years of his career, as evidenced with this role hasn’t just been typecast as the wise old mentor.
Mr Ollivander/ Harry Potter Film Series
Hurt played this role in the first and the last two Harry Potter films. Though it was only a minor character this remains one of his most well known roles due to the massive popularity of Harry Potter.
With Ollivander, I feel Hurt was able to develop the character in quite an interesting way. In his first appearance he is a somewhat affable yet quite amoral character. You can tell he loves his work to the point where doesn’t care about his office getting trashed, but at the same time he doesn’t really care who gets each wand. It doesn’t seem to bother him that Voldemort became this unstoppable figure of evil. He still describes almost proudly and fondly how he went on to do “great things”.
In the final entry of the series however, after he suffers greatly at Voldemort’s hands we see a much more weary, broken character who has finally woken up to the evil that in some ways he had a part in creating.
You can see how different the character is in his first and last appearances. In spite of his somewhat limited screen time, I think the role really gave Hurt a lot to do unlike his part in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
One of my favourite characters. Kilgharrah is a mighty Dragon who serves as a guide to Merlin throughout the series, though he also wavers between being a hero and a villain at various points.
John Hurt not only supplied the voice for this character but also the motion capture for its face.
Kilgharrah is seemingly the last of his kind. Uther Pendragon the ruler of Camelot despises magic and not only outlaws its use, but slaughters countless people found guilty of using it. He even wipes out whole magical species. The Dragons are among his victims. He tricks the dragon lords the only race who can harm the dragons into helping him wipe them out and capture the last Dragon, the Great Dragon, Kilgharrah. He then chains Kilgharrah up beneath Camelot, where no one can see him. There the Dragon remains for 20 years completely alone. John Hurt even as a Dragon is the victim of a fascist regime!
Kilgharrah contacts Merlin telepathically and lures him down to his cave. There he tells him that it is his destiny along with Arthur, ironically Uther’s son, to restore magic back to the land and unite the 5 kingdoms bringing peace to Albion.
This forms the basic premise of the series. Something magical shows up to kill Arthur and Merlin has to save them in order to ensure that he fulfils his great destiny.
More often than not when facing some magical threat, Merlin will have to go down to the cave and ask Kilgharrah what to do. Though Kilgharrah’s screen time in each episode is often quite small I feel the writers and John Hurt were able to develop the Dragon’s character quite well. In fact I think that Kilgharrah along with Gwen are ironically the two most well developed characters in the entire series.
What makes Kilgharrah s interesting is that we are never entirely sure of his motives. At times he seems like Merlin’s friend who genuinely cares about him, such as when he is sorry at being unable to help his friend Gaius. At other moments however, it appears that he only cares about his own freedom, as when Merlin and Arthur rule and magic is restored then he will be released.
Sometimes he can also appear quite callous and ruthless and it could be argued steers Merlin in the wrong direction for his own ends, such as when he tells him to murder Morganna, Merlin’s friend at that point.
You can see how sinister a character Kilgharrah appears in this scene. He tells Merlin to murder Morgana almost with glee. Is Morgana truly the threat he is claiming she is, or is it the fact that she is Uther, his sworn enemies daughter (something which only Kilgharrah knows at this point) that is really why he wants her dead.
In the season 2 finale Merlin is forced to free Kilgharah and we discover that Kilgharah only ever cared about himself all along. Once free, he tries to burn all of Camelot to the ground.
Kilgharrah naturally wants to make Uther pay, but rather than just simply eat him or burn him he decides to crush his entire kingdom. In order to prolong Uther’s torture he does this slowly visiting Camelot every night for days on end burning whole buildings to the ground and killing scores of knights and civilians. The Dragon even attempts to kill both Arthur and Gwen too.
This is my favourite scene in the show. I love everything about it, the way the Dragon seems so powerful and relentless in its revenge, and also how Merlin is both horrified and disappointed.
After everything they went through the Dragon is actually doing this. At the same time however its interesting the way that the Dragon even after Merlin strikes it ineffectively does nothing against him. It could easily burn/eat/flatten him there and then but instead it just flies away, showing that it must still have some affection for him after all.
It is later discovered that Merlin’s father Balinor is the last of the Dragon lords; the only people who could harm a Dragon. After Balinor dies Merlin inherits his power and uses it stop Kilgharrah. Though he is given the choice to kill the Dragon he ultimately spares the beast. I always found this moment rather uplifting. It was nice in contrast to Morgana seeing Merlin actually have faith in his old friend.
In spite of everything he had done he could be a better person and it ultimately paid off as later in the first episode of series 3 the Dragon saves Merlin as a thank you when the evil Morgause has him chained up and is about to feed him to giant beetle’s. The Dragon goes on to help Merlin many more times, including in the season 3 and 4 finale’s where he plays a key role in saving the day.
I think that’s quite a good message for the children who watched Merlin that doing a nice thing like sparing Kilgharrah will benefit you in the long run. If Merlin had killed Kilgharrah then he himself would have died.
Again apart from Gwen no character changes as much as Kilgharrah in the series. He starts out as a mysterious, distant figure then becomes seemingly a greedy self server and later the ultimate villain of the series, before finally redeeming himself and becoming arguably Merlin’s greatest friend and ally.
Sadly in spite of this Kilgharrah is wasted from series 3 on. After he is free I think the writers didn’t really know what to do with him, other than have him swoop in now and then and kill some bad guys when there was no other way for Merlin to escape.
Its a shame as I think there was still a lot of potential in the character. In series 4 a Dragon egg is discovered which leads to the birth of another Dragon named Aithusa. The hatching of Aithusa is another classic moment in the series and opened up so many interesting possibilities.
Sadly this is never followed up on in any real way. When we next see Aithusa she is in the care of Morgana with no explanation. She also only makes a few fleeting appearances afterwards. Kilgharrah never mentions Aithusa again in the series.
I would have loved it if Aithusa had become a major character alongside Kilgharrah. Maybe they could have got somebody like Ingrid Oliver to voice her. I would have loved that, but sadly they just basically left this plot dangling in the air.
Still whilst Kilgharrah may have been wasted after season 3. Overall I’d still say it was one of John Hurts best roles and certainly his best work as a voice actor.
The War Doctor/ Doctor Who
One of Hurt’s biggest genre roles, the War Doctor is in fact the true 9th Doctor. He is the Doctor who fought in the time war, a war between the Daleks and the Time lords. During the war the 8th Doctor consumed a potion that would change him into a warrior, and thus make him more capable to fight the Daleks.
The War Doctors presence was revealed in the story the Name of the Doctor. At the end of this story the 11th Doctor falls into his own time stream and sees visions of his older selves running around. We see all of the old Doctors that we know and love, but then in the middle is this mysterious figure that we don’t know about who has done something terrible.
Definitely one of the most unnerving moments in Doctor Who’s long history, this was an excellent introduction to the war doctor, though I remember how frustrating it was to wait about 6 months to find out what happened next.
In the next episode, the 50th anniversary itself. We discovered that the war doctor burned Gallifrey and wiped out his own people in order to stop the greatest army of Daleks ever assembled from destroying all of creation.
We had known that the Doctor had burned his people to destroy the Daleks since the start of the revival. But we had always assumed that it had been the 8th Doctor who had done it. The War Doctor was retconned in between the 8th and 9th Doctors as a version of the character who had been blocked out of the memories of the other Doctors who came after. They simply couldn’t face what they had done whilst they were him, as we can see in the video above.
In a stunning twist however it is revealed that the War Doctor saved Gallifrey with the aid of all the other incarnations of the Doctor. He managed to teleport it to safety just as the Daleks were about to open fire on it, which resulted in them destroying each other instead. Sadly the war Doctor does not remember this as it is out of sync with his timeline, and so therefore only the then current Doctor, the 11th, is aware that they saved Gallifrey.
Now the War Doctor’s presence did generate a lot of controversy from fans who wanted the 8th Doctor Paul McGann to appear in the special. I understand this complaint and I think that the minisode The Night of the Doctor which saw the 8th Doctor regenerate into the War Doctor (and even featured a cameo by John Hurt who was digitally altered to look young declare “DOCTOR NO MORE!” as he became a warrior) should have been spliced into the start of Day of the Doctor instead.
Still I did like the War Doctor as I feel it summed up why we love the character of the Doctor. The character of the Doctor is someone who changes but not completely when he regenerates.
A lot of people think that when the Doctor regenerates he can be absolutely anybody but that isn’t true at all. The point of regeneration is that the Doctor changes on the surface but he is the same man underneath, the same consciousness, same memories and the same core personality. That’s ultimately why we have stuck with him all these years. We all come to the show through one Doctor, the first one we see who is usually our Doctor, but as soon as he leaves, and a seemingly completely different character shows up. We still stick with it because as different as the new Doctor may seem he is still the same likable hero, who treats everyone as equals, who always thinks of a way out of something that eludes everybody else etc.
With the War Doctor however we see a Doctor who might actually be different due to outside forces. We are led to believe that Hurt’s Doctor isn’t actually like the others.
He kills as a first option, he has a cynical weary view of things and even physically he stands out from the other Doctors. The first 8 Doctors physically all wore more old fashioned Edwardian/Victorian era clothing, had long hair, clean shaven faces and looked Byronesque. Even the New Who Doctors, Eccelston aside more or less follow this physical template. The War Doctor however has thick facial hair, short hair and dress in plain modern clothing.
Ultimately at the end of the story when the War Doctor decides to spare Gallifrey and works with his other selves to do so we see that he was still the same hero all along. He can’t bring himself to butcher innocent lives and so he does what he always would do, thinks up a solution that evades everyone else, that sounds insane, but works.
In the end nothing can change who the Doctor truly is. Not some magic potion, not regeneration. Faces come and go, but he is always the same hero underneath.
Hurt was brilliant as the character. Throughout the episode he does make us believe that this Doctor could go further than any other Doctor ever has and destroy Gallifrey. He makes him seem not so much ruthless and cold, but more broken to the point of no hope and cynical.
At the same time however underneath the pessimism and bleakness, Hurt also I feel keeps elements of the Doctors gentlemanly qualities and his sense of humour, such as in his interactions with the 10th and the 11th Doctors. Hurt plays superbly off of Tennant and Smith. All of this makes it perfectly believable when in the end Hurt’s Doctor ends up doing the right thing. If he had gone too dark then it wouldn’t have been believable when he saved Gallifrey, whilst at the same time if he had been too light then it would have been obvious from the word go.
Hurt found the balance and it truly is one of his best performances.
Much like with Alien, Hurt has embraced the Doctor Who fandom and has appeared at conventions. He has also reprised the role in audio stories for Big Finish too.
Hurt has had prominent roles in many other films and television series such as Rob Roy, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the 2012 remake of Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, Midnight Express, Scandal and the Alan Clarke Diaries.
In 1987 he provided the voice for a memorably terrifying advert warning about the dangers of AIDS.
In 2012 he was awarded a lifetime achievement BAFTA, whilst in 2015 he was knighted.
Sadly in 2015 Hurt was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer. Fortunately in December of that year it was announced that his cancer had gone into remission
Lets hope his recovery continues. Hurt is truly one of Britains greatest talents.